PHILADELPHIA -- Mark Twain once observed that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated.
The same might be said of boxing in 2009, which is enjoying a notable rebirth after years of decline or, at the very least, stagnancy.
Ageless wonder Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins' first ring appearance in his hometown of Philadelphia in 6 1/2 years might not represent the high point of the sport's recent upswing, but his light-heavyweight bout in the Liacouras Center against Mexican tough guy Enrique Ornelas on Wednesday could be the first of a series of falling dominoes that would send the longtime former middleweight champion into retirement in a blaze of glory.
Hopkins (49-5-1, 32 KOs), who turns 45 on Jan. 15, has an ambitious three-bout exit strategy that calls for him to not only dispose of Ornelas (29-5-0, 19 KOs), but of fellow forty-something legend Roy Jones Jr. (54-5-0, 40 KOs) on March 13, and then to win the heavyweight championship sometime before the end of 2010.
The 6-1, 175-pound Hopkins, who ruled the middleweight division for 10 years and a division-record 20 defenses, almost certainly wouldn't try going all the way up to the land of WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko (38-2-0, 37 KOs) and WBO/IBF titlist Wladimir Klitschko (53-3, 47 KOs), the Ukrainian giants who go 6-7 1/2, 250 and 6-6 1/2, 240, respectively.
But newly crowned WBA heavyweight champ David "The Hayemaker" Haye (23-1-0, 21 KOs), of England, is a block of wood that might be more reasonably whittled down. Haye, who won his title on a majority decision over 7-foot, 316-pound Russian Nicolay Valuev on Nov. 7 in Nuremberg, Germany, is 6-3 and weighed 217 pounds for that fight.
A proposed matchup of Hopkins and Haye is feasible, and perhaps even likely, as both are promoted by Golden Boy Promotions.
"I will win (against Ornelas) and I will beat Roy Jones Jr., then I will become heavyweight champion in 2010," said Hopkins, who ranks with Archie Moore and George Foreman as the finest over-40 fighters ever.
The problem for Hopkins in his most recent Philly fight -- an eighth-round stoppage of Morrade Hakkar on March 29, 2003, at the Wachovia Spectrum -- was that the tickets were overpriced ($500 ringside) for this market and Hakkar was an undeserving No. 1 contender who fought scared. That should not be the case Wednesday, with tickets for the Versus-televised matchup more affordably priced (from $20 to $200) and Ornelas vowing to do all he can to become the first man ever to defeat B-Hop inside the distance.
"He's a tough, proud Mexican, and I say that with respect," Hopkins said of Ornelas. "Everybody knows what a true Mexican fighter brings to the table. They fight with pride, they fight with guts. It's in their DNA."
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But ticket sales for Hopkins-Ornelas could be adversely affected by what happened to Mexican-born, Chicago-based super bantamweight Francisco Rodriguez, who suffered a brain bleed in his Nov. 20 bout with North Philadelphia's Teon Kennedy at the Blue Horizon. Rodriguez fought valiantly, but he was stopped in 10 rounds in his bid to win the vacant USBA 122-pound championship. He collapsed shortly after the bout and, with no discernible brain activity, was unplugged from the machine that kept him breathing on Nov. 22.
There are always repercussions about the ever-present dangers of boxing whenever there is a ring-related death, and the passing of Rodriguez -- father of a five-month-old daughter -- is no different. He became the first fighter in 31 years to die as the result of injuries incurred in a bout in Philadelphia, and his death occurred only 10 days and a few blocks away from where Hopkins-Ornelas will take place.
Boxing's status as a mainstream sport took major hits in 1962, when Emile Griffith bludgeoned Benny "Kid" Paret past the point of no return, and in 1982, when Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini put Duk-Koo Kim down and out for a permanent count.
Rodriguez' death is not nearly so high-profile as those of Paret and Kim, but it does strike much closer to home in this city, and it raises familiar questions as to whether boxing still has a place in a civilized society.
It also comes amid a flurry of positive news for the beleaguered fight game, which has withstood past tragedies. In what can only be described as a very good year, the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Juan Manuel Marquez bout posted big pay-per-view numbers, Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto did even better and, recession or not, HBO officials are prepared to break the bank for Pacquiao-Mayweather in 2010.
"The money we are talking about is astronomical," said HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg. "This fight has to happen. This should be our Super Bowl. It will break records."
Just this past Saturday night, in Quebec City, Lucian Bute knocked out Librado Andrade before a raucous, sellout crowd of 16,473. Boxing also is hugely popular in Eastern Europe, and Andre Ward, the only American gold medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics, gave U.S. fans a reason to cheer on Nov. 21 when he upset Denmark's Mikkel Kessler in the Showtime-orchestrated "Super Six" super middleweight tournament. Ward, who claimed Kessler's WBA belt, is the first American to win in the opening round of the ambitious round-robin event.