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Hopkins picture of a champ

LAS VEGAS -- Everything in his heart spilled out yesterday. All the frustrations, all the pain, all the heartache, all the nights spent wondering if this moment would ever come poured out like a river too long dammed up and made clear what Oscar De La Hoya will be up against Saturday night.

In the midst of a lengthy monologue, Bernard Hopkins pulled a nearly 20-year-old Polaroid snapshot out of his pocket and held it up to a packed press conference at the MGM Grand Arena. It was a picture of a 19-year-old inmate at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania standing next to a lifer named Smoky Wilson. Smoky Wilson, as the world would soon learn, was the first man to believe in him. Perhaps the only man in the prison where they spent nearly 5 1/2 years together who did.

Back then, few people but cops had ever heard Hopkins's name. There was no reason to think he would become anything more than another young life lost to an urban ghetto where hope disappeared long ago and was replaced by conning, conniving, and criminality.

That was the life Hopkins had chosen. It was a life that sent him to prison at a time when most people his age were thinking about college or learning a trade. In a sense, Hopkins was learning a trade, too, but he made a decision during his incarceration that will culminate Saturday night in the biggest fight of his life, one guaranteeing the champ $10 million to claim the undisputed middleweight title against the American Golden Boy.

The decision was to not give in to the world he found himself in. Prison is the trade school of illegal trespass. It is the spawning ground of professional criminals.

Hopkins refused to accept that. He chose to listen to a lifer named Smoky Wilson and to remember his words 20 years later. "This is me and my first trainer in Graterford Prison, one of the roughest spots you can be," Hopkins said. "It's a picture of one of the people who made me a man and not a punk."

As Hopkins turned the picture over he read the back, which was dated April 18, 1985. On it Wilson had written, "You will be the middlweight champion one day."

Hopkins fulfilled that prophecy against long odds. Never once did he get in trouble again despite living nine years on parole. If he was going to slip, that was the time, a time when the criminal justice system still had its arm on him. But even after he lost his first professional fight and didn't box again for a year, he refused to give in. He had bad management, little help, and no real chance to be anything but another in the long history of tough Philadelphia fighters. He had many opportunities to lose himself and return to shared space with Smoky Wilson, who remains behind bars serving a life sentence for a gang murder in 1975. But Hopkins refused.

Hopkins chose another road. One nearly as uphill as the road to prison is downhill. He chose to steel himself against all the problems, all the pain, all the naysayers, all the difficulties an unconnected fighter runs into, and simply fight on. Fight his opponents, fight his promoters, fight his managers, fight the system. Fight for himself, really. Fight until either boxing broke him or he broke through.

The latter finally happened a decade ago when he won the International Boxing Federation middleweight title. He has held some form of the championship ever since, defending the title a record 18 times and finally owning all of the belts but the marginal one now worn by De La Hoya (World Boxing Organization).

But this fight is not about belts for the 39-year-old Hopkins. It is about a dream born from a nightmare, which he kept reminding himself of all those long weeks in training by pulling out a fading old snapshot.

"I looked at that picture for seven or eight weeks," Hopkins said. "There's a magazine in his hand that can be seen clearly. Who happened to be on the cover? Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns.

"Now it's 17 or 18 years later and here I am being mentioned with one of the greats. Hagler. So I didn't just start thinking about being a champion. I was thinking about it in prison in 1985.

"Who's the hungrier man?" he thundered, his voice coming down like a riptide and washing over a stone-faced De La Hoya, who sat only 6 feet away. "Give me a RICH fighter and a HUNGRY fighter if his talent is like mine and I'll tell you what you got. DEAD MAN WALKING! I done it the old Frankie [Sinatra] way. I was bred for this fight. Vindication is Saturday night."

The power of Hopkins's words came from the deep well from which they sprung. This was not theatre, which you sometimes get in the final week before a big fight. This was the passion of a man who has long suffered, first in the exile of a jail cell and later in a personal exile he chose for himself in boxing.

Hopkins looks at De La Hoya and is not fooled, because the con who manages to remain an ex-con can't afford to be fooled. He concedes he is in with a proud champion and skilled fighter, but what he also sees is a guy whose road has always been golden since the day he won the gold medal in Barcelona 12 years ago.

Where De La Hoya's career began in the back of a limo, Hopkins's began in the back of a police wagon. It is a difference in hunger, in pain tolerated, in a world view Hopkins believes will separate them at the moment this fight is decided.

"I am not playing off De La Hoya cheap, but this man got all the luxury," Hopkins said. "He's been blessed. I never been given the opportunity to lose and come back. I'm one and done. It's always been like that for Bernard Hopkins. There is a lot of stuff Oscar was privileged not to go through. That is my edge. That is the fire. I'm the hungriest fighter in the world. To go in there and not win the biggest fight of my life . . .?"

Hopkins's voice trails off. The absurdity of such an idea -- of losing this fight -- does not need to be addressed because Hopkins believes he has an edge that cannot be countered.

"I want to be clear," Hopkins said. "I don't mention incarceration or the penitentiary as a thing of pride. I'm not bragging or trying to show how big and tough I am. It's something that appeared in my life that I'm embarrassed about. But I remind myself and others that if you can come from a place that's close to death, then there's nothing you cannot overcome.

"If you've never been there, you'll never understand why I say that or why I would feel that, but it's part of my psyche. Part of my motivation. It's part of where I came from. It's not a good place, but I bring it up to let people know I've come a long way from sitting in a 5-by-5 cell with no gold medal, with no big sponsor contract, with no big promoter trying to take me to the next level. Nothing distracts me. Where do that come from? The penitentiary.

"Oscar is no chump. Let's be clear on that. Oscar will fight to the end. He will not quit. Oscar De La Hoya is not a guy who is going to lay down because it's Bernard Hopkins. But I'll set a fierce pace. De La Hoya will be shocked. I'm going to make him fight every minute, every second, every hour, and he better not take a deep breath or he's going to get knocked out. He's a lion, but a lion can't hang with a shark."

Later, as Hopkins was leaving, he clutched in his right hand a 1985 Polaroid. He will look at that photograph many times between now and Saturday night and take strength from it, believing it represents the difference between himself and a Golden Boy who is about to be tarnished. 

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