Hopkins set to make ring return in Philly

UPPER DARBY, Pa. (AP) - Bernard Hopkins once promised his mother he'd retire at 40.

Yet here he is, creeping up on 45, and the fighter considered one of boxing's all-time great middleweights is still dancing in the ring and prepping for another fight.

Hopkins shuffles his feet and punches the air as Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" blares through the musty gym. His groin protector reads "Executioner," an apropos alias during his perfect 10-year reign as middleweight champion.

Wearing a white tank top, dark spandex shorts and white sneakers, Hopkins beckons his sparring partner into the ring.

After boxing the equivalent of 10 rounds, Hopkins hops out for some jump rope and other cardio exercises.

"Once you start that engine, you're cool," Hopkins said. "It's starting the engine that takes time."

Known for a clean and frugal lifestyle that bans alcohol and late nights, Hopkins feels he still has time to keep that engine purring. The end of his 21-year career, which he claimed was over after defeating Antonio Tarver in 2006, is no longer on the immediate horizon.

Nearly 14 months after his last bout, Hopkins (49-5-1, 32 KOs) seeks to prove he has plenty of punches left Wednesday night in his hometown of Philadelphia against Enrique Ornelas (29-5 19 KOs) in a light heavyweight fight. He's using the rare weeknight fight - especially for a boxer of his stature - as the first step in a three-bout plan to achieve one final milestone.

Hopkins, not a stylistically pleasing fighter but efficient at what he does, intends to go out on top as the heavyweight champion.

"There's no division after heavyweight," he said. "It's over."

Hopkins' first item on his to-do list is knocking out Ornelas. If Roy Jones Jr. wins his fight the same night in Australia, Hopkins says the two will meet in March at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Then, after four more months of training "to put some muscle on this lean body," Hopkins said he will challenge WBA heavyweight champion David Haye.

"He's not the biggest heavyweight and I won't be either," he said. "But at the end of the day, what a career."

Hopkins started boxing in a Pennsylvania state prison, where he served five years beginning at the age of 17. He turned pro in 1988 and won his first bout in 1990. On May 22, 1993, he lost an unanimous decision to Jones for the vacant IBF middleweight crown - a setback he vowed won't happen again if they sign for a rematch.

That's all in the future.

For now, Hopkins is focused on revitalizing the Philly fight scene. The north Philadelphia native wants the city, where gritty contenders rose from the streets and became champions, to again be a destination where rising prospects can fight on solid cards on national television. One way for Hopkins to get his message out is fighting at Temple University and skipping the pay networks and pay-per-view in favor of cable exposure on Versus.

Hopkins, who usually trains in Miami, is a regular at the Upper Darby Boxing Club, training in a dingy gym in a dilapidated neighborhood just outside Philadelphia. One ring, a handful of punching bags, and walls tacked with Hopkins posters and faded newspaper clippings with headlines of big fights and local fighters who never made it big.

"It feels and looks like it's in the trenches," Hopkins said. "Look around. You wouldn't eat your lunch in here. You need that other psychological piece and that piece is here for me."

Hopkins has promoted the card at every type of venue and has been a fixture in his home city. Boston Celtics star Rasheed Wallace, another Philly native, popped by a training session and Hopkins donated 500 turkeys to city residents before Thanksgiving. He's also pledged $1 from each ticket sold to three charities.

"Being home can be a little challenging because people are excited and they want to be a part of it," Hopkins said. "The closer we get to the fight, the more they're hearing it on the radio, the more they're reading it on The AP or the Daily News, that brings curiosity. But it's been good. It's been energizing for me."

Hopkins says he's discussing with Versus the possibility of the network televising weekly cards out of Philadelphia. The area and the sport suffered a blow recently when 25-year-old Francisco Rodriguez was injured in the ring at the Blue Horizon, underwent emergency brain surgery and died.

All boxers know the risks when they step between the ropes. Hopkins called it a "kill or be killed" mentality.

"I hate to say it, but I have a better chance of getting shot driving in my car in Philadelphia with a stray bullet than actually getting hurt in the boxing ring," he said.

He turns 45 on Jan. 15, but Hopkins is as glib as ever. He's forged a reputation of running his mouth as much as winning title bouts, and he displays no signs of slurred speech or memory loss.

Trainer Nazim Richardson said he's stopped trying to talk Hopkins into retirement.

"If he can make the heavyweight thing happen, I'd have to be adamant about him retiring," Richardson said. "He'll have proven he's the greatest fighter of all time. If he wins the heavyweight title, he's the greatest fighter of all time. It's not Ray Robinson no more."

And when he's finished, Hopkins wants to promote fights for Golden Boy Promotions or become a color commentator. Hopkins is a regular caller into sports station WIP-AM in Philadelphia and slings barbs at other sports and athletes.

"I like looking for debate and controversy," he said.

- On Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, "I just don't like his spirit when it comes to being a champion and the best. I think he's missing heart."

- On the Phillies losing the World Series, "The Phillies are good, the Yankees are great. Look at the championships. That's what you define great with, look at the championships."

Is Hopkins great? He'll leave that adjective for the fans and critics to decide.

"I have to always believe that I'm not great, but I'd rather prove that I am," he said.


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