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Hopkins ends close fight in ninth round

9/24/2004

LAS VEGAS -- Oscar De La Hoya thought he could trade punches
with a bigger and stronger fighter. Bernard Hopkins made him pay
for his mistake with a body shot that left De La Hoya pounding
his gloves on the canvas in bitter frustration at a career
opportunity lost.

Hopkins stopped De La Hoya with a perfectly placed
punch in the ninth round Saturday night to retain his undisputed
middleweight titles in perhaps the richest non-heavyweight fight.

The fight ended at 1:38 of the ninth with De La Hoya writhing in
pain on the canvas, his goal of beating the fearsome middleweight
champion crushed with shocking suddenness.

"I tried to do the impossible on paper -- beat the middleweight
champ coming up from 130 pounds," De La Hoya said.

It was the first time De La Hoya had been knocked out in his career,
and it came in a fight where he was competitive up until the two
left hooks landed just below his rib cage near his corner.

While Hopkins celebrated, De La Hoya remained on his knees, his
face buried in his gloves. He repeatedly pounded the canvas in
frustration, his unlikely dream ending early.

"I felt a sense of urgency," Hopkins said. "I wasn't sure if
I was winning or not."

De La Hoya made at least $30 million for the fight, but his
place in boxing history also was on the line. He said the fight
would define his brilliant career, and it just might have.

De La Hoya lost for the second time in three fights, and at the
age of 31 found out he couldn't slug with middleweights after
starting his career 12 years ago at 130 pounds and winning titles
in five other weight classes.

Hopkins (45-2-1, 32 knockouts) was ahead on two scorecards and
behind on a third in a cautiously fought bout when he suddenly
landed the punches just below De La Hoya's rib cage to retain his
title in his 19th defense.

"A well-placed body shot," De La Hoya said.

De La Hoya (37-4) was a 2-1 underdog in only his second fight as
a middleweight and was taking on a champion who hadn't lost in 11
years.

Hopkins fought cautiously the first half of the fight, giving
both De La Hoya and the sold-out crowd at the MGM Grand arena some
cause for optimism. De La Hoya, who many thought would box and
move, was the aggressor in many of the early exchanges as he moved
forward against Hopkins.

"He came to fight," Hopkins said. "He didn't come to run or
look for a gift from the judges."

The pro-De La Hoya crowd cheered their fighter from the opening
bell, screaming every time he landed a punch. Hopkins fought
patiently, but as the rounds went on, his corner told him to pick
up the pace and pressure De La Hoya more.

Still, De La Hoya was holding his own until the fight came to a
stunning climax that quieted the shocked crowd as De La Hoya stayed
on the canvas.

"He caught me right on the button," De La Hoya said. "Believe
me, I tried getting up but I couldn't. I have what it takes, but he
hit me right on the button."

The fight had been promoted as a replay of Sugar Ray Leonard's
upset of Marvelous Marvin Hagler 17 years ago, but this time the
bigger and stronger fighter prevailed.

De La Hoya was quicker inside and landed almost as many punches
as Hopkins. But though ringside stats credited him with 82 punches
to 99 for Hopkins, he never landed any punches that seemed to
bother the champion.

Still, there was hope both in the crowd and in De La Hoya's
corner.

"You can see he's an old man," trainer Floyd Mayweather Jr.
told De La Hoya after the third round. "He's an old man."

At 39, Hopkins was old by boxing standards. But he fought with
the energy and reflexes of a fighter a decade younger while waiting
for his chance to open up against De La Hoya.

"When I saw I could stay in front of him, our game plan
changed," De La Hoya said. "It was working until he threw that
good body shot."

Hopkins was ahead 79-73 on one card and 78-74 on a second, while
the third judge had De La Hoya ahead 77-75. The Associated Press
had Hopkins leading 77-75. ESPN.com's Tim Graham also had Hopkins leading 77-75.

De La Hoya, who weighed 155 pounds to 156 for Hopkins, had
fought only once as a middleweight, but his opponent this time was
a big upgrade from little-known Felix Sturm. Hopkins hadn't lost
since Roy Jones Jr. beat him 11 years ago, and was primed for the
payday of his lifetime.

De La Hoya fought despite needing 11 stitches to repair a cut on
his left hand suffered three days before the fight. In his dressing
room just before the fight, he said the cut on the fleshy part of
his hand just beneath the ring finger was slightly swollen and
asked that he be allowed not to have the usual tape on it.

But he said the hand didn't bother him, only the punches from a
bigger and stronger fighter who wasn't going to be denied.

"It was a great shot, a great left hook," De La Hoya said.

Although De La Hoya made at least $30
million, the cost to his career might be greater. He was
knocked out for the first time since turning pro after winning an
Olympic gold medal in 1992.

Hopkins, who made only $300,000 in a fight just nine months ago,
got a minimum of $10 million, the biggest payday of his career, for
fighting De La Hoya. He came into the ring to a recording of Frank
Sinatra's "My Way," fitting for a boxer who stubbornly set his
own course, even when it cost him millions.

After stopping De La Hoya, Hopkins climbed on the ropes to
celebrate his biggest win.

"It was Hopkins sauce with chopped liver," he said.