It was early. The fight crowd was still milling into the arena. William Joppy, the former middleweight champion of the world, was standing near ringside at The Theater at Madison Square Garden when he was recognized by a fan.

“Hey good luck tonight champ,” said the fan.

“I already fought,” said Joppy

It has been a longtime since Joppy was delegated to swing-bout status. But here he was buried on the undercard of the Zab Judah-Carlos Baldomir welterweight title fight in New York City last Saturday. In case you missed it (and most people did), he dropped Eric Howard in the fourth round and then stopped him at 2:12 of the fifth round in a bout scheduled for eight. His record stands at 36-4-1. Howard is now 11-9-1.

“I felt good,” said Joppy. “It was good to get back in the ring. It was good to be around the fight crowd. Here in New York, this was my first win here. I lost here to Trinidad and Julio Cesar Green. So I was glad to do that.”

Joppy, 35, has been fighting pro since 1993. More than half his career has been spent at the championship level. He won the WBA middleweight title on June 24, 1996 when he traveled to Japan and knocked Shinji Takehara, the champion, in the seventh round. From that point on, he was a mainstay in the middleweight division, winning and losing the title two more times.

In his last major bout, Joppy dropped a unanimous decision to Jermain Taylor. Two fights later Taylor would become middleweight champion by upsetting Bernard Hopkins. Oh yeah, Joppy fought him too. A year earlier, Hopkins dominated Joppy over 12 rounds and won an easy decision. After the fight, Joppy’s face was a swollen mask of pain. Hopkins quipped, “I beat him so bad that not even Don King will be able to resurrect him.”

Hopkins was wrong on that one, because here was fighting for King.

“A lot of people think that I'm finished,” he said. “But I can't let that play on my mind. An old-timer told me, the difference between fighters of today and fighters of yesterday is that the fighters of today, they lose and they think it's time to retire. The fighters of yesterday, the Jersey Joe Walcotts and the Sugar Ray Robinsons, they didn't quit after a loss. They came back stronger. Hearing that, that motivated me to fight again.”

There is little else for Joppy to prove in this sport. He has been champion and he has tested the best. He is financially secure. He is fighting because of that competitive desire that never seems to die inside many athletes. In the battle for the soul of the athlete, the lure of competition will forever win out over the realization that it’s time to move on.

“I thought long and hard about it and I think I can get right back to the top,” he said. “In boxing, if you don't use it, you lose it. I want to fight as often as possible. When I fought Bernard Hopkins, I was off for 14 months. When I fought Jermain Taylor, I was off for a year. You can't do that. I don't want to do that. I want to fight as often as possible and I'll be right back in the mix.”

Joppy is surrounded by a new team. He is working with trainers Al Scott and Leonard Langley and is being advised by J.D. Brown, the man once firmly entrenched in the Sugar Ray Leonard camp. He trains at the Temple Hill Keystone Boxing Gym, outside of Washington D.C.

The sad story in boxing is usually written as such. Ex-champion falls on hard times, returns to the ring to make money. When that is repeated to Joppy, he shakes his head.

“I'm not in it for a paycheck. I don’t need boxing.”

Joppy owns two homes, both of which are paid off. He also owns two dump trucks and hauls asphalt. He says he has a CDR permit (for Commercial Drivers) and is seeking a CDR license. Between the two dump trucks, he can pull in as much as $5,000 a week. That’s more than he made fighting Eric Howard.

But no one stands and applauds after you haul asphalt, so Joppy is back in the ring.

“I'd love to fight Jermain Taylor again,” he said. “But he just beat Bernard twice, so I just can't call him out right now. I need to make a statement first and get back into contention. But then I'd love to fight him.”

Take a peak at Joppy’s record and there are two names that stand out. Two legends from separate eras. Felix Trinidad and Roberto Duran.

On August 28, 1998, Joppy stopped Duran in the third round of WBA title defense. At the time, Duran was 47 years old.

“It was a sad victory because Duran was one of my idols,” said Joppy. “He's still one of my idols. I grew up watching Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns. All of them. Duran was slick. I learned so much by watching his films. But I had to block all of that out. His time was over and this was my time. I had to do what I had to do. And he hit me with a pretty hard right hand. He could still punch. I knew that if he had me hurt, he was going to do everything he could to finish me off. So I couldn't let that happen. That's how I had to approach it.”

While there is regret surrounding the Duran fight, there is resentment over the Trinidad bout. It was the first round of Don King’s middleweight tournament. Trinidad had moved up from junior middleweight and fought Joppy in the Garden’s main arena. Trinidad administered a thorough beating en route to a fifth-round TKO.

“When I get beat, I get beat,” said Joppy. “When you beat me legitimately, I give the other guy credit. But I believe Trinidad is a cheat. He’s made millions of dollars cheating.”

Joppy is referring to the way Trinidad tapes his hands. It was pointed out by the Hopkins camp before the Trinidad-Hopkins fight and the New York State Athletic Commission made Trinidad re-tape his hands. Although a member of the opposing team’s camp is allowed to watch the opponent tape their hands, no one from Joppy’s camp raised concerns prior to their meeting.

The allegations are that Trinidad’s hands were taped with no gauze between the skin and the tape and that too much tape was used. Prior to the Hopkins fight, Trinidad was made to re-tape his left hand.

“How can you go to the hall of fame as a cheater?” said Joppy “Look at his career since the Hopkins fight. It’s a different career. I was never hit that hard. I was there and then I was gone. It was like I was hit with brass knuckles. I’d love to fight Tito Trinidad again. His style can’t beat my style. I’d love to bring him out of retirement and fight fair and square. Trinidad can’t beat me.”

It’s unlikely that Trinidad will come out of retirement and Hopkins will soon head into retirement. The future of the middleweight division is being shaped by Taylor. It remains to be seen whether or not Joppy will be part of it. It seems though that he’ll keep fighting until that little voice inside his head tells him no more.

“You have to be the second hand on the clock,” he said. “You've got to keep moving because life isn't going to wait for you.”