LAS VEGAS (AP) – Bernard Hopkins reached the top because of his life as a bottom-feeder. It’s also why he’s stayed on top.

Hopkins spent nearly six years in jail in the 1980s. He was such a chronic lawbreaker that he was placed in one of Pennsylvania’s toughest prisons at age 17. He took up boxing in Grateford State penitentiary and was released in 1988.

In his first pro fight, he lost a four-round decision, not exactly the route to a championship belt. So he dropped the sport and went to work in the kitchen of a Philadelphia hotel.

As Hopkins, now a record-setting champion, looks back on those days, he doesn’t brood. He still uses those hard times as an inspiration.

“You never forget those lessons,” he said as he prepared for his 21st straight middleweight title defense, which comes tonight against Jermain Taylor. “I don’t play around, I don’t go to parties, I been through the ups and downs. I’m a safe guy to society.

“What drives Bernard Hopkins to be vicious and determined in trying to go into the ring and take apart his opponents mentally and physically at this age? At this age, 40? And not only been here, but continue to win and not been in a fight that was considered to be close?

“I was in one of the toughest penitentiaries in Pennsylvania, in with rapists and murderers and some very bad people. I remember.”

Hopkins hooked up with trainer Bouie Fisher when he decided to try boxing again in 1990. He is 46-1-1 since, with 32 knockouts, the only loss coming to Roy Jones Jr. in 1993. He plans two more fights after Taylor, who is 23-0 since winning the 2000 Olympic bronze medal.

Hopkins doesn’t view Taylor as much of an obstacle in continuing his title-defense string.Then again, Hopkins doesn’t really view any opponent as much of a challenge these days. He says he’s never been better in the ring or in the way he prepares for his fights.

“I’m not underestimating Jermain Taylor,” he said. “I just know what Bernard Hopkins is capable of and I don’t think Jermain Taylor can handle it.”

Fisher is only a bit more cautious, saying Hopkins “is ready, just like always, for a tough fight.” Fisher adds that Hopkins has a single-mindedness about “ending his career the right way, and that’s by winning until he stops fighting.” When that happens, Hopkins plans to promote fights. He’s already deeply involved with his nephew, Demetrius, a rising welterweight.

At Friday’s weigh-in, when both fighters scaled in at the division limit of 160 pounds, Hopkins and Taylor got into a face-to-face shouting match. That was nothing unusual for the motor-mouth Hopkins, but seeing Taylor abandon his cool demeanor was surprising.

“You’ve got nothing,” Taylor told Hopkins as both made wild, obscene threats to each other before their handlers separated them.

Considering the mistakes of his youth, Hopkins insists he won’t become one of those athletes who is lost after retirement. Indeed, he’s made millions from recent bouts after years of fighting for low paydays. That’s a long way from his history of armed robbery and jail.

“This is that edge I have,” he said. “You go back to those penitentiaries and you’ve got rapists and killers and they’re saying: “You did it. We didn’t believe it, but you did it.’

“To have that in my mind, and to have in mind what it’s like in prison as if it’s just like yesterday and it’s over 18 years ago – that’s my reason to not lose.”

AP-ES-07-15-05 1820EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.