NEW YORK -- On Saturday, Bernard Hopkins, at 48, is fighting for a light heavyweight title.
Let's take a minute and let that sentence sink in.
At 48. It's the age most men are thinking about that fat college tuition bill that's coming. Or that nice piece of retirement property in Florida that's a decade or so away. Or, you know, anything but getting ready to trade right hooks to the head with a man nearly two decades younger.
That's what Hopkins will be facing when he stares down IBF titleholder Tavoris Cloud at the Barclays Center. Cloud (24-0) isn't Roy Jones, circa 2000. He's a ho-hum technical fighter who was gift-wrapped a win in his last fight, a decision over Gabriel Campillo.
But he has power. Real power. Cringing power. Cloud, 31, has stopped 19 of his 24 opponents, many of them violently. He has a clubbing right hand that is delivered with bad intentions behind it. Put your chin in front of him, and Cloud will knock it off.
What 48-year-old wants a piece of that?
Hopkins does. Sure, he looked awful in his last fight. Despite Hopkins' revisionist spin, Chad Dawson picked him apart. But there's a beast inside Hopkins that doesn't believe his decorated career is ready to be over. There's a creature lurking within him that craves one more shot.
"I think, in Bernard's case, we need to redefine 48-years-old," Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer told me recently, and he's right. At 48, most 6-foot-1 men don't have a chiseled, 175-pound frame. Hopkins eating habits are legendary. Every meal is carefully considered, with only the occasional dalliance with cheesecake qualifying as an indulgence. Notable fitness guru Mackie Shillstone once described Hopkins "as close to a perfectionist with nutrition as anyone I've ever dealt with."
In 2004, Schaefer and Oscar De La Hoya met Hopkins for dinner to discuss Hopkins joining the company. Hopkins wanted shrimp scampi... right up until they told him it was flambayed in alcohol. "He wouldn't order it," Schaefer said. A few years later, Schaefer invited Hopkins to join him for a drink at the Mandalay Bay. When Schaefer lit up a cigar, Hopkins stood up and walked out.
There is an obsessiveness to Hopkins. Kevin Willis understands it. At 44, the 7-foot Willis was still playing in the NBA. He ate right, took care of his back... and ate pancakes on the morning of every game. Every. Game. If the hotel he was staying at wasn't serving them, Willis asked to speak to the manager. If he still couldn't get any, he would take a taxi somewhere he could.
Like Hopkins, Willis found motivation everywhere. In 2002, with his career winding down, Willis heard that San Antonio was interested in signing him. "I felt rejuvenated," Willis said. "Suddenly, I wanted to prove to myself, to the Spurs and to the rest of the league that I could still do it."
Hopkins finds most of his motivation in the critics, the doubters. He heard them in 2006, when columnists thought Antonio Tarver was too big for him. He heard them in '08, when Kelly Pavlik was too young and too strong for him. He heard it, he fed off it, he used it.
There is a reflectiveness in Hopkins, too. He understands what it has taken to get here and how precious it is that he still can box.
"I listened to Michael Jordan, he just had his 50th birthday, and he said something very profound on ESPN," Hopkins said. "He said he wished he could play again. If you Google the interview, he wishes he could play. When he watches basketball, he wishes he could play, but he knows he can't do it anymore. I'm not that far from 50, and I see myself as going these rounds and I'm fighting prospects in the gym, sparring, getting me ready for March 9th, and they're looking at me like, 'Yo, man, I want to see your birth certificate.'"
"I'm a person that's honest with myself first. I don't like nothing taken from me. Yes, I had some close fights in my career that are going to be debated through time, fights that I should have won, didn't get, but I'm not going to cry about. But I can say March 9th you're going to see a healthy Bernard Hopkins. Nothing is wrong, everything is tight. I had time to rest, I'm ready to go, and it's going to be a masterful performance."
And here's the thing: Hopkins doesn't think much of Cloud, an opponent he feels is tailor-made for him.
"I know I'm the better fighter," Hopkins said. "I know I have the better fighter's IQ and I am also the better-conditioned fighter. I believe that when I go in that ring and Cloud is thinking something else, he's going to be very, very surprised."
Hopkins won't talk about his future, but you know he is thinking about it: Fight until he is 50. It's possible. He could beat Cloud and move on to face the winner of next month's fight between Jean Pascal (who Hopkins beat in 2011) and Lucian Bute. It would be a huge fight in Canada and generate another seven-figure payday.
It's a winnable fight, too. For all the talk of Hopkins being finished, there are signs he is just warming up.