Thursday December 3rd, 2009

Same as he ever was, Bernard Hopkins. Same crafty defensive style that gobbles up punches like a vacuum and makes him tougher to hit than a butterfly in the wind. Same underhanded tactics, from head butts to rabbit punches, from punching on the break to punching below the belt. Same sneaky power (and sometimes maddening unwillingness to follow up on it) that comes in sporadic bursts and leaves opponents as surprised as they are hurt.

On the same day Roy Jones Jr. was exposed by Danny Green in Australia, Hopkins proved once again that the path to top in the sport must go through him. In a one-sided fight in front of 6,662 fans in his hometown, Hopkins mowed down Enrique Ornelas to claim a unanimous decision victory. The entire night was vintage Hopkins, while a game Ornelas, who took everything the 44-year old legend threw at him, was frustrated by the wily veteran and able to give little back.

Six weeks shy of his 45th birthday, Hopkins now faces a decision he didn't think he would have to make. A signed, sealed and HBO-stamped contract with Jones is null and void, thanks to Jones' putrid 122-second knockout loss to the unheralded Green.

Both fights on Wednesday proved what should have been obvious: Hopkins is like a fine wine that gets better with age. Jones is a moldy cheese that stinks even more every time it's put out in the open. While Hopkins owns impressive wins (Kelly Pavlik, Winky Wright and Antonio Tarver) and competitive defeats (Joe Calzaghe, Jermain Taylor) after his 40th birthday, Jones has been a shell of his once-great self since he turned 35. Brutal knockouts to Tarver and Glen Johnson were followed by lopsided losses to Tarver and Calzaghe. Only Jones' stunning ability to fool the public (and HBO) by taking wins over the likes of Prince Badi Ajamu and Jeff Lacy have kept him around as a viable headliner.

Now, Hopkins must figure out his next move. Jones vs. Hopkins is no longer a sellable fight. HBO knows it. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer knows it. Even Hopkins, who feebly attempted to defend Jones by questioning the wisdom of the referee's stoppage, knows it. The rematch that was 16 years in the making still infects his mind, but Hopkins must move on. A $50 pay-per-view? Smart fans wouldn't pay 50 cents.

The good news for Hopkins, however, is that there is no shortage of candidates standing in line, each eager to take Jones' place. Before referee Gary Rosado had raised Hopkins' hand on Wednesday night, Schaefer's BlackBerry was buzzing with interest. Gary Shaw was trying to sell him on 175-pound titlist Chad Dawson. Kathy Duva was pitching cruiserweight champ Tomas Adamek. Don King checked in on behalf of Felix Trinidad. Representatives from Paul Williams' camp were eager to move their one-time welterweight champion all the way up to Hopkins' class. Just days earlier, Schaefer had discussed Hopkins with Lucian Bute, the uber-popular adopted Canadian super middleweight who threw a wrinkle into Showtime's Super Six marketing strategy by blasting Librado Andrade in a fourth-round knockout.

Some of these fights appeal to Hopkins: Bute brings to the table a title in a weight class in which Hopkins has never won in and the ability to sell out a 50,000-seat stadium in Canada. Adamek has a strong fan base in New Jersey and, like Bute, a title in weight class Hopkins has never fought in.

Some of them don't: Dawson has no fan base and a depressingly dull fighting style. Trinidad, meanwhile, is more of a shot fighter than Jones.

There is one opponent lurking, though, that appeals to Hopkins above all others: heavyweight champion David Haye.

Only two former middleweight champions -- Bob Fitzsimmons and Jones -- have ever won a heavyweight belt. Hopkins is already calling himself the third.

"I just haven't done it yet," he said.

Haye is Hopkins' John Ruiz, a recognized champion that from the eyes of a smaller fighter looks very beatable. Jones made history in 2003 when he danced circles around Ruiz. Hopkins thinks he can do the same to Haye, who doesn't have the power of the Klitschkos or the size of Nikolai Valuev. Haye is a former cruiserweight titlist, a natural 195-200 pounder who made the jump up in weight because he saw an opportunity.

Now, Hopkins sees the same thing.

"I think he could do it," said Ornelas. "He just has to be busier Though [at heavyweight], you hit a couple of times and you get credit."

At this point, Haye-Hopkins has to be considered more likely to happen than not. Haye recently signed on with Golden Boy and Schaefer says Haye is at "the top of the list" of Hopkins' future opponents, once Haye completes his mandatory title defense against Ruiz this spring. And Haye is no fool, either. He backed out of a fight with Vitali Klitschko when he saw an opening to take on Valuev.

A Hopkins fight offers an enormous payday -- HBO would quickly jump on board and it would sell out arenas in Las Vegas, New York or London -- as a much lower risk than if Haye takes on one of the Klitschkos.

No matter which fight he takes next, Hopkins, amazingly, will go into the new year with one of boxing's brightest futures. He fights like a man 20 years his junior, and if it weren't the twinge of grey jutting out from his chin, it'd be hard to tell he's not.

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