My Sportsman: Bernard Hopkins

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Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 2. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.

We don't normally celebrate boxers who persist past their 40s. The sport's too dangerous, too hard. Fighters who believe that their hard-won guile is some substitute for the desperation of youth either have delusions or huge tax liens. But Bernard Hopkins may be another story. Recently, at the age of 43, he handled Kelly Pavlik, a kid 17 years his junior, in a tremendous upset, suggesting that, in the case of Hopkins, all bets are off.

Hopkins has always been sui generis, treating his sport more like a craft than warfare, taking his profession more as a job than a calling. The celebrity that accrued with 20 some-odd middleweight title defenses has never interfered with his dedication to the sport. His self-sacrifice remains legendary. He has yet to toast any of his victories with anything stronger than Snapple or buy anything that wasn't a Costco bargain. And while we can't say we know exactly what he's doing as you read this, we're pretty sure he's in some kind of training.

The Pavlik fight, held in October, was supposed to be a non-title exhibition -- Pavlik, who still holds middleweight titles, moved up in weight for the bout -- that anointed the Youngstown scrapper as boxing's new guiding light. Indeed, had Pavlik won as everyone expected, we might well be nominating him for Sportsman of the Year, so strongly did he embody a long-lost work ethic. He was a throwback fighter, no glamour, all grit, and his mounting credibility as a middleweight was beginning to enliven a sport that was skewing old. It's been a while since a young kid named Oscar De La Hoya burst onto the scene, hasn't it?

Oh, well. There's no bigger fool than the one who plans boxing stardom. Or who discounts Hopkins' chances. The old man gave a master class in boxing that night, completely frustrating and bewildering Pavlik, completely neutralizing his power. "People say Bernard Hopkins is old," Hopkins said afterward. "I am." But he is definitely not finished. The man who shocked Felix Trinidad, and then momentarily paralyzed De La Hoya with a shocking body shot, is in a comparative dotage and, it goes without saying, increases his risk of long-term disability with every ring appearance. It's not something we normally encourage.

But, man, is he good.