Tarver (24-4) seemed barely there, either unwilling or unable to penetrate Hopkins' defense. Toward the end of Round 10, Tarver missed with a wide swing and his chest fell onto the ropes. Hopkins walked away slowly, smiling, his hands out, as the crowd roared. In the final rounds, he peppered Tarver with unanswered flurries.
All three judges scored the fight 118-109 for Hopkins. The fighter from North Philadelphia won the battle of the punches, 133-78, according to HBO's unofficial statistics. Tarver landed fewer than 10 punches in 10 of the 12 rounds.
"I told people they were going to be surprised by this fight," Hopkins said in the ring afterward. "I told them it was going to be easy for me. I was in good shape and I know I'm good with southpaws."
Hopkins is 10-0 against lefthanders.
"I can take good punches," Hopkins continued. "Tarver is a good puncher, but I never gave him a good target. I used the old Mongoose [Archie Moore] tactic - roll with the punches. I just kept spinning."
Hopkins, who lost two fights and his middleweight titles to Jermain Taylor in 2005, has been promising for months that this fight would be his last. There is no rematch clause in the fighters' contracts, and Hopkins said he had so little interest in taking Tarver's International Boxing Organization title belt that he refused to pay the IBO its sanctioning fee (though the IBO says he can pay now and get the belt if he wants it).
Asked whether he would take $20 million to come back, the always frugal Hopkins said, "I might come out of my grave for that kind of money."
Tarver said he knew he was flat when he came out.
"Sometimes it's just not your day. I felt good all through [training] camp," said the 37-year-old from Tampa, Fla. "But for some reason I was flat. I saw the openings but was a step late getting there.
"I take my hat off to Bernard."
In recent weeks, Hopkins has talked about wanting to spend more time with his wife and 7-year-old daughter and transition fully into his job grooming young boxers with Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, where he has an executive position.
But few longtime champions have retired after big victories. It's like folding a good hand in poker, walking away from another potential win and a pile of money.
Hopkins' ring record makes him a certain inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and ranks him among the top middleweights of all time. After losing his pro debut, he won 22 consecutive bouts before dropping a decision to former Olympian Roy Jones in 1993. He didn't lose again for 12 years. He gained the unified middleweight title in 2001 with a dominating upset of Felix Trinidad. He knocked out De La Hoya in September 2004, and in 2005 he made his 20th consecutive successful world-title defense, a middleweight record.
Beyond the score sheet, Hopkins will go down as one of boxing's most belligerent and quotable personalities. He has never let anyone forget that he went to prison at age 17 for teenage muggings and robberies, came out at 23, "didn't spit on the street" during nine years of probation, kept winning fights, defied the industry's powers, and made millions. He has been a plaintiff or defendant in multiple lawsuits with boxing promoters, frequently shooting off his mouth about the injustices of the sport - and of his own early contracts in particular.
"Bernard has got a penitentiary mentality," promoter Don King said earlier this year. "He thinks that everybody is out to get him, so he gets everybody else first."
Tarver remains a shining talent whose occasional lapses in commitment and judgment have been the only things holding him back. Despite the loss, he will be famous even to non-boxing fans by the end of 2006. He will star with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, the sixth Rocky film, playing a heavyweight named Mason Dixon who agrees to fight the aged Rocky in a harmless charity bout, until things get personal, and Tarver must fight for respect.
If there were to be a rematch of Hopkins-Tarver, Tarver could be fighting for respect in real life, too.
Contact staff writer Don Steinberg at 215-854-4981 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
See a photo gallery of last night's fight at www.philly.com.