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OLIVER HOLT: Bernard Hopkins was a criminal and a thug ..but his life was saved by boxing.

Byline: OLIVER HOLT

I HAVE seen Bernard 'The Executioner' Hopkins fight once before. It was at Madison Square Garden in New York, a couple of weeks after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

With the heroes of the fire and police departments at ringside, Hopkins climbed through the ropes for his middleweight title unification fight against Felix Trinidad wearing a red leather executioner's mask.

Some said it was insensitive, so close to what had happened, but Hopkins, a boxer who had spent five years of his youth in jail and several times came close to losing his life in Philadelphia knife fights, did it anyway.

Few expected him to win but he stopped Trinidad in the 12th round. Afterwards, he gave one of the most memorable press conferences I have ever heard.

Time and again, he repeated the same phrase. "I am a man," he kept saying, overwhelmed by the completion of the transformation of his life, "I am a man."

More than three years later, he is still the undisputed middleweight champion. He has not lost a fight for 12 years.

And on Saturday he will make a landmark 20th defence of the title against England's Howard Eastman here in Los Angeles. Many say Hopkins, even at 40, has become the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and the promoters are calling their show Execution Day.

But there's a story behind this fight more powerful than a trite label like that. This is a story about how boxing can give two men their lives back, not just take them away.

Eastman, the Battersea Bomber, spent some of his own youth sleeping rough on the mean streets of south London after his father moved the family in from Guyana and then kicked Howard out.

He rode the Northern Line on the London Underground, sleeping there when he could. And eventually, he found his salvation.

Boxing rescued him like it has rescued so many others. It gave his life discipline and form. Now he is close to his dream of being comfortable enough to buy his mother a house.

Hopkins sings a haunting redemption song, too. "I was ignorant when I was a kid," he says. "I was a thug. You have two kinds of people, lambs and wolves. And I was a wolf.

"Mostly I took things by intimidation. I'd see someone with a chain I liked and I'd say 'nice chain, can I see it? I said I want to see the chain... let me see the chain... give me the f***ing chain now'.

"I had the reputation. Sometimes, I'd just look at a guy and he'd take his chain off without my even asking. I thought respect was having chains and nice clothes and money to spend."

When he was 14, Hopkins spent a month in hospital after he was stabbed with an ice pick during a game of craps. He was in court 30 times in two years.

"I put myself in a lot of positions to be six feet under," he says. "I didn't respect life. I had to be sent to the penitentiary to be saved from the graveyard."

When he was 17, he was sent to a Pennsylvania penitentiary for multiple offences. He served 56 months. While he was inside, his brother was shot dead in a street fight over a girl.

He took up boxing while he was in jail. "It was my best therapy," he says. When he was released, he lost his first pro' fight but the only other blemish on his record is a defeat to Roy Jones Jr.

He rose and rose until he won the world middleweight title five years after he was set free, in 1994.

He has been with his wife for 12 years. His only daughter, Latress, was born six years ago. "I held my daughter thirty seconds after she was born," he says, "and I made a promise to myself right then. I told myself 'this baby is going to have a father'.

"People ask me sometimes if I think I'm a role model - I am. The most important thing I can show other people is how a man should feel about his wife and children and his responsibilities to them."

It should be quite a contest in the early hours of Sunday. One man's arm will be raised at the end but Bernard Hopkins and Howard Eastman won their fights for life some time ago.

CAPTION(S):

RING MASTER: Hopkins rejected his life of crime; THE EXECUTIONER: Hopkins
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 16, 2005
Words:757
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