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Put up or shut up for Hopkins
Lyle Fitzsimmons

By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Boxing Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - It's kiss of death time again for Bernard Hopkins.

The seemingly ageless 42-year-old will meet a comparative novice on Saturday in Las Vegas, to determine once and for all the king of all those toiling between the super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions - but unknown to the veteran Philadelphian, Winky Wright is actually the least of his worries.

In reality, it's my faith in him that might be ol' Bernard?s biggest problem.

As anyone that's read me in my various career stops already knows, this is far from the first time Mr. Hopkins and I have crossed professional paths.

Our "relationship" began six years ago in New York, as he prepped for a middleweight showdown with the then-unbeaten and heavily favored Felix Trinidad.

Bernard Hopkins & Winky Wright
Bernard Hopkins (L) will face Winky Wright this weekend in Las Vegas.
Hopkins took part in a conference call a few weeks prior to the bout, but, though I remember coming out of the call amazed at how matter-of-factly confident he seemed, I nonetheless picked Trinidad by a late-round KO.

Three years later, and apparently having not learned my lesson, I took part in a punch/counterpunch feature with former newspaper colleague Todd Thorpe - taking the side of challenger Oscar De La Hoya as the former Olympic gold medalist readied for his grab at Hopkins? 160-pound honors.

Needless to say, I was wrong again.

The record has leveled itself over the past few years, with me picking newcomer Jermain Taylor in both his bouts with Hopkins, before begrudgingly jumping to "The Executioner's" side when he moved to 175 for a match with Antonio Tarver last summer in Atlantic City.

But it still doesn't feel right.

Like a Yankees fan jumping to the Red Sox, a Clinton supporter singing the praises of President Bush, or the Road Runner finally slowing down long enough for a cordial cup of coffee with perennial pain-in-the-neck Wile E. Coyote.

And though I believe Bernard's guile and skill will carry him past his smaller foe when they meet in mid-ring at Mandalay Bay, I get the feeling that the uneasy truce between our two camps might actually be about ready to fail - in which case, all bets - and published predictions - are off.

FitzHitz says: Hopkins via tight decision.

But remember, my fingers were crossed.

OK, so much for the welterweight division becoming, errr...Margaritoville.

When defending WBO champ Antonio Margarito surrendered his belt amid a 12-round blizzard of punches from Paul Williams in Carson, Calif. last weekend, the sport's opinionated contrarians also took a dizzying hit.

The Mexican had been the standing favorite of those christening him "the world's most feared fighter" while claiming every foe from heavyweight to paperweight - particularly fellow welter Floyd Mayweather Jr. - was purposely veering away from him.

All except for Williams, that is.

The brash 25-year-old went out of his way to call Margarito's name on the way to the eight-defense kingpin's backyard, then unanimously swiped his jewelry via a pair of 115-113 scorecards and a 116-112 verdict on the third.

An active 12th round might have been Williams' most telling of the night, during which he shook off a determined Margarito comeback and closed the show with a flow of busy work that raised an impressive overall punch output past 1,200.

It was exactly the kind of showing that sways cognoscenti, or ought to anyway.

And if Williams is the new "here I come" guy in the division, that makes HBO tripleheader-mate Kermit Cintron the new "here I am" commodity among the 147-pounders.

The Puerto Rican native-turned-Philadelphia suburbanite legitimized his claim as a resurgent force in the three-tiered show's opener, winning his fourth straight by stoppage with a two-round demolition of Walter Matthysse.

Embarrassed by his fold-up against Margarito two years ago, Cintron did what several young fighters fail to do after suffering such an invincibility- shattering defeat.

He returned to the gym. He added to his repertoire. And he surrounded himself with people - in this case, Manny Steward - who could get him to the next level.

Now, with both confidence and the IBF title belt firmly in his grasp, the rapidly maturing 27-year-old presents a daunting obstacle to anyone's climb toward the upper tiers of the welterweight ranks.

And lastly, in the division's "here I go" role - Arturo Gatti.

The highlight-reel action hero wobbled off into the seashore sunset on Saturday, losing via punishing seventh-round TKO to Alfonso Gomez in what he later promised would be the final bout of his career.

