LAS VEGAS -- Bernard Hopkins felt great for a fighter about to turn 41. Jermain Taylor felt even better because he left the ring with the middleweight title belts around his waist.
Taylor won the rematch Saturday night much the same way he won the first bout between the two fighters, landing just enough clear punches on the outside to pull out another narrow win against a fighter who continued to fool Father Time.
Once again Hopkins was the better fighter in the late rounds, but once again it wasn't enough to make up an early deficit and it allowed Taylor to win a decision that was as contested as it was unanimous.
"I've still got a lot to learn but I did win it," Taylor said. "The man is a clever fighter. It's hard to hit him. You've got to pull all the tricks out just to hit him."
Taylor won the first fight in July by split decision, and the rematch was almost as close. The three ringside judges all favored Taylor by a 115-113 margin, while The Associated Press had Taylor winning 115-114.
"I didn't run, I countered, pummeled him and worked very hard," Hopkins said. "Every time he got tired in an exchange he was holding and biding time. I feel fresh as a daisy."
Like the first fight, Hopkins started slowly and tried to make up points as the rounds went on. He began pressuring Taylor in the later rounds and, when the fight ended, raised his hands in victory in belief that he had done enough to win.
The judges thought otherwise, giving Taylor (25-0) the decision and keeping him unbeaten in 25 fights in a pro career that began after he won the bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics.
"I got stronger as the fight went on. I think I did enough to win it," Hopkins said.
Taylor had vowed not to chase Hopkins (46-4-1) around the ring in the early rounds like he did in the first fight, when he ran out of gas late and barely held on for the win. He kept to his word, much to the displeasure of the crowd at the Mandalay Bay hotel-casino that booed the lack of action in the first few rounds.
Hopkins did even less in the early rounds, and it cost him the fight. One judge gave Taylor the first six rounds and the other two gave him five of the first six, putting Hopkins in a hole he could never recover from.
"I thought the kid fought the early rounds smarter because he didn't waste as much energy," Taylor's promoter, Lou DiBella, said.
The fight didn't begin to heat up until the fourth round, and even then there was more clinching and posing than actual fighting.
Hopkins had an excuse for starting slow -- he's a month away from turning 41 -- but as the rounds went on his corner began urging him to get closer to Taylor and turn the fight into a brawl.
"Step up in the pocket and fire like a quarterback, baby, and fire," trainer Nazim Richardson said after the seventh round.
When Hopkins did get inside he fought better, but neither fighter managed to land any combinations of consequence. Neither ever seemed hurt at any time in the fight, and neither was ever in any danger of going down.
Ringside punching stats showed the fight to be as close as the judges saw it. Taylor was credited with landing 124 of 391 punches, while Hopkins landed 130 of 371.
"Even Ray Robinson won fights he didn't get," Hopkins said.
Taylor upset Hopkins on July 16, winning a split decision so close that if would have been a draw if judge Duane Ford had agreed with the other two judges and almost everyone at ringside that Hopkins won the final round.
The fight got personal in the days before the two actually climbed into the ring. Hopkins mocked Taylor's speech impediment and called him a phony champion, while Taylor brought a doll with Hopkins' name on it to the final prefight press conference to say he was a crybaby.
Hopkins even resurrected his "Executioner" persona for the fight, coming into the ring wearing a leather hood that he didn't take off until after the prefight introductions in the center of the ring.
Taylor's win in the first fight ended a remarkable streak of 20 straight title defenses for Hopkins, who hadn't lost since 1993. But it also set up a rematch that paid both fighters several million dollars and gave Hopkins one more big fight just a month before he turns 41.
In another fight, Israel Vasquez added the WBC super batamweight title to the IBF crown he already held by stopping Oscar Larios on cuts in the third round of their scheduled 12-round fight.
Vazquez knocked Larios down in the first round and was controlling the fight when he hit Larios with a right hand in the third round that opened a deep cut over his left eye. Larios was bleeding heavily when referee Tony Weeks, acting on the advice of the ringside physician, stopped the fight at 2:52 of the third round.
It was the third fight between the two champions, who split a pair of earlier bouts. Vazquez knocked out Larios in the first round in 1997 and then was stopped by Larios in the 12th round three years ago.
Vazquez improved to 39-3, while Larios fell to 56-4-1.