"He has skills," Hopkins said. "He has skills."
Deep down, those skills gnawed at Hopkins, gave him pause during those grueling hours in the gym. There was a time when he could have handled anything, anyone. In his heyday, Hopkins' defense was nearly impregnable and his ability to counterpunch and flurry made him the longest reigning middleweight champion in history.
That fighter is gone, replaced, on his own volition, by a more aggressive, fan-friendly pugilist. That fighter stood toe-to-toe with Kelly Pavlik in 2008 and engaged in two entertaining bouts with Pascal, the last of which crowned Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KOs) as the oldest man to win a major title.
That fighter is fun, but vulnerable, open to being picked apart by the right kind of an opponent. An opponent just like Dawson. It's why throughout the promotion Hopkins has antagonized Dawson, begging him not to be the cautious, workmanlike fighter he is prone to be.
Said Hopkins, "I want Chad Dawson not to be the Chad Dawson you'll expect he will be."
Indeed, there is a method to Hopkins' madness. Dawson (30-1, 17 KOs) is a very good boxer. His style is dull, but effective. He owns lopsided wins over Tomasz Adamek, Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson. He uses every inch of his lean, 6-foot-1 frame and snaps a crisp jab with pinpoint accuracy. He dismantled former light heavyweight titleholder Adrian Diaconu in his last fight and barely broke a sweat doing it.
Hopkins doesn't want to see that Dawson. He wants to a more aggressive Dawson, one willing to come out of his hard-to-hit shell.
"Come at me," Hopkins barked at Dawson during Wednesday's press conference. "I'm an old man. I drink my Geritol. I go to bed early, at 9. I'm challenging you to try to knock me out."
There are signs that Hopkins' strategy is working. Dawson has openly talked about being more aggressive. He dropped jab master Emanuel Steward, swapped the Kronk gym in favor of a truncated training camp in the Poconos. He reunited with former coach John Scully, whom Dawson insists will help him attack Hopkins with more combinations, and brought to camp former Hopkins opponent Winky Wright. And Hopkins has found unlikely allies in Dawson's promoter, Gary Shaw, and HBO executives who have made it clear to the 29-year-old challenger that more exciting fights will lead to bigger checks.
"I'm not the biggest puncher in boxing," Dawson said. "I'm not a knockout artist or nothing like that, but I feel like I have the strength and I can hurt Bernard. And Pascal hurt him, twice had him down. I think it's great for me. I think I could get him out of there. I'm saying I don't go in there looking for the knockout, but it can happen."
Hopkins smiles when he hears Dawson talk about coming forward. A more aggressive Dawson is a more hittable one, and that's the kind of opponent he needs to continue his career. Because even though Hopkins has been brilliant lately, winning titles and regaining his place on pound-for-pound charts, he understands he is one bad loss away from retirement. The talk of the town today, an afterthought tomorrow.
"You're going to see a fight where the youth wants to take the lion that's in the jungle and retire him," Hopkins said. "I'm just not ready to go, to leave the jungle."
"It won't be easy because the young guy wants to prove that it's time for his chance. It's his second chance to prove that he's worthy of what everybody expects of him two years ago. He failed in that case. So now he has another shot at it and he's going to put it all on the line, and I'm expecting that. I trained under those circumstances, knowing that he's coming with all guns blazing. I've got to be ready to have mine blazing also. It's going to be a shootout."
Or so he hopes.