Never mind the rest, Philly is the best

At 6 a.m. on a recent Saturday at the Tucson airport, I was surrounded by a handful of travelers, most still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.

That easygoing Southwest style in the constant Arizona sun makes for a pleasant scene change from the grind of the grizzled Northeast. At least for me it does. For others, it doesn't matter where they are, the East Coast style is always with them.

As I sat back waiting to board my plane, that desert tranquility was broken. I knew exactly what was up. This wasn't the stuff of crying babies or rambunctious kids; these were grown men with strong opinions. One of them was holding court. The others were going along at times before parrying with their own take.

The subject was boxing, and the loquacious larruper was holding court. Long-reigning middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins has never met a conversation he didn't like. In fact, it seems he never met a conversation he didn't start. OK, let me put that in proper perspective: Hopkins never shuts up. And I love that about him. He takes talk to a new level. You aren't annoyed by his logorrhea, you're in awe of it.

He went from spouting off on the subject of the previous night's ESPN card to what he learned in prison. I tried to get in, but I couldn't touch him. I didn't land a single verbal jab.

The next pulpit session seamlessly moved from surviving the business of boxing to our EA Sports Fight Night video game. Another round, another shutout for B-Hop.

He finished off his barrage on the lofty matters of TV broadcasting and Antonio Tarver. Hopkins had more action in those 10 minutes than he and Jermain Taylor combined for in two insipid fights last year.

Hopkins' machine-gun style was in prime-time form. It smothered my early morning reflexes. I'm the one who gets paid to opine for a living and I didn't land a single counter!

Bernard's love of boxing runs deep. It defines him. It's who he is and where he's from.

As we made our connection, I looked up at the sign reading "Philadelphia," our destination. What could possibly be more apropos than to have Hopkins waiting in that Philly-bound lounge area? It's like seeing a bronzed George Hamilton boarding a plane to L.A. Only a real-life J.R. Ewing heading off to Dallas could possibly top it.

You can show me all the coffee table books you want about Las Vegas, but Philly is the real fight town.

This week "Friday Night Fights" returns to the home of The Ring magazine, the step-conquering Rocky Balboa statue, Joe Frazier's gym and the venerable Blue Horizon. Our cameras will be focused on the Hopkins family. They are the current royalty of the Philly fight kingdom. Bernard will join us ringside while his nephew Demetrius will try to maintain his status as an unbeaten prospect, taking on Mario Ramos (9 p.m. ESPN2). A standing-room-only crowd is expected at the New Alhambra. It's a city arena atmosphere that paints the picture you would expect.

Of course, that picture includes the City of Brotherly Love's fighters themselves. Of all the descriptive labels the sports world offers up, you won't convince me there is a more apt moniker than the term "Philly fighter."

"Inner-city tough, left hook, win or lose makes great fights, and never, ever quits, you have to carry them out." That's how J. Russell Peltz defines a Philly fighter.

He should know. As a promoter for the past 36 years, Russell has presided over, and maintained, the great tradition of Philadelphia boxing. Peltz was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame last year after a career in which he witnessed first-hand some of the greatest Philly fighter stories ever.

"No one could believe it the night Robert Hines got off the deck and came out of nowhere to beat Matthew Hilton for the world title," Peltz recalls. "I remember just yelling in the crowded dressing room area, 'He's a Philly fighter! He's a Philly fighter!' and I'll never forget that Emmanuel Stewart made his way over to tell me, 'That's it, that's the reason, he's a Philly fighter.'"

Peltz's tale of Hines' 1988 heroics reminded me of similar circumstances with the opposite result. Light heavyweight title challenger Eric Harding was born and raised in Philadelphia and that toughness never left him. He fought competitive rounds against Roy Jones with a completely torn bicep until his trainer Al Gavin refused to let it continue. But that was nothing compared with Harding's moment of truth against Antonio Tarver.

Harding got caught by as flush a left hand Tarver has ever thrown. Somehow, Harding got up and went on, but he was clearly out of it. His legs were jelly, his eyes were glazed, but his heart was stamped off the Philly assembly line. He got to his corner.

In the next round, it happened again. The sharp-shooting Tarver went in for the kill. Harding was rocked and floored even harder a second time. How could he continue? It had to be over. Yet there was Harding, rising to his feet for more. I was about to hear my favorite sports quote of our times.

As the crumbling fighter reached his feet, referee Bill Paige came in at the eight-count to check on Harding. He asked the required, "Can you continue, are you OK?" Harding's response was perfect.

"I'm from Philadelphia!" he snapped.

Here was a man beaten down. Here was a man on the verge of being pronounced a knockout victim, and "I'm from Philadelphia" was his response.

Moments later, Harding was decked and KO'd. Still, when I heard that line, I wished I was the one from Philly. I got goose bumps. Everyone with a Philly connection must have too. I thought of world-class warriors such as Bennie Briscoe. I thought of club show gym war survivors such as Chucky T. I thought of Bernard Fernandez, Nigel Collins, Larry Merchant and the other veteran observers of the Philly fight scene. They must have loved it. I know Peltz loved it.

"It still exists, but we don't have the quantity of quality we had back in the old days of Philly fighters," Peltz said. "Philly fighters are feared fighters. With the original Philly fighters, nobody wanted to come to Philadelphia to fight. New York guys wouldn't hear about it. They knew what they were in store for with a Philly fighter."

And that's why we are looking forward to this week's "Friday Night Fights." We know what we are in store for. Nobody's quitting and every fighter is required to bring their best, left hook and all. This week, "Friday Night Fights" gets to boast that we're from Philadelphia!

Joe Tessitore is the blow-by-blow announcer on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."