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Tuesday June 13, 2006 3:21 AM PST

 

Great Beginning, Better Ending

By Bernard Fernandez

And when I die,

And when I’m dead and gone,

There’ll be one child born,

And the world to carry on, carry on …
_ “And When I Die,” Blood, Sweat and Tears

Boxing isn’t about life and death – well, not usually – but you couldn’t help but make certain analogies when considering the two pay-per-view fight cards that took place Saturday night.

For one fighter (Tommy Zbikowski), there was a glorious if bizarre beginning. For another (Bernard Hopkins), an even more glorious ending. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Thus has it always been, and probably always will be. The circle remains unbroken.

In Madison Square Garden, site of so many outstanding boxing events involving actual legends of the ring, debuting pro Zbikowski upstaged the main event after the rookie had basked in the glow of media coverage that suggested the paparazzi’s relentless pursuit of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Zbikowski, the Notre Dame safety who figured he’d give boxing a fling before the start of fall practice, became the sport’s hottest entity since Oscar De La Hoya began knocking men stiff and making teenaged girls faint. There are reigning world champions, veterans with 10 or 15 years of experience, who would sell their souls for a fraction of the attention that Tommy Z received for routing a flabby designated victim named Robert Bell only 46 seconds into their scheduled four-rounder.

However brief his boxing adventure, Zbikowski enviably has been cast in the role of crossover sensation. You have to wonder if lining up against Michigan even will give him such a rush.

“I love this kid,” Angelo Dundee, the 83-year-old Hall of Fame trainer of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, said of his latest protégé, who is said to have compiled a 75-15 amateur record. “He’s been a boxer since he came out of the crib.”

And a source of torrents of publicity since he accepted promoter Bob Arum’s invitation to slobberknock someone not wearing a helmet and shoulder pads instead of a receiver coming over the middle.

Although undefeated WBO junior welterweight Miguel Cotto and his unbeaten opponent, Brooklyn native Paulie Malignaggi, may have been responsible for attracting a majority of the 14,369 on-site spectators (Cotto retained his title on a unanimous decision), the rest of the nation was more enthralled with Zbikowski, a heavyweight in more ways than one.

Tommy Z was accompanied into the ring by Fighting Irish quarterback Brady Quinn and wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, who will spend the autumn commanding headlines of their own. Grammy-winning gospel singer BeBe Winans belted out the Notre Dame fight song in a manner no doubt not previously heard in South Bend. At ringside, two-time former heavyweight champion George Foreman did the commentary while noted sports artist LeRoy Neimann captured the surrealistic moment on his sketchpad.

At 5-11 and 214 pounds, Zbikowski appeared to know what to do and how to do it. He is undeniably a gifted athlete, blessed with quick hands, good mobility and a decent punch, although the level of resistance put up by Bell, 32, didn’t qualify as much of a goal-line stand. Bell, an Akron native, wore an Ohio State football jersey into the ring, but Buckeyes everywhere are disavowing any connection with someone whose quick dive to the canvas suggested a pugilistic Mark Spitz.

Don’t blame Zbikowski for pocketing a quick $25,000. NCAA rules allow an athlete in one sport to be a professional in another, so long as they do not endorse products. Such a wad of pocket money can buy a lot of take-out pizza until Zbikowski, whose first priority remains football, either makes it in the NFL or takes another run at boxing.

Nor should anyone fault Arum, who has elevated the novelty act to an art form. Remember, this is the man who put Butterbean and Playboy model Mia St. John on the undercards of several pay-per-view shots headlined by De La Hoya.

In 1999, following the “Golden Boy’s” victory over Ike Quartey, Arum explained his reasoning for giving prime slots to Butterbean and St. John.

“I learned long ago I could load up a card with good fighters that would bring me no additional business,” Arum explained. “That said, if my main event is a piece of crap, none of this would mean much. But the presence of Mia and Butterbean made a great event even more interesting.

“We’re not selling (St. John) as the world’s greatest female fighter. She’s an athletic, sexy-looking dame. We’re not deluding anybody here.”

And if Arum could draw fans in with a sexy dame, why not with someone associated with a sexy (Notre) Dame?

