Bernard Hopkins leading the charge for old men in combat sports

Bernard Hopkins, 44, may be boxing's most notable "senior," but he's not the only one. Combat sports in general are seeing athletes push on into their mid-40s as top competitors. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Bernard Hopkins will turn 45 on January 15. One day later, his old rival Roy Jones Jr. turns 41.

And if they have their way, the two of them will meet sometime in the months after, in a rematch that has been brewing for almost 17 years.

Both have obstacles to get past on December 2. Hopkins will look to shake off some rust against tough Mexican Enrique Ornelas in Philadelphia, Hopkins' hometown where he's never lost (10-0 career). Jones will be in Australia to take on minor cruiserweight titlist Danny Green. Should both win, the papers are already signed and drawn up. They'll meet again in 2010. They fought way back in 1993, with Jones winning a decision that Hopkins considers the only legitimate loss of his career.

They are probably the two best of boxing's 40-plus contingent, but it's a demographic that is changing, and changing the way we think about athletic primes. In other sports, a lot of these late-career surges have come from the use of performance-enhancing substances. Neither Hopkins nor Jones has ever failed a post-fight drug test. The same can't be said of 41-year old James Toney, who has done so twice, but Toney, too, continues on in search of glory.

Really, we're seeing what happens with the continued evolution of training, nutrition, and strength and conditioning coaches that have made age if not nothing more than a number, then at least closer to that old cliche becoming a genuine reality.

Evander Holyfield, 47, keeps looking for another heavyweight title fight. He does so foolishly, but the Holyfield types are becoming more the exception than the rule. Even Jones, once thought to be washed up after back-to-back knockout losses to Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson a few years back, has rebounded to spring back into legit contention at 175 pounds yet again. Fellow former heavyweight titleholder Oliver McCall, 44, continues to fight as well.

Current WBC cruiserweight titlist Giaccobe Fragomeni of Italy turned 40 in August. Light heavyweight has been chided as a Senior's Tour in boxing the last couple of years, but Glen Johnson (40) and Antonio Tarver (40) are still in the division's top ten for legitimate reasons. Tarver has given no indication that he plans to keep his career going following his second loss to Chad Dawson in May, so he might or might not be out of the conversation soon. Junior middleweight contender Verno Phillips turns 40 in just a couple of weeks.

It's a select few, and Hopkins is certainly one of a kind in boxing. He has never truly slowed down from his prime; he's not the same "Executioner" that made mincemeat of the middleweight division for 10 years, no, but he's a top pound-for-pound fighter even still.

Yet you can't help but wonder if this is going to keep becoming more and more the norm. Shane Mosley is 38 and as a welterweight, has shown no actual signs of getting slower, weaker or older. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is only 32, but has fought in such a way and is so much more than reflexes that if he wanted to, he seems like the kind of guy that could go on forever as a top boxer.

In MMA, some similar things have happened. Surely everyone has heard of Randy Couture by now, the 46-year-old UFC superstar whose career has been amazing to watch. Couture was pulling "Hopkins over Pavlik"-style beatdowns before before Bernard really knew who Pavlik was. Couture has slowed, yes, but still holds his own to say the least.

And Couture is rumored to be facing Mark Coleman at UFC 109 in February. Coleman turns 45 in December. Couture-Coleman nearly happened 11 years old, but was scrapped when Couture was injured. In some ways, Couture-Coleman and Jones-Hopkins II could mirror one another. They're both fights past their due dates, but with some intrigue in both cases, and there will be a fair number of fans looking to turn back the clock with the fighters for both of those bouts.

Fighting is still a young man's game. Scan the top fighters, and generally we're talking about guys who are 26 to 32 years of age. But the dinosaurs are getting harder and harder to kill off, and no matter how many times the younger generation of fighters keeps saying they'll retire before 35, I keep wondering whose fights we'll still be talking about coming next week in 2020.

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