Bernard Hopkins fights Father Time

Past the hoodies and the cocktails and the sweat and the cleavage and the dazzling radiance of all that failure, maybe you notice their hands. Pushing a single chip across the felt at roulette. Tossing a 20 to the croupier at craps. Cradle, shake, blow, roll. Fingers crossed. Dirty nails. Nail-bitten fingers caged on short stacks at blackjack, stack and restack and fidget the inventories of chance. Good luck, bad luck, no luck at all. Hit. Bust. Cracked knuckles white on a brown beer bottle. Cigarettes and engagement rings and cigar butts. Getting and letting go. American hands never more American than when they're holding a fork or money or a gun. Or when that hand is a fist.

Maybe Bernard Hopkins understands this better than anyone. For a long time, he was a certain kind of Hollywood story. Up and out of the killing Philadelphia streets and into prison by the time he's 18. Walks out of the penitentiary and into boxing and never looks back. Redeemed by his fists. Nicknames himself "The Executioner." Since then, he is many times a champion. Rich. Famous. Music swells. The End.

It does Hopkins no disservice to thumbnail that career. It is a good story, and Hopkins is a good fighter, the longest reigning middleweight champion in boxing's long and awful history. He fights light heavyweight now and is the oldest prizefighting champion of any kind ever -- 48 when he steps through the ropes.

And that's his new story, the more important -- or at least more promotable -- story. He's out there fighting on behalf of every grizzled baby boomer and AARP member and Viagra-taker in TV land. Sixty is the new 30, say the search engine optimizers. Once interchangeable with any other down-on-his-luck, up-by-his-fists kid from the city by way of Odets or Stallone, Hopkins is reborn as an old man for us all. Ageless, and perhaps more bankable than at any time in his career. Hopkins abides.

But tonight he fights a mandatory challenger for short money. An imported waxwork named Karo Murat, a German Armenian by way of Iraq with heavy hands and visa troubles.

Down in the dressing room, one of his trainers kneads Hopkins like a loaf. Bends him back on himself, folds and unfolds him. "Right now I'm imagining calmness," Hopkins says, straightening. "This is psych-O-log-i-cal warfare."

Crowded with cornermen and cutmen and bucketmen, cameramen and moneymen, there are no women here, until Murat's seconds walk in to watch them tape the champ's hands. One of them is a tall young blonde in four-inch heels with lank hair and beautifully machined English. "Thank you very much," she says precisely into the silence when she arrives. "Thank you very much," she says into the same silence 10 minutes later as she leaves. "Groovin'" sing The Young Rascals.

Hopkins is as smooth and hard as worn stone, his features as blurred as old statuary. The unwrinkled skull is shaved and perfect. A Fabergé egg of a thing. How it gleams!

The thermostat is set to 80. Everyone sweats as Hopkins stretches, warms and shadowboxes. "Smart and sharp," say his men, one after another, a chorus of reassurance and unnecessary instruction. "Smart and sharp." In the corridor, the winners and losers come and go.

What's goin' on? asks Marvin Gaye.

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