WASHINGTON -- Ask Philadelphia middleweight Bernard Hopkins a question about his past, and he gives you his life story -- a sordid history of crime, drugs and four years in a state penitentiary for armed robbery.
"The judge who sentenced me told me if he didn't lock me up, I'd be dead by 21," said Hopkins, then 17. "But I'm a guy who got a second chance, and that's why I'm not messing with my life anymore."
Hopkins, 28, has made the most of his second chance. Last night at RFK Stadium, he fought unbeaten Roy Jones, of Pensacola, Fla., for the vacant International Boxing Federation middleweight title on the under card of the Riddick Bowe-Jesse Ferguson heavyweight championship match.
"Roy Jones got a big jump-start on me in boxing," said Hopkins, a 5-1 underdog. "He got cheated out of a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics, got a lot of media hype and big-time promoters were camping on his doorstep when he decided to turn pro.
"Me? I started from the bottom of the barrel. People think I started fighting in jail. They don't remember I had over 100 amateur fights and won most of them before I got locked up. So I had to start from scratch and find someone who'd believe in me."
Hopkins found that person in Butch Lewis, a veteran fight manager and promoter who guided Michael Spinks to the heavyweight crown. After losing his first pro fight, Hopkins, who calls himself the "Executioner," has won 22 straight and claimed the U.S. Boxing Association title last February by out-pointing Gilbert Baptist.
"Now when I go back to my old neighborhood, people can't believe it's the same guy," he said. "They say, 'Hey, you were lucky.' They know my younger brother, Michael, got shot and killed. They know a lot of my friends killed themselves with drugs and in gang fights.
"When I was a teen-ager, I was the neighborhood bully and thief," said Hopkins, who grew up in a housing project, one of eight children of a single mother on welfare. "I'd take whatever I wanted. People would see me coming and lock their doors and windows and pray I wouldn't mess with them."
But four years in jail gave him a new perspective.
"I figured if I could fight to earn an extra day in the yard or a food allowance, I could use these same fists to take care of my mother," he said. "But the bottom line was I realized that if I didn't go straight, I'd be in one of two places -- back in jail or six feet under."
But don't call Bernard Hopkins lucky.
"Luck is when you lay down and hit the lottery for $25 million," he said. "I got a second chance and took advantage of it.
"That's why I'm so serious about boxing. Up running at 5 every morning, and in the gym every night. I'm in a position now to earn respect and big money, and buy my mother a nice house. How many guys get a second chance?"
Jones (21-0, 20 KOs) has been heralded as the most likely successor to retired Sugar Ray Leonard in both style and box-office magnetism. At 23, he is one of boxing's brightest prospects.
Hopkins is not impressed.
"Hey," he said, "Roy is already setting up an alibi for losing, telling everyone he's a natural 168-pounder. Well, if that's true, let him go fight [super-middleweight champion] James Toney. Don't come messing with me.
"He's more of a boxer, but he does a lot of showboating and a lot of yapping. But with me, he's going to have to fight or be chased out of the ring. The fans shouldn't leave their seats to buy popcorn. There could be a sudden explosion."
Hopkins often returns to jail to talk to prisoners and try to give them encouragement.
"So long as you still have some breath in you, and you see that sun come up in the morning," he said, "anything in life is possible."