"Hasta la vista, baby. I can't be taking this abuse anymore," he said. "I'm coming back...(but) as a spectator. I'm retired. I was well-prepared. I'm just sad for my team. I did my best. I just wasn't strong enough for Gomez."

Truth told, Gatti probably should have hung them up after a post-Mayweather comeback bout with Danish import Thomas Damgaard proved far more difficult than expected.

But though that win got him little more than a beating at the fists of Carlos Baldomir six months later, the perennial Boardwalk cash machine was being primed for yet another payout this fall in a proposed match with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

Fortunately, battered heads prevailed.

"I feel a sense of closure now," said Kathy Duva, president of Main Events, Gatti's promoter. "I think Arturo needed to know with absolute certainty that it was time to stop and he knows it now. He wishes it could go on forever, but it can't. This is the end of his career."

A few observations from my initial Gulf Coast road trip.

First, the traffic around Mobile - while heading west around 2 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, reminded me way too much of my days in Philadelphia. Second, the Internet connection at my hotel, about 10 miles door-to-door from the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi, left more than a bit to be desired.

And third, no matter how you regard his style and career accomplishments, Pensacola native and regional icon Roy Jones Jr. is a decent guy.

Now 38 and a former champion in four weight classes, Jones was impressive enough in spots last Saturday night to capture a narrow but fair 12-round verdict against unbeaten super middleweight prospect Anthony Hanshaw.

But he saved his best work for after the fight.

A touch lumpy and complaining of sore hands as he approached the dais, Jones shook off those and any other ailments and went about his role as lead preacher in promoter Murad Muhammad's post-fight press conference/tent revival.

"The people here were down and out and needed someone to bring them back," he said, to a crowd that actually included 10 fans for every media member. "I was down and out and I needed someone to bring me back.

"So together, maybe we can help bring each other back."

The future Hall of Famer's effort was admirable. His impact was heroic.

In a city still visibly devastated by the effects of Hurricane Katrina nearly two years ago, Jones' return to Biloxi gave the near 9,000 fans on hand a glimpse at what life used to be, and what they hope it'll be some time again.

He'd not fought there since his own career storm - via consecutive losses to Antonio Tarver, Glencoffe Johnson and Tarver again over 17 months in 2004-05, but promised to return for bouts against a who's who of elite-level foes, including old friends Tarver and Johnson and new playmates Klitschko, Taylor and Trinidad.

And no matter the site, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola or even New Orleans, the throaty and hopeful support will be there, and it'll be well-deserved.

"They always tell me that I've got to pass the torch when it's time," he said. "But my time ain't come yet. If somebody calls me tomorrow, I'll tell them I'll be ready in three or four weeks. I don't care who it is."

Ex-WBC cruiserweight champ Wayne Braithwaite crosses the pond to highlight the weekend's "other" high-end fight card, meeting current WBO titlist and hometown hero Enzo Maccarinelli in a 12-rounder at International Arena in Wales.

Braithwaite was a three-defense kingpin before dropping a decision to Jean-Marc Mormeck in a WBC/WBA unification match in April 2005. He was TKO'd by Guillermo Jones in a subsequent bout five months later, then took more than a year off before a comeback stoppage of Gustavo Enriquez in February.

Maccarinelli, who's won 23 straight since his lone career loss, took the WBO crown from Marcelo Fabian Dominguez with a ninth-round TKO in July 2006. He's defended it twice since, scoring consecutive first-round knockouts over Mark Hobson and Bobby Gunn in October 2006 and April 2007, respectively.

Sharing the bill in Cardiff will be European super featherweight champion Alex Arthur, who'll face Koba Gogoladze in a bout for the WBO's vacant 130-pound title. Also, unbeaten Welsh 140-pounder Gavin Rees tries for the WBA's light welterweight crown against second-defense incumbent Souleymane M'baye.

Meanwhile, supporting the Hopkins-Wright main event in Las Vegas will be a pair of title fights featuring veteran undercard heroes.

Mexican tough guy Oscar Larios faces unbeaten Venezuelan Jorge Linares in a 12-rounder for the WBC's featherweight title, while power-punching Australian export Michael Katsidis, a KO winner 20 times in his 22 fights, meets Filipino stylist Czar Amonsot for the WBO's lightweight laurels.

Jabs, hooks or knockouts, Lyle Fitzsimmons can be reached at fitzbitz@msn.com.


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