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Fourteen months shy of 50, Bernard Hopkins is still chasing titles

Photo: Kathy Willens/AP

Bernard Hopkins will be seeking his 54th victory when he takes on Karo Murat this weekend.

NEW YORK -- Bernard Hopkins is 48, middle-aged chronologically, positively ancient for his profession, so he's allowed a few senior moments. On Wednesday, Hopkins offered up a doozy. At B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill to promote his IBF light heavyweight title defense against Karo Murat, Hopkins unleashed a diatribe that was historically nonsensical. He scolded the media for trying to force him out of the sport, while reporters in attendance swapped puzzled stares. He told a story about wolves and sheep that seemed to sprout from nowhere and didn't have much of a point. He lambasted those who couldn't appreciate the science of boxing, claiming that if Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard fought today, they wouldn't be considered television friendly.

Even for Hopkins, boxing's long-winded elder statesman, it was a little much.

Truth is, Hopkins (53-6-2) doesn't have many doubters anymore. Last March, he made history (again), outpointing undefeated Tavoris Cloud to win a title, becoming the oldest man (again) to win a major title. Clean living has kept Hopkins in peak condition, and fundamentally flawless technique has allowed him to beat younger, stronger, more physical opponents. Yet Hopkins speaks like a man 25 years younger, a man who still feels he has something to prove.

And maybe, to him, he does. Fourteen months from 50, Hopkins still has goals. Big ones. He wants to become the undisputed light heavyweight champion -- why else would he accept an IBF-mandated fight with Murat (25-1-1), a complete unknown? -- and he could get a shot. His promoter, Golden Boy, signed WBA titleholder Beibut Shumenov and stuck him on its Dec. 14 pay-per-view show, likely with an eye toward shoving Shumenov into a unification fight with Hopkins next year. Making fights with rising champions -- and HBO connected -- Sergey Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson are more problematic but, as Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer told me, "Money can solve a lot of problems."

Hopkins is big game hunting, too. He wants a shot at Floyd Mayweather Jr., a campaign he began hours after Mayweather's win over Saul Alvarez and one he refuses to let collapse. There are reasons Mayweather would have little interest in fighting Hopkins -- Mayweather has never shown any real interest in fighting at 160 pounds and Hopkins, even if he could get that low again, would likely rehydrate into the high 170's -- but Hopkins isn't buying any of them.

"You hear people say, 'The guy's too big. The guy's too small,'" Hopkins said. "But it's been done by historic, great fighters before."

Perhaps Hopkins needs criticism, real or manufactured, to motivate him. When pressed, Hopkins admitted that no one has suggested that he retire, but insisted that the constant questions about how long he was going to fight insinuated that it was time.

But for Hopkins to suggest he isn't appreciated is an insult to those who consistently watch him. For years, HBO rarely flinched at televising an aging fighter who hasn't delivered a knockout since 2004, because of the ratings Hopkins generated. He has been doubted before, sure. He wasn't supposed to beat Antonio Tarver, wasn't supposed to get past Kelly Pavlik, wasn't supposed to escape the power of Jean Pascal. But any skepticism of Hopkins was reached objectively, not out of a desire to drive him out of the sport.

Hopkins says he wants to retire on his own terms, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who isn't happy to let him do so.

"I'm going to do this until I realize that I don't have to do it anymore," Hopkins said. "And that isn't two years, three years or four years. That's only a fight or two. [I want] to be able to do what I do and make sure that when I leave that there's no regrets that I should've [done] one more thing. And that's the only thing."

Hopkins wants to be appreciated, and he is. He hates that the fights like Ruslan Provodnikov-Mike Alvarado get so much attention, but that will never change. HBO didn't make a Legendary Nights on Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward because they fought so skillfully or because they became such good friends. They did it because they waged wars in the ring, the type of fights that Hopkins has steadfastly avoided. He will retire with all his marbles -- and a bright future in television, to boot -- but he will never persuade boxing's fan base to trade blood for technique, will never quench the public's thirst for battle. We are a gladiatorial society, and always will be.

When Hopkins steps into the ring with Murat (Showtime, 9 p.m.), it will be a live look at history. The magnitude of a fighter successfully soldiering on near 50 is mind-boggling. It's Michael Jordan suiting up, Greg Maddux climbing back on the mound. For that, Hopkins wants respect.

Whether he knows it or not, he's got it.

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