Sad and drawn-out farewells were conducted in other stadiums and arenas by such aging greats as Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, Johnny Unitas, Y. A. Tittle and Joe Namath. Like those who had cheered them for so long, legendary athletes desperately want to believe that there is still another season, another game, another fight, where they can revisit past glories and be young again.
Just last week, a near-sellout crowd in Boardwalk Hall was slapped with the harsh reality that Arturo Gatti, Atlantic City's boxing franchise, no longer had anything left in a fighting heart that had been bled dry of every remaining drop of physical ability. More than a few of Gatti's true believers were moved to tears by the sight of him lying on the canvas, beaten to a fare-thee-well by a younger, stronger opponent.
One of these days it could end like that for Hopkins, who appears to be far less prone to the ravages of the aging process than the average 42-year-old fighter, if there is such a thing. But, for now, that sound echoing in Hopkins' head is the anthem that Carlton and Saad Muhammad heard and were compelled to follow.
"My legacy is what it is, and it ain't over yet. On July 21, I'm bringing heat. You'll see," said Hopkins (47-4-1, 32 KOs), who takes on the formidable Winky Wright (51-3-1, 25 KOs) tomorrow night at Mandalay Bay in what could be another illustrious chapter in a Hall of Fame career - or the same sort of ugly ending that saw Carlton roughed up like he was some batting-practice pitcher, and Ali floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly.
Perfect endings are rare in sports, almost to the point of being an endangered species. Sandy Koufax won 27 games for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966, then walked away rather than risk permanent damage to his magnificent but arthritic left arm. Bill Russell won the last of his 11 NBA championships as the Boston Celtics' player-coach in 1969 and figured that was just the right note on which to finish. Jim Brown won the NFL rushing title with 1,544 yards in 1965, for the eighth time in nine seasons, and a few months later retired to make movies.
Boxing's equivalent was Rocky Marciano hanging up the gloves with a 49-0 record, making him the only heavyweight champion to retire undefeated. And for everyone who believes he left one fight too soon, that 50-0 makes for a nicer, more rounded number, perhaps Marciano instinctively knew that going to the well one more time would be one time too many.
When Hopkins moved up from middleweight, where he had been a world champion for 10 years with a division-record 20 defenses, to trounce favored light-heavyweight Antonio Tarver on June 10, 2006, he seemed poised to exit on the same high note as Koufax, Russell, Brown and Marciano. Not only had he said it would be his final bout, but he had vowed to his now-deceased mother, Shirley, that he would not continue to fight beyond his 41st birthday. OK, so he missed that deadline by a few months; he said his mom surely would understand and, had she been here, granted him a short extension.
But Hopkins, a notorious gym rat who trains nearly every day even when he doesn't have a fight scheduled, soon found himself restless. Isn't it as much a shame to leave too soon as it is to leave too late?
What Hopkins wanted more than anything was to move all the way up to heavyweight to challenge WBC champion Oleg Maskaev, but Maskaev's advisers didn't bite. A proposed rematch with Roy Jones Jr., who had outpointed Hopkins in 1993, fell through because the principals couldn't agree on a split of the financial pie. And an attractive bout with WBO super middleweight titlist Joe Calzaghe never got beyond the discussion stage because Hopkins was reluctant to travel to Europe and fight Calzaghe, a Welshman, on his home turf.
So Hopkins sought another "name" opponent against whom he could test himself once more, and found him in Wright, a 35-year-old southpaw whose bag of slick moves is reminiscent of a vintage Hopkins.
Tomorrow's bout, which will be televised by HBO Pay-Per-View, has a contract weight of 170 pounds and is for The Ring magazine's light-heavyweight title.
"He thinks he's better than me," Hopkins said. "I know I'm better than him. So we got to prove who's right."
Skeptics claim that Hopkins is hanging around because he wants another seven-figure payday, that his ego needs more stroking, that he refuses to accept the fact that the march of time waits for no one, not even legends.
Right, right and right.
But Hopkins also is motivated by a need to push the envelope. His years of being boxing's most overlooked and underappreciated star have left him with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Sequoia. So B-Hop makes a point of stressing his advancing years, just as another fortysomething world champion, heavyweight George Foreman, poked good-natured fun at himself by posing with trays full of cheeseburgers.
"You're going to get beat up by a 42-year-old man," Hopkins told Wright during the press tour to hype this pairing of proud old warriors. "I'm your grandfather. Nobody's going to understand how you let a 42-year-old man whip your [butt].
"Nobody wants to be known for getting his [butt] kicked by a senior citizen."
Sometimes, though, senior citizens get mugged and sports heroes are toppled from their pedestals.
Whether tomorrow night is that way for boxing's most loquacious and pugnacious elder statesman is something we just will have to find out for ourselves. *