By Tim Dahlberg ~ The Associated Press
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 two body shots 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 pair of perfectly placed punches 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 stopped 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 was also 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 on 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.
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.
The fight was eagerly anticipated and expected to be the richest non-heavyweight fight in history. De La Hoya made at least $30 million, but 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.