Make no mistake, Zbikowski got this gig not so much because he is semi-credible as a boxer, but because of his appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Notre Dame “subway alumni” who Arum hoped would be tempted to shell out the $39.95 PPV subscription fee to see one of their favorite school’s football heroes in action of another sort. If Tommy Z played for, say, Temple or New Mexico State, he still would be flying under the radar screen.

Which brings us to the 41-year-old Hopkins, a graduate of the University of Graterford’s school of hard knocks who spent much of his professional boxing career in dogged pursuit of the sort of paydays and recognition he believed his talent merited.

Just call “The Executioner” the anti-Zbikowski. Nothing ever came easy for Hopkins. Or, at least it didn’t until Saturday night in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, where the former middleweight champion from Philadelphia ran roughshod over light-heavyweight standout Antonio Tarver to win a ridiculously easy unanimous decision in what had been hyped as his farewell to boxing..

“When I came home in 1988 from the state correctional institution at Graterford, with nine years of parole, I looked the guard in his face and, at 22 years old, I said, `I’m not coming back,’” Hopkins said, reciting his history for anyone who hadn’t been paying attention to his painstaking rise through the ranks. “He laughed at me. And it was a laughable thing. Nine years to walk off? That’s impossible not to come back. That’s what the statistics say. But I had to look at that to be where I am today.”

The memory of his nearly five-year incarceration (for strong-arm robbery) is Hopkins’ unseen tattoo, and the reason why he is boxing’s enigma wrapped inside a riddle, a hard case who can infuriate promoters, insult opponents and alienate friends and associates.

Hopkins’ longtime trainer, Bouie Fisher, from whom he is now estranged, still is resentful of the way he and a fighter he sometimes referred to as his surrogate son came to a parting of the ways.

“I’ve been kicked around so much in my dealings with the guy, it really doesn’t matter anymore,” Fisher, 77, said in the days leading up to a fight he chose not to attend. “I just want to recuperate from Bernard Hopkins and let him go about his business. All the wrong deeds you do, you pay for. For all the mistakes Bernard has made and will continue to make, one day he’ll see that he wasn’t right about a lot of things.”

But if Hopkins has his detractors, there are those who are quick to point out that he is a role model for anyone from the wrong side of the tracks who dare to dream they can escape their circumstances. B-Hop is so disciplined as a fighter that he has gone 20 years without eating so much as a single doughnut. He is, by all accounts, a good husband and father who has held on to his money and guarded his legacy as if it were the gold in Fort Knox.

“I’m fighting for history,” Hopkins said after the bout with Tarver was announced. “I’m always fighting for history. Enjoy me now, because when I’m gone, you might never witness the likes of me again.”

After two close and disputed points losses to Jermain Taylor, which ended both his 10-year middleweight championship reign and division-record 20 successful defenses, Hopkins made the curious decision to close his career by moving up two weight classes and fighting Tarver, who, off the strength of his two victories over Roy Jones Jr., was widely considered to be the best 175-pounder on the planet.

“In my opinion, this fight will come down to who’s the better fighter with the better plan,” Hopkins said. “I believe in my heart I am that guy.”

To help him gain muscle mass properly, Hopkins hired noted New Orleans-based conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone. To help him prep for the lefthanded Shilstone, he brought in a friend and former opponent, John David Jackson, who won two world titles as a southpaw.

So confident was Hopkins that he instructed his seconds – lead trainer Brother Naazim Richardson, as well as Jackson and Shilstone – not to celebrate after he took care of business.

“My corner and I are not going to jump up and rejoice like something dramatic happened,” Hopkins said. “We expect to win.”

As it turned out, Hopkins won nearly as easily as he said he would. He won nearly as easily as Zbikowski did against Bell, except that the battered Tarver was not allowed to exit as early.

“I’m done,” said Hopkins, who had insisted the Tarver bout would be his last regardless of the outcome. “I don’t need to risk anything else. What am I gonna do, go to cruiser? Heavyweight? There’s nothing else to do.”

Hopkins leaves as the finest 40-plus practitioner of the pugilistic arts since Archie Moore regularly outpointed Father Time.

“What I did tonight, it’s something you cannot downplay,” Hopkins said. “I think I removed any doubt that anyone could possibly muster up that I don’t deserve to be a Hall of Famer.”


Bernard Fernandez can be reached at bfernandez@15rounds.com
 
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