Bernard Hopkins' career may end in the wee hours of Saturday night, after a light heavyweight title fight against Chad Dawson at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J.
Of course, a lot of folks were saying the same thing in 2001, when Hopkins was set to fight Felix Trinidad for the middleweight title in New York and there were legitimate fears about Hopkins' safety. Trinidad was one of the game's hardest punchers and biggest stars at the time. Little consideration was given to the fact that Hopkins might actually win; most of the talk was whether he could survive the full 12 rounds against such a fearsome slugger.
The scuttlebutt was much the same in 2006, when Hopkins jumped from middleweight to light heavyweight to face Antonio Tarver. People openly questioned his wisdom not only for going up two classes to take on a guy some regarded as one of the best fighters in the world, but also for opting to continue to box at all.
Kelly Pavlik was another explosive puncher who, in 2008, was widely expected to do Hopkins serious harm.
And yet, Hopkins will slip between the ropes Saturday having been the clear, convincing winner in all three of those bouts while prepping for another match in which the cognoscenti believe he has no chance.
His career has been like a bad soap opera, in which one episode ends with the hero dangling perilously close to the edge only to come back in the next episode to somehow save the day.
It's as if Hopkins plotted his career by reading Sun Tzu's book, "The Art of War." Tzu's line, "All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved," perfectly fits Hopkins' approach.
It's clear he wins, but how he does it remains a mystery even after more than two decades on the sport's biggest stage.
"You're going to get a sound bite from me," Hopkins said. "But at the end of the day, what you care about is when you sit down there in the audience and [wonder], 'Is Bernard going to do what [he] said earlier, pull a rabbit out of a hat?' I will pull a rabbit out of a hat. I'll just continue to kick the naysayers' [expletive] in and out of the ring, because that's the task that I've always been up against.
"I don't mind that. It's not anger. It's a challenge. [Critics in the media] have been my biggest motivator. Without that, it wouldn't be me where I've been."
It's difficult to predict the outcome of a Hopkins fight by applying logic and analysis. It's not so much because he's 47 years old and will be fighting a guy who is bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic.
It's because a fight with Hopkins is more than a test of endurance and boxing skill. A Hopkins fight is an all-encompassing battle that begins long before the bell rings. It's a psychological game in which Hopkins has become a certified grand master.
The question he must answer in this fight is whether the physical skills have eroded so far that his tactical brilliance will be rendered moot. He looked slow and unsteady in his first fight against Dawson, which ended in a bizarre manner when Hopkins was dumped on his head and injured a shoulder in the second round.
Dawson made no secret of the fact that he didn't believe Hopkins was hurt. He said he felt Hopkins quit because he knew he couldn't win.
Hopkins has been largely quiet through the buildup to the rematch. His public appearances have been few and he's said little when he has appeared.
"Listen, I like this," Hopkins said of the psychological warfare aspect of the fight business. "It's a game of chess, not checkers. It's a game in the ring. There's a game out of the ring. … I'm winning the game. [Saturday] is the physical part of the game, but the other game is vicious because you don't see the part that's coming."
Hopkins will have to be like a baseball pitcher without overpowering stuff. He'll need to throw inside when the hitter's looking outside and go with a changeup when the batter is anxious for a fastball.
The physical advantages lay with Dawson, the challenger. But as Tzu wrote: "Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge."
Hopkins' achievements surpass those of nearly everyone in boxing. He knows what his opponent is going to do before the opponent does.
And the reason, of course, is simple.
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