Bernard Fernandez: Hopkins' greatness not always obvious, but it's there

MY NEIGHBOR down the street, a youth soccer coach, occasionally upbraids me for not feeling as warmly as he does about his favorite sport. Soccer is beautiful, free-flowing and the purest of athletic endeavors, he insists, and any clod who does not recognize it as such - like me - is beyond hope.

"But what about all those ties?" I fire back. "Or the lack of scoring? How many 0-0 and 1-0 games do you have to sit through before you realize that soccer is stultifyingly boring?"

"That's only because you don't understand what's going on," my neighbor always concludes, shaking his head at my ignorance. "If you did, you'd feel about it as I do."

I was reminded of those conversations now that another boxing match featuring Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins will take place Saturday night. The prelude to and aftermath of most Hopkins bouts means I will receive (and already have) emails from disgruntled fight fans who again remind me that watching the technically brilliant Hopkins at work - particularly on pay-per-view - can be as exciting as watching your lawn-care guy trim the hedges. Hopkins might be very good at what he does, but so what? When it comes to boxing, John Q. Public wants some reasonable assurance of blood and guts before he springs for another $50 to his monthly cable bill.

It is that sort of negative feedback about a one-of-a-kind fighter that prompts me to channel my soccer-loving neighbor's passion and present my most convincing counterpoint. I reply that anyone who can't appreciate the artistry of the old master simply does not understand what he's watching as Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KOs) systematically breaks down another opponent, as he's apt to do to the younger, bigger, stronger and faster Chad Dawson (30-1, 17 KOs) in Los Angeles' Staples Center. Hopkins' WBC and The Ring magazine light-heavyweight championship belts will be on the line.

Father Time is the relentless foe that eventually chases down every aging athlete, and their respective birth certificates offer proof that Hopkins, 46, probably is giving ground to the 29-year-old Dawson with each passing day. But the finish line is still somewhere off in the distance for B-Hop, who stated that reports he'll fight on until he's 50 are inaccurate, although he's convinced he still has a couple of quality and winning performances in him before he finally steps aside at a moment of his choosing.

If you prefer Jerry Lee Lewis setting fire to his piano at a honky-tonk bar to Van Cliburn in concert at Carnegie Hall, Hopkins probably isn't your cup of tea. But that doesn't mean there still isn't much to admire and appreciate about the level of his craftsmanship.

"I remember years ago, when I was a young trainer, the great Eddie Futch told me, 'Every 20 years or so, something great comes along. Everybody in between is just a good fighter,' " said Hopkins' trainer, Brother Naazim Richardson. "Well, Bernard Hopkins is that something great that comes along only very rarely. Celebrate him now, because he won't be around forever."

I didn't always detect the greatness in Bernard Hopkins, maybe because it wasn't always evident. After being incarcerated for 56 months on a strong-arm robbery conviction, he got a late start to his professional boxing career and promptly lost his first fight, a four-round decision to Clinton Mitchell on Oct. 11, 1988. He was just another guy with a dream, which basically made him another dime-a-dozen pug. There is no real price to pay for dreaming.

But Hopkins had had his bitter taste of prison, and he vowed never to return. He couldn't sing or dance for his supper, so what else might he do? Boxing seemed the only path to the better life he craved, and he had the smarts and the dedication to make his vision a reality. He would outwork and outlearn his competition. He's been doing that now for 23, Hall of Fame-bound years.

Give credit to the trainers who lent their wisdom to Hopkins: the late Bouie Fisher, Sloan Harrison, Freddie Roach and Richardson. Hopkins also cadged bits and pieces of his ring persona from fighters he admired, incorporating their more positive tendencies into his own. But make no mistake, Hopkins is so much more than the sum of his parts.

There are three cardinal rules of boxing. Two are "protect yourself at all times" and "styles make fights," but the one Hopkins has been guided by in establishing a longevity of excellence unmatched by any boxer, with the possible exception of Archie Moore, is this: "Win this one, look good the next time."

Hopkins' defensive genius is indisputable, but it is subtle; observe how he almost imperceptibly tucks his chin behind his shoulder, or makes those quick quarter-turns to avoid punches and to put himself in better position to land something of consequence. It is true that Hopkins has lost fights and been knocked down, but he never has been on the wrong end of a major beatdown, and his only defeat that was not at least somewhat controversial was the 1993 unanimous decision that went to Roy Jones Jr. Other than his slalom-run of a nose, Hopkins offers little visual evidence of the violent nature of his occupation.

On the attack, Hopkins is just as difficult for some to categorize. No, he hasn't won inside the distance since his left hook to the liver put Oscar De La Hoya down and out in the ninth round of their Sept. 18, 2004, bout in Las Vegas. That's a knockout drought of 11 fights over 7 years, a streak that is not apt to end against Dawson, a southpaw who not only is skilled, but is loath to taking foolish chances.

"If they go, they go. If they don't, they don't," Hopkins said of his long stretch without scoring a stoppage. "I'm not really a knockout puncher. I'm a guy that destroys people."

Think not? B-Hop's resumé is full of names of guys who were never quite the same after he shared the ring with him. Even Jermain Taylor, who was awarded two disputed decisions over Hopkins, essentially vanished from contention after the old man exacted his inexorable toll.

Bottom line: Even my soccer-nut neighbor, who dismisses boxing as barbaric, just might find something to like if he studied the many nuances of Bernard Hopkins. As for me, maybe my Daily News colleague, Kerith Gabriel, will let me tag along the next time he covers a Union game.

Because sometimes you have to look really hard to see what you think you're not seeing.


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