Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The grave marker says he died long before the opening bell.
But I for one happen to know that Johnny Sample was alive and well Saturday night.
Because he was sitting on my living room couch.
Oh sure, the former Super Bowl winner's decomposed carcass was being channeled more vibrantly by my friend Marquis Richardson, but as Bernard Hopkins was dominating round after round against Kelly Pavlik in Atlantic City, it was Sample's voice I was hearing from Marquis's mouth.
"C'mon now, you're forgetting who he's in there with. That's B-Hop," my visitor enthusiastically insisted to me and my three fellow non-believers, each of whom had joined me in picking Pavlik by KO or wide points win. "He's not normal like the rest of us. He's a living legend."
Bernard Hopkins showed speed, movement and a willingness to initiate he'd not displayed for a while.
The voice got louder as the night went on.
And after a while, it was 2001 all over again.
I first met Mr. Sample seven years ago, when, with a haze of dust and smoke still hanging over Lower Manhattan, former newspaper colleague Todd Thorpe and I headed to Madison Square Garden to see Hopkins meet Felix Trinidad for the WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight title belts.
Todd and I had debated the likely outcomes for the duration of our New Jersey Transit train ride into Penn Station that evening, with me forecasting a decisive win for Tito and him expecting a much closer fight that in the end could go either way based on circumstance and good fortune.
We saw - or, more appropriately, heard - the other side when we got to the press table.
Camped out amid a pile of notes, pads and pens was the 64-year-old ex-New York Jet, studiously prepping for his role as a post-fight radio commentator and, after the requisite introductions, more than happy to share a litany of pre-fight opinions with a pair of card-carrying "Executioner" cynics.
"Don't forget, he's in there with a man tonight," Sample said vociferously, contrasting Hopkins' trademark sturdiness with the relative ease in which Trinidad's previous foes had fallen. "Bernard's been through the wars. Bernard's had a hard life. That's going to matter in there. Wait and see."
I nodded politely, while secretly thinking my table mate had made a few too many hard tackles.
By the end of the night, of course, the old man was proven clairvoyant.
And it could just as well have been him again Saturday.
In spite of that New York memory and his many years of subsequent resume-padding, I went into the Pavlik match blindly thinking - again - that the young man's power and aggression would surely offset the lingering guile or tactics Hopkins still carried in a soon-to-be 44-year-old satchel.
I said so in this space before the fight, calling for Bernard's head via nine-round stoppage.
Of course, little did I know I'd be sharing pizza with Sample's specter a few hours later.
The aforementioned Marquis came through the door with a familiar pro-Hopkins harangue, citing the old man's run of 20 title-fight wins at middleweight, insisting he'd deserved both losing decisions against Jermain Taylor and reminding us of a 2006 upset of Antonio Tarver at the same venue.
We shouted down Sample's second coming through a sleepy undercard and an awful anthem, but the tenor changed starkly by the end of the main event's initial round, during which the Philadelphian showed speed, movement and a willingness to initiate he'd not displayed since the New York heyday.
"Kelly's already confused. Bernard's toying with him," Marquis insightfully opined, likening the pale Ohioan's befuddlement to a man unknowingly coming home to a familiar house where all the furniture's been moved into different rooms. "If he could get out of there right now, he would."
If I hadn't known any better, I'd have sworn it was a Johnny 2001 redux.
"He's in there with a Superman tonight," the apparition might've said. "You've got to learn to listen."
No argument there, sir, but something tells me you'll have to remind me at least once more.
Following a well-earned "I told you so" glare along press row, Hopkins told HBO's Larry Merchant and the Boardwalk Hall crowd that he'd covet the chance at a 2009 bout with Roy Jones Jr. or Joe Calzaghe, depending on which former foe wins their imminent get-together at the Garden.
And though I'm sure I'll regret it, I'll say here that there's no way Bernard beats either.
The faster, younger Calzaghe outworks him precisely like he did in April.
The bigger, stronger Jones out-talents him exactly like he did in 1993.
And based on my ability to see the future, there's really only one true certainty either way.
Hey Johnny, I'll see you again soon.
Lyle Fitzsimmons is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He provides 'In The Ring' commentary for Speeding Bullet Network (speedingbulletnetwork.com), is a periodic contributor to 'The Drive with Dave Smith' on KLAA radio (am830klaa.com) and can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.