Nearly every time he speaks in public prior to a fight these days, Bernard Hopkins is asked about his age more than he is about his opponent.
Whether he's facing an in-his-prime Jean Pascal, as he is on Saturday in a Showtime-televised bout for the World Boxing Council light heavyweight title in Quebec City, or if he's facing a long-in-the-tooth Roy Jones Jr., as he did in April, the subject matter never changes: Why, he's asked, are you fighting at your age and when do you plan to retire?
It may seem like a logical question. If Hopkins defeats Pascal on Saturday, he'll become the oldest world champion in the history of boxing. Hopkins turns 46 on Jan. 15, less than a month after Saturday's championship bout.
It makes sense to ask those questions of Erik Morales, a 34-year-old who has taken tremendous punishment during his career.
And someone should ask them of 30-year-old Paul Malignaggi, a popgun puncher whose quickness is now gone and who can't avoid the heavy blows he once deftly slipped.
Hopkins may be 45, but he's got the body of a 30-year-old and the mind of a 20-year-old. He's as sharp as ever mentally and there have been few craftier men in any profession than Bernard Hopkins.
He didn't look particularly good in his April win over Jones, and even his close friend, business partner and promoter, Richard Schaefer of Golden Boy Promotions, suggested he had reached the end of the line.
But Hopkins wasn't getting beaten up. He may not be the most television-friendly fighter at this stage of his career, though in truth, he never was. He was never the kind of fighter who relished slugfests and was never willing to take two punches to deliver one. In those regards, he was the antithesis of the late Arturo Gatti. He has used his mind when he's fought and, because of that, he still has his mind to use, fully functioning, fully capable.
It's a point he stressed repeatedly when, invariably, question after question on a recent media conference call addressed his age.
"Boxers don't retire from the ring," Hopkins said. "Whether it's good or bad, the ring has to retire the fighter from the boxing ring. … I've got to be probably – without anybody on this phone ever taking a punch in their lives – in better shape than 90 percent of the people on this phone. I don't know who's listening to this phone call, but if you're honest with yourself, take the person on the phone to the side and I've got 24 years of boxing and over 60 fights. No one on this phone ever had to write that I got my ass handed to me in any fight out of 60 fights. That's not bragging. That's the facts. That's because I'm protected by somebody bigger than anybody that writes for any big network or any newspaper. It's bigger than me. It's bigger than you."
Whether it's divine intervention or simply his ability to sense what punches are coming and how to avoid them that's allowed him to survive a lengthy career intact can be saved for another debate.
What's not for debate is that Hopkins is still of his right mind and is at no greater risk today than he was when he first won the middleweight title in 1995.
After excruciatingly close back-to-back losses to Jermain Taylor in middleweight championship fights in 2005 – bouts that many believe Hopkins deserved to win – he took a 2006 bout with Antonio Tarver at light heavyweight in what he said would be his final match.
Hopkins walked to the ring before that bout in Atlantic City, N.J., to the strains of Frank Sinatra crooning, "My Way." Hopkins' way has been very different from 99.99 percent of his peers, but it's impossible to deny its effectiveness. In his latter years, Hopkins has used psychological warfare to his advantage and, much like the 1990s vintage Mike Tyson did, won fights before the first bell ever sounded by winning the mind game.
Hopkins would go on and on about his age before a fight and it seemed to have an impact on his opponents, who didn't seem ready for how good this – pick your age – 41-, 42-, 43- or 44-year-old man would turn out to be. Ask Tarver, a huge favorite who lost 10 of 12 rounds. Ask Kelly Pavlik, another monstrous favorite who lost 11 of 12 rounds. Ask Winky Wright, a big favorite who lost nine of 12 rounds.
Pascal is clearly falling into the trap. He called Hopkins a dummy and his trainer, Marc Ramsay, referred to Hopkins as a jalopy.
"Be ready to see my athlete," Ramsay said of the 28-year-old Pascal. "He is ready like a powerful F-1 car. When the fight starts, you will see a jalopy on the other side of the ring and my F-1 will run him over."
But in fashioning a 51-5-1 record with 32 knockouts and a no-contest, Hopkins has never been run over. More importantly, he's never been remotely close to being run over.
And on Saturday, Hopkins will wear his age proudly on the back of his robe, a subliminal reminder to Pascal that he's facing a man who won his first world title when Pascal was just 13.
"Everybody knows how old I am, but let's write about it when I make history (on Saturday)," Hopkins said. "… On the back of my robe, it's going to be like a football jersey. It's going to have, '45 years old,' and, 'Sexy,' at the bottom. Yes. Trust me."
If you know Hopkins even a little, you know he's serious. He thinks things through like few in the game ever have.
If he were a shell of himself, if he weren't able to compete at the highest level, he wouldn't be in the ring no matter how many zeroes are at the end of his paycheck. He's far too astute to give up a normal life for the sake of a boxing match.
That's not to say he'll win on Saturday; Pascal is a talented guy who is 26-1 and blew out the highly regarded Chad Dawson in August. But win or lose, Hopkins won't look out of place.
More than anyone, he knows the risks of his job and he'll bail as soon as he knows the odds are no longer in his favor. Until then, he'll keep collecting paychecks and title belts and talking about his advancing years. It's only four years, 28 days until he can get his AARP card, after all.
"I'm not here because I can't get away and walk away," Hopkins said. "I'm here because my body still can do it. I'm here because I did the things that I was supposed to do early to be able to be here now. Making history, (surpassing) George Foreman, being the oldest champion, making, breaking and shattering records, to me, that's one of the reasons I'm in this game. Richard said it starting off: This is what I like doing. I like making history.
"I must say, the naysayers, I thank them, because they have been a big part of me proving that I can do it. Because sometimes when you did it all and you won all of the titles and you've been pound-for-pound and you push the envelope to the point where people are still scratching their head, you do look around since you don't have anything else to be motivated by. You're fighting for the wrong reasons and that's when you get caught. History is something that can't be made by any athlete at any time."
You don't get a chance to see history made all that often. So, as Hopkins says, whether you love him or loathe him, watch. At this stage, everything he does is historic.
"I've been blessed and spoiled at the same time to be able to be in a position to make history at this late stage of my career without making a mockery of myself, wrestling on a mat in some kind of other sport, making a mockery of my legacy," he said. "This is a great thing. This is a blessing. So sit back and enjoy it, because when it's over with, who else are you going to ask a question of for two seconds and get a 10-minute answer?"
No one, Bernard. No one.
I'll admit it. I'll miss you when you're gone.