LAS VEGAS – Sometimes controversy is as clear as things will ever get.

Jermain Taylor and Bernard Hopkins could fight all they want and it would probably always be close and disputed. That's not to say it would always be thrilling. Taylor successfully held on to his middleweight title, but if you listened to the people from ringside to rafter at Mandalay Bay arena whether he proved to be the better fighter tonight is still highly debatable.

All judges (Dave Moretti, Chuck Giampa, Patricia Morse Jarman) saw it at 115-113 for the defending champion.

The result was less clear to the rest of us. An informal exit poll showed equal support for each side. Maybe the question is whether or not Hopkins did enough to take the unified belts. The intangible edge said to favor a champ may have been the only margin of victory Taylor had. Such an edge is not actually supposed to exist on the scorecards.

The fact remains that as of now Taylor owns two victories over Hopkins where it counts, in the record book. How the narrow margin translates in terms of Taylor's public persona remains to be seen. Taylor will have plenty of chances to further prove himself.

“He didn't come out like he did in the first fight,” said an unmarked Taylor, “I was determined to win, but I've still got a lot of work to do. He kept catching me with that right hand.”

For Hopkins, time and how to spend it may be much more hazy.

'Everybody saw it,” said Hopkins, also unmarked. “I thought I won the majority of rounds. I'm proud of myself. I stayed there and countered. He was told to grab me any time he was hurt and that's what he did. I was getting stronger as the fight went on.”

The big question now is what Hopkins will elect to do once tonight's result and any subsequent fallout sinks in. Hopkins indicated it was time to think about his promise to his mom to retire by his 41st birthday in January. Right now that's a pick 'em over/under if there ever was one.

“My career has been tremendous,” said Hopkins accurately, “I don't have anything to be mad about. I've changed my whole life and become a role model. Nobody can box forever. I've got good friends and good business partners. It's time to pass the torch, whether it's next year in January or right now.”

There were signs before, during, and after the bout that Hopkins's star power was waning.

Hundreds of patrons showed up at the weigh-in and it sounded like they were all for the new champion. Hopkins garnered some polite applause, but as Taylor approached the scales there was loud encouragement and “Soo-eey Razorbacks” calls and response from across the bleachers.

It seemed like Hopkins, 160, was continuing a slow burn as he stared intently ahead, looking as if he refused to acknowledge that Taylor, 159, even existed.

Both men came in very strong. With pros like Hopkins and Taylor, there remained no pre-fight controversy besides which amazing athlete was superior. Bernard's arms and deltoid area looked like he had been throwing a lot of heavy leather in training, but Taylor looked just as strong.

The odds stayed close in the final days before the fight, with late cash rolling in on Taylor to make him a slight favorite by a few dimes. You could win an extra fiddy cent or so for every buck you put down on Hopkins.

It was a busy weekend with an even more eclectic swarm than usual in town for the fight. There was the National Finals Rodeo and Las Vegas Marathon, and many came in full respective regalias, which conjured strange images of characters running into some neon saloon for a gigantic brawl.

If it sounds like some zany cinematic creation, well, there was plenty of true Hollywood too, as clips for the 6th “Rocky” installment were filmed around the real fight events.

The fight may not have been a sellout, but it was close, with an announced crowd of 10,621.

Like the initial encounter last July, it was not a classic battle by any means. At first, there were as many clinches as punches. There were isolated chants of “JT” and “B-Hop” but they were no more sustained than the few fistic flurries.

They feinted, then feinted some more. In some sessions, just a handful of leather landed for either man. Once again, Taylor built an early lead and Hopkins came back. Down the stretch it was up for grabs.

Hopkins started to find the range with rights by the fifth round. Taylor was more composed than before, and used his stiff jab to keep a comfort zone he enjoyed. Hopkins got more aggressive in the middle frames, and when Taylor looked frustrated in round seven it seemed as if the tide had turned for Hopkins.

But Taylor has definitely learned since the first time. He kept throwing punches whether they were holding against the ropes or waltzing at mid-ring. That little difference of staying busy instead of giving ground may have been Taylor's margin of victory.

Even considering the elite skill level, it was still a chess match with few thumping consequences. A draw would not have been unjust.

“He's a great fighter for his age,” said Taylor without sarcasm. For Hopkins, it's an age that may have passed.

“I'd like to thank everybody that's supported me over the past 18 years,” said Hopkins,

“You've got champions and you've got People's Champions. As they look at my archives, I'll have that respect until the day I die. Tomorrow the world will be buzzing about this, then it will be 2006 and we'll see what happens.”

For Taylor, it may have been time to party like New Year's Eve. For Hopkins it may be Auld Lang Sine.

In the cold, predawn hours after the fight there were fireworks for the start of the marathon, set off in the dirt across the Strip from where the fight had been. An echo of thunder shook the gold Plexiglas towers at Mandalay Bay.

The sound could also be a brilliant, starter's gun symbol of the emerging future for Jermain Taylor. Or it could be a signal of the blasts that have passed, in his own long run, for Bernard Hopkins.