It never gets old for Hopkins

It's something Bernard Hopkins has understood for a long time: People don't really understand.

How could they? They can't have a clue what he feels, what he has been through to get here. So the questions keep coming. "What motivates you to keep going at age 43?" "Why are you doing this?" "Could this be your last fight?"

"Say that again. I couldn't hear that," Hopkins said to a reporter who asked one of those frequently asked questions during a conference call.

Is it possible -- the reporter repeated apologetically, bravely -- that your fight with Kelly Pavlik might be your last fight?

"Is it possible?" Hopkins said. "Anything is possible. It's possible that it won't be my last fight. It's possible that it will be my last fight."

How can they suggest he's ready to hang up the robe? Well, sure, he's 43, with 20 years of professional fights on his ledger. He's had the glory -- the big wins, the title belts. He's done well with money -- owns a portfolio of investment properties. He has his family and his post-career life all set up as an executive for Golden Boy Promotions.

Why risk it? What could there be left to prove?

Hopkins has lost three of his past five fights (if you believe the judges and their official scorekeeping) since mid-2005, when he lost his middleweight title. His hairline is receding, and the skin around his eyes and cheekbones is contoured and mature. The knockout threat that helped him back up his self-imposed nickname -- The Executioner -- is mostly gone. The odds for Saturday's 170-pound, non-title fight in Atlantic City, N.J., have been around 4-1 for Pavlik, the undefeated, 26-year-old middleweight champion.

"Twenty-six? Ah, so what?" Hopkins said. "As the doctor told me yesterday doing my physical, he said, 'Bernard, you know, you've got the body of a 25-year-old that thinks he's 43.'"

Hopkins runs three miles every Miami morning while you are still dreaming on your pillow. He's put in 100-plus rounds of sparring at Normandy Gym with young guns who, he says, are "under 27 years old." In April, he fought to a split decision against Joe Calzaghe, one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world.

Retire? Are you serious? Are you forgetting, Hopkins wonders, that the Philadelphia fighter has lived his whole career with a kind of monastic discipline -- since he walked out of the penitentiary in 1988 -- and that's why he is where he is today? In bed by 9 p.m., up at 5:30 a.m., running by 6. Doesn't fatten up between fights -- won't touch a Philly cheesesteak. Never been knocked out -- fights with the defensive cunning of a porcupine.

"I understand why they are asking it; at least I think I do," Hopkins told ESPN.com. "They are really amazed that I will still put myself through this training regimen. A lot of people just can't believe what they're actually seeing, so they gotta go the other way."

Besides, he said, "They can't ask me, 'Are you gonna be excited when you fight?' They can't ask me, 'Can you handle the crowd?' They've run out of things to ask me. I've been around too long."

Why keep going? Why not? Oh, sure, he did retire that one time, in 2006, after he beat Antonio Tarver, and he had everyone believing he meant it. But he didn't feel done. He remembered to get his hand stamped by Father Time on his way out of the arena so he could re-enter. Hopkins figures he got a late start on fame and fortune and deserves to have a late finish.

When a reporter asked last week for his motivation for fighting Pavlik, Hopkins half-joked: "My motivation is back pay."

"You like that?" he said in an interview a day later. "I could have said workman's comp. It took me 20 years to get here. But really, it's only the last five or six years I'm starting to benefit from the financial rewards of this."

"Why should Bernard have any trouble continuing to do this?" HBO commentator Jim Lampley said. "He's got a great business going. He makes millions of dollars fighting pay-per-view fights. He goes into the ring in tremendous shape. He has the good kind of vanity that preserves athletes over the long haul. He has an extremely self-protective style which is more about presenting an argument, in case of what he sees as the injustice of a decision against him, than it is about actually taking a risk to try to win the fight. And it puts him in a position where he doesn't have to win fights to still be regarded as a viable opponent for the next niche fight that comes along. We should all be so lucky."

Pavlik and his trainer, Jack Loew, think they understand. They expect Hopkins to clinch and hold, pace himself, try to get inside, hit in close and rip off a few fouls. They're ready for it. They're ready for him to be 43 years old.

"He's got great defense," Pavlik said, "but eventually in a fight … he's got to keep up a pace. His defense will lapse a couple of times, so we take advantage of that. And then it's definitely not out of the question for an early round stoppage or a quick knockout. Anything could happen, you know?"

Hopkins isn't talking about age-versus-youth. He's talking about his plan of attack, more than he usually does.

"Pavlik doesn't like movement. He's a fighter that likes guys to stay there," Hopkins said. "He is a flat-footed fighter. He packs a decent punch, but let me tell you, any movement from different angles would give him fits. I don't care if he trained over that last five, six weeks to be able to box some, move to the left some. Kelly Pavlik is gonna do what has been successful for him, which is coming forward, lining you up with that jab, with an open left glove, to blind you with it, and then coming straight down the pipe with that right hand.

"Pavlik doesn't move like Joe Calzaghe. And when you give me a target, one of the best counterpunchers in this era, I will chop you up like chopped liver. I will beat you down, methodically, round by round. People are going to say, 'Why is Kelly Pavlik not changing his plan?' He doesn't know how to. It's gonna be discipline and condition to win this fight. And it's gonna be a late TKO. Punishing."

Makes you think it'll be a fight. Although, as Lampley points out, Hopkins doesn't have to win. He just needs to have a viable argument afterward.

"I think it's one of the greatest setups of all time for Bernard," Lampley said. "He's in a totally no-lose situation." Who would turn that down?

And then … who knows? It's not like Hopkins hasn't considered retirement. In fact, he's been imagining the scene rather vividly for a while.

"I envision, when that time comes, Bernard Hopkins will put on a white terry-cloth robe," Hopkins said. "A pair of black boxing shoes with no socks. Hands wrapped. No headgear. And I will come out, at one of the big fights, a Golden Boy card where there's 10,000-plus people, wherever that fight is at. And I will come out. And I will bow to the four corners. An announcement will be made, and I will leave. Ray Robinson did that, and it was so classy, and no one has altered it. Now, if someone beats me to the punch, I gotta come up with something different."

Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for the Philadelphia Inquirer.