Bernard Hopkins cherishes underdog role

On paper, Bernard Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KOs) shouldn’t beat Chad Dawson (30-1, 17 KOs) on Saturday at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ. But, on paper, nothing Hopkins has been doing recently has made sense.

In December 2010, Hopkins, then 45, was supposed to be cashing out of a 22-year career, flown in to Quebec to be sacrificed to 27-year-old WBC light heavyweight titlist Jean Pascal. It really wasn’t a matter of “if” Hopkins would be beaten and forcibly retired, the experts were only stuck on “how” it would happen.

But Hopkins would survive knockdowns in the first and third rounds to put on a boxing clinic in the final two-thirds of the bout and wind up with a disputed draw.

Five months later, Hopkins would once again walk into Pascal’s adopted home province but, this time, turn in a clearly dominant and undeniably winning performance to get the unanimous decision and become, at 46, the oldest fighter to win a world title.

Hopkins’ first defense of the title he took from Pascal, against former champ Chad Dawson, promised to be a stylistically ugly, slow-paced bout between two low-output stylists. Hopkins-Dawson delivered on the poor expectations for most of two-round fight, with the only excitement coming at the very end, when Dawson lifted and tossed Hopkins to the canvas. Hopkins, who would suffer a dislocated shoulder, was originally ruled a TKO loser by referee Pat Russell, but would later get back his title when the bout was declared a no contest by the California State Athletic Commission.

Now, the rematch is set for Saturday, and Hopkins is reliving the same story, cast in the underdog role against someone who should roll over him, at least on paper.

It’s a role Hopkins actually relishes, a role that has become part of his character and a driving force behind his success.

Life isn’t really seen as a source of great opportunity on the “wrong” side of the tracks. Rather, it’s an obstacle to overcome, an opponent to defeat. Those who have come from this socioeconomic vacuum to achieve success are the strongest of the strong. They’ve conquered life in spite of the odds stacked against them.

Bernard Hopkins, despite his status as a first-ballot Hall of Famer and a reputation as one of the greatest boxers of this era, is still very much the poor kid from Philadelphia with the chip on his shoulder and the me-vs.-the world attitude.

”I was born in 1965, a great year for segregation,” Hopkins told the media during last week’s promotional teleconference. “I was the underdog based on being black. So, being the underdog in boxing or being the underdog when others have their opinion, this is kids’ play . . . People like me, and I say people like me, understand (being the) underdog — whether it’s sport, whether it’s play, whether it’s corporate America. So am I comfortable being in this situation? Maybe. Maybe I got immune to it. Maybe it grew on me over the years.”

It’s this attitude that has earned the veteran more than his fair share of detractors. To some, Hopkins comes across as the perpetual victim and, in the ring, that attitude manifests itself as a “win at all costs” mentality. Whether it takes some old-school, well-timed fouling or an off-broadway acting job, Hopkins is working for the win, not for the sake of maintaining appearances.

But for a fighter born without elite athleticism and not fortunate to have proper promotional representation until much later in his career, this mindset was not only beneficial, but downright vital to his success.

Love him or hate him, Hopkins has done it all the hard way and, unlike a lot of today’s stars, has earned every little step forward over the course of his 24-year career. He’s done it all through the exceptionally unglamorous method of hard work — and maybe that’s why “The Executioner” has been so hard to keep down.

Tough, ex-cons from the streets of Philadelphia aren’t supposed to become wealthy icons in the “legit” world. A loser in his professional debut isn’t supposed to go on to become a legend in the sport. A fighter without the right political/promotional connections isn’t supposed to win the world title and hold on to it for nearly a decade. Fighters at 40 years of age with back-to-back losses aren’t supposed to go on to have almost another full career two divisions to the north.

Hopkins overcame it all by working harder, spending more laborious time in the gym, perfecting his craft, and maintaining a tight mental control over both himself and whatever situation he has found himself in over the years — whether it be prison, his personal life or his ring work.

Someday it has to end, and Hopkins will be retired. Maybe it’ll happen Saturday against Chad Dawson on HBO. But for a fighter who has been the underdog for so many big fights and hasn’t been beaten decisively, sans controversy since losing to Roy Jones Jr. back in 1993, keen followers would be wise to withhold judgment until after the fight.

The history book can be tossed out the window when it comes to Bernard Hopkins. The 47-year-old proved long ago that, at least in his world, history happens on his terms.

“I’m not a fool to think that I’m here because I’m just that good,” Hopkins said. “Listen, I think there’s a lot of fighters out there that are as talented as me, but there’s one thing that I’ve had and that I got and that I will never lose even in my personal life, (it) is the discipline to stay the course . . . a motivation for me to keep pushing, to prove what I’ve been and who I am.

"But they don’t have to (give me credit) because I already won. I won 10 years ago. I could’ve stopped and did them all a favor. I already won. But I’m on something else right now and that something else is even greater than what I’ve done in the last 10-15 years, believe it or not, and I’ve done a lot of great things. But April 28 is going to be something that you’re all going to be saying, ‘Man!’ — I’m going to rewrite the book. I’m going to rewrite the book.”