I think the first time I saw him, I was doing color commentary on a cablecast from Fort Myers, Fla. or someplace. He fought a prelim against nobody in particular.

Most of the crowd was lined up at the beer vendors getting ready for the main event when a guy in a black satin executioner's hood and half robe ducked through the ropes and took a turn around the ring.

Not exactly an innovation in a business where guys are routinely dressed like, named for or made out to be killers. And with fewer than 10 fights on his record, Bernard Hopkins hadn't had a chance to run up much of a body count.

But in a culturally deprived town like Fort Myers, where they don't get to see that many guys get mashed in the mouth, it was just enough of a gimmick to pull the crowd away from the vendors.

He didn't keep them long. He set about his work with the efficiency of, well, of an efxecutioner.

The crowd was back in line minutes later.

He's racked up another eight or 10 early endings in the last year or so. And Bernard Hopkins is starting to look real, even to his homeboys in Philadelphia where the mashing of mouths is a time-honored tradition.

He's 15-1 now with 12 KO's. He's still got his day job at the Penn Towers Hotel. But he's not just somebody you glance up at between beers anymore.

In fact, people who know think he's just a few fights from a shot at the middleweight title. One of those fights is tonight at the Blue Horizon where he's in with Dennis Milton.

Milton, who holds amateur victories over a veritable who's who of '80s fighters, didn't seem all that impressed at a press conference yesterday at the Ramada Inn.

"I don't know why he wears that mask into the ring," Milton said. "But I know why he's going to need it after the fight. "

This prompted more tough talk. Both fighters promised to make impressions on each other before returning to neutral corners to await tonight's action.

But this is not so much about Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins , the middleweight contender.

It's not even about the next sports team to bring a championship back to the city, although Hopkins , his stablemate, Steve Little, their manager Rob Murray and trainer Bouie Fisher may be just that.

Or maybe not. It's still a long way from prospect to fulfillment.

But it's the long way he's already come that interests me. Because the room at the Ramada where we talked yesterday is not the one they reserved for him four years ago.

"They had me all marked off when I left (prison)," he recalled. "They said, 'well, you're 23 years old, you'll be back. "'

Pretty safe prediction, really. Guys who get out after five years and head back to the old neighborhood with few marketable skills are never better than even money to stay out.

But it's going to be four years next month. "And one thing I know for sure is I'm not going back.

"I want to win the title and make a lot of money. Who doesn't. Anybody can stand to make $10 or $12 million.

"But no matter what else happens, I'm not going to put something in my hands and head back to prison. I got used to working. I know how to do that if I have to. "

The only thing he has ever wanted to do was be a fighter. It was a survival skill in the Raymond Rosen Projects where he grew up. But it was also the family business.

"I had four uncles who were fighters," he said. "My father fought. He wasn't that good. But he fought.

"My brother (He is one of eight brothers and sisters) fought before he died. We used to go to the gym together.

I fought in jail, won the state middleweight title for three years until I couldn't get a fight. This is what I wanted to do. "

He's not the first guy who came out of jail dreaming of a ring career. He was just more realistic than most.

So after failing to make a way for himself in his first foray into the ring, he went another way.

"I was 0-1 and I was managed by some people who couldn't do anything for me. I walked out with nine months left on my contract. They figured I'd be back.

"But I just got another job. When I left my regular job, I cleaned offices at night. I was determined that I'd never go back to jail or back to (his former managers). "

So far, he hasn't had to go back to anything. His next stop was Champ's Gym where he hooked up with an old buddy of mine named Rob Murray.

Rob, who picked up his handicapping skills hustling pool, figured Hopkins was worth a bet.

"He was so big he looked like he had two watermelons in his back pocket," Rob recalled. "But he sounded like he meant it.

"I called Bowie and begged him come back. He had left boxing. "

"He had the desire," Bowie said. "But he was about 190 (30 pounds over the middleweight limit).

'They all sound good when they first come into the gym. But I made him a promise. I said, if you keep coming, I'll be here. He's done everything I ever asked him. "

And now he's ready to be the next Bennie Briscoe or maybe even the next Marvin Hagler.

There's no telling how far he'll go from here. It's hard to handicap fighters.

But I'd be willing to bet he's not going back.