Monday December 20th, 2010

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec -- It was just past midnight on Saturday night when Bernard Hopkins stepped on the dais, lower lip swollen, beads of sweat accumulating on his face. He had just gone 12 rounds with Jean Pascal, the WBC light heavyweight champion and a man 18 years Hopkins junior. And he was ready to go a few more. As Hopkins started to address the media a handful of hecklers who had invaded the press conference began to jeer him.

"Can I have my respect from the cheerleaders?" Hopkins asked. "My legs are good. I still got fight in me."

Indeed, if we glean one lesson from Saturday's majority draw it's that Hopkins still has something left in the tank. Less than a month before his 46th birthday, Hopkins outclassed a young lion. He took Pascal into deep waters and exposed him as a fraud, a five-round fighter whose chiseled physique pretties up magazine pages but doesn't yet have the stamina to be a true champion.

Should we have seen it coming? No, not really. There were warning signs for Pascal, sure. The way he ran out of gas at the end of his fight with Chad Dawson or the way he was huffing and puffing nervously at last Friday's weigh-in. Pascal's great against an opponent who stands in front of him but show him a fighter who gives him angles, who mucks it up instead of exchanging blows and Canada's adopted son looks like an amateur.

But Hopkins? He earned our doubts. He earned them by taking 14 months off after his win over Kelly Pavlik, by fighting an unknown Enrique Ornelas and a washed-up Roy Jones instead of seeking out more meaningful fights in the division. We didn't know what Hopkins had left because he did everything possible to show us he had nothing.

We now know this about Hopkins: He can still fight. He didn't get robbed in Canada. For all of Hopkins complaining about the referee, for all of Richard Schaefer's huffing and puffing about seeking legal remedies to overturn the decision, Hopkins got a fair shake. Two judges scored it a draw while another gave Hopkins a narrow win. Screwed? The New York Daily News's Tim Smith had Hopkins by a point, the Philadelphia Inquirer's Don Steinberg had Pascal by the same by the same margin. Me? I had it even.

But the decision isn't important. Sure, Hopkins missed a chance to eclipse George Foreman as the oldest man to win a major title, an honor that deep down carries a lot of weight. But what he showed the world -- or at least Showtime's 19 million subscribers -- is that the final chapter of his career had yet to be written. Fighters like Hopkins don't retire. Not those who can climb off the canvas twice in the first three rounds, who can tune out 16,500 fans who are against him and rally to even the score.

They forge on. A rematch with Pascal is a natural fit. Hopkins says he will never come back to Canada -- "the closest I'll come again is Niagara Falls," he saiD -- but he should. The atmosphere in the Pepsi Coliseum was electric, a credit to Canadian fans who have embraced Pascal and the sport. Put Pascal-Hopkins II in Las Vegas and they will be lucky to draw 5,000 people in a city that has lost a lot of its luster.

Compromises can be made. Put an American referee in the ring -- highly respected Kenny Bayless sounds about right -- and spend a little more time (and, perhaps, money) bringing in top judges that would eliminate any trace of doubt. Hopkins already proved the raucous Canadian crowd doesn't intimidate him and they play as big a role as anyone making this a big fight.

Of course, Pascal may not want another go. His handlers seem to prefer a rematch with Dawson and it seems will jump at it if HBO or Showtime writes a big enough check.

That decision would be disappointing but after Saturday night Hopkins's options are no longer limited. He could take another crack at Foreman's record by challenging IBF champion Tavoris Cloud or next month's light heavyweight unification fight between Jurgen Brahmer and Beibut Shumenov. He could try to lure super middleweight king Lucian Bute up to 175 pounds or pack on a few of his own for a showdown with IBF cruiserweight champion -- and fellow Philadelphia native -- Steve Cunningham.

Bernard Hopkins is back and back in a big way. He once told his late mother he wouldn't fight past 40 but right now fighting until he's 50 isn't out of the question. He will stop then, of course.


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