You know a fighter is special when everyone in a Southern California boxing gym stops to watch him train, especially if that gym is the Wild Card Boxing Club where at any given hour there might be two or three world titlists and eight or nine top-10 contenders working out under the same roof. Gym rats around these parts are so used to seeing World War III every time two young fighters hop into the ring to spar that they seldom bother to stop and watch a boxer shadow box or just hit mitts, but thats exactly what happens at Freddie Roachs gym every time Bernard Hopkins walks out into the crowded floor to go through his preparations for this Saturdays showdown with Winky Wright. I dropped by the Wild Card around noon this past Monday to observe the 42-year-old ring generals final day in the crowded Hollywood gym and found that I wasnt the only curious onlooker. Fellow boxing writers Steve Springer of the L.A. Times, David Avila of the Riverside Press-Enterprise (and thesweetscience.com), and Paul Hernandez who puts out the Punch boxing newspaper were there, as were three of the best people Ive met through boxing, super fans Dave Schwartz and JP Husky and trainer Don Familton. After warming up for half an hour in the private room, Hopkins entered the public part of the gym to do some light rope skipping just as an all-Filipino sparring round robin that included former 115-pound titlist Gerry Penalosa, 115-pound contender Z Gorres, 122-pound contender Rey Boom Boom Bautista, Philippines bantie champ Mike Bruce Lee Domingo and Czar Amonsot, the giant bleach blonde-haired lightweight who will battle Michael Katsidis on the Hopkins-Wright undercard, was coming to an end. Once Hopkins climbed into the ring, all eyes were on him. It was beyond observing, admitted Schwartz, a fight fan since the 50s. We were mesmerized. No one blinked once Bernard started shadowboxing. It was bordering on man-love; it was almost embarrassing. No need to be embarrassed. Hopkinss rags-to-riches story, ring accomplishments and old-school skills make him man-crush worthy for many diehard fans around the world. The former undisputed middleweight champ and current recognized light heavyweight champ looked to be around super middleweight size, a weight that appears to suit his body well. His reflexes are sharp, his legs still have plenty of spring in them and his muscles look fuller and healthier than they did for his final bouts at 160 pounds, when his 6-foot frame looked too lean, almost dried out. As I watched Hopkins jab and feint while gliding to one side of the ring and then back, I thought about gym stories from long-timers like Schwartz and Familton, two guys who have been following the Sweet Science since before my dad was born. Whenever they brought up watching some of the all-time greats train at long-gone boxing clubs like the old Main Street Gym at 318 S. Main St. they never talked about heated sparring sessions. They marveled at Alexis Arguellos surgical precision in working the speed bag, or the ferocity of Roberto Duran skipping rope, or the seamless fluidity of Ismael Laguna shadow boxing. I think it was Familton, now 77 years young, who told me about watching Laguna at the Main Street Gym. That was about as good as it gets, he said. I wish I could have been there (or someone could have filmed Laguna for prosperity), but I consider myself lucky to able to watch Hopkins work his craft, even at his advanced age. I know Im watching something special when Schwartz and Familton seem to be in awe. Familtons father, who saw Benny Leonard fight, was an avid boxing fan and took his son to the fights as soon as he was old enough to know what he was looking at. Familton, who saw Sugar Ray Robinson fight, used to hang out at the Foxhole Gym in Cleveland, Ohio where former light heavyweight/heavyweight contender Jimmy Bivins and former middleweight contender Chuck Hunter used to train. Familton moved to Los Angeles in 1948, and over the next three decades as a fan and a professional trainer got to witness some of the best boxers of our time train at various Southern California gyms like the Teamsters Gym (ran by Louie Jauregui; where Armando Muniz trained) at Seventh and Town, the Southwest Gym on Vermont, Ralph Gambinos in Southgate, Kenny LaSalles Gym on Main Street and Ocean Park, and of course THE Main Street Gym. Schwartz and Familton watched awesome lightweights like Laguna, Enrique Bolanos and the great Ike Williams train at the Main Street. Davey Moore, Harold Johnson, and Joe Fraizer trained there when they were in town, Familton said. I saw Hurricane Carter train there. Joe Louis and I once watched Buster Mathis Sr. and his coach Joey Fariello, a really top trainer, train there. That was a thrill. I got the feeling that Familton and Schwartz got the same thrill watching Hopkins this past Monday afternoon. Its all basic fundamentals with Bernard, he said. Chin tucked, hands up, elbows in, knees slightly bent, weight distributed properly, stepping on every punch, his head stays inline in-between the legs theres no leaning forward or back when he punches or moves about its just the basics. And Hopkins does it so well. What a pleasure it is to see a fighter with fundamentals this sound, said Familton. Theres no secrets in what hes doing. Youd think youd see more of this, but you dont. I come into gyms all the time and see a thousand guys working out who dont do this. Its simple, but it isnt. The basics seem easy to learn, but they arent so easy to teach and instill in a fighter. Even boxers who are able to pick everything up in the gym and apply it in the ring (where it counts) often lose bits and pieces of their technique as time goes on. During the final portions of their amateur careers and the early parts of the pro careers Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley and Fernando Vargas were nearly complete fighters in the ring, exhibiting textbook technique and classic boxing form. However, as their careers progressed, all three Southern Cali. kings of the ring seemed to lose the form that made them special prior to their championship runs. Hopkins, a late bloomer in the ring, was a work in progress for much of the 90s. His original trainer Bouie Fisher was an old-school teacher and Hopkins was a good student. While under Fishers guidance the ex-con evolved from being the Executioner, a tight stalker with a big right hand, to a relaxed tactical boxer who simply executes near-perfect technique. Hopkins had the intelligence to pick up most of Fishers teachings and the discipline to hold on to it late in his career. Hopkins may have lost some of the speed and power he possessed in his late 20s and early 30s, but he hasnt forgotten any of the basic principles he learned during 16 years and 50 pro bouts under Fishers watchful eye. Watch this now, watch! Coach Familton ordered as I drifted off in thought while scribbling in my notebook. Hes stepping on every punch. I dont look at his upper body, I look at the feet. He steps with every punch, steps in, and then right back out. In and out; in and out. I love it! Then he hooks off the jab. Another thing you dont see done properly anymore. Look how tight his hook is. Everything is close to his body as he delivers it. His arms arent way out to his side. Are you watching this, Doug? Look at that, a triple jab! And he steps with each jab. Beautiful! Oh my God! A feint and hook! Watch this stuff, man, stop writing! Just watch and learn. Watch and learn.