When a middleweight beats a light heavyweight, especially a world champion, that’s something special.

Bernard Hopkins 12-round unanimous decision victory over light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver nailed his claim as one of the best middleweights and pound-for-pound boxers of all time. Now he can retire with a win.

Move over Sugar Ray Robinson, move over Harry Greb and move over Marvin Hagler, dust off a space for the Executioner after his dominating win over Tarver on Saturday in Atlantic City.

It was a Hall of Fame performance.

Hopkins, 41, whose hero is Robinson, proved his ability as a master boxer with a near flawless strategy that immediately was unveiled when the bell rang for the first round. Few believed the Philadelphia prizefighter capable of winning let alone making Tarver into his own Kewpie doll.

“It was a fantastic performance,” said Emanuel Steward, the famed boxing trainer who witnessed the fight ringside.

The piercing right hands of Hopkins ripped through Tarver’s gloved defense like a laser and often produced a look of surprise and confusion on the former champion. Never before had Tarver been manhandled by any light heavyweight, let alone a beefed up (or vegged up, Hopkins is vegetarian) middleweight.

“It just wasn’t my night,” Tarver (24-4, 18 KOs) said shaking his head. “I give all credit to Hopkins. He’s a great champion.”

After losing his middleweight title and the eventual rematch to Jermain Taylor last year, the hard-nosed Hopkins decided to step in the ring one more time, two weight divisions higher and chose Tarver after a fight with Roy Jones Jr. was nixed by HBO.

Against Jones, many favored Hopkins because of his ability to box and move. But against Tarver, he entered the ring a solid 3-1 underdog.

“I love being the underdog,” Hopkins (47-4-1, 32 KOs) said.

Before the fight Tarver, 37, had expressed contempt that a smaller man could even contemplate fighting him.

“Hopkins has made a serious mistake,” Tarver said eight weeks ago while in Los Angeles. “It could prove fatal to his health.”

But once the fight began it was obvious that Hopkins was much quicker and more experienced as he landed right leads, moved quickly side-to-side and counterattacked with abandon.

“I just used the moves of Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles and [Archie] the Mongoose Moore, to keep him spinning and rolling my shoulders and get out of there,” explained Hopkins.

Despite facing the taller and supposedly stronger Tarver, Hopkins felt all along he would win.

“I’m used to fighting southpaws,” said Hopkins who has fought left-handers Robert Allen and Carl Daniels, as well as John David Jackson, who worked as an assistant trainer in the Phillie fighter’s corner for this fight. “I’ve never had a problem with them.”

It was Tarver’s powerful left hand that made him the favorite. That left hand had knocked Roy Jones Jr. out cold in their second meeting and left a blistering impression on many.

“He’s got a pretty good punch,” Hopkins offered. “But people underestimate I take a good punch.”

Tarver’s left hand rarely made contact as Hopkins defense befuddled and proved impenetrable.

“He had a helluva game plan,” said Tarver, whose eyes swelled from the pounding. “I saw the openings and was just a step too late every time.”

Now Hopkins can fulfill his mother’s wish for him to retire. The two losses to Taylor last year soured his goal to retire then. But last weekend’s win put a winning and everlasting glow on his career.

He’s on top of the world ma.

“He’s a great champion. A legend,” said Tarver willingly. “All praise to him.”

Best middleweights of all time

1. Sugar Ray Robinson (173-19-6, 108 Kos) – His real name was Walker Smith Jr. but other than that, you only need to know he was one of the best to ever lace up a pair of boxing gloves. His colorful style and lightning hands influenced many fighters to follow including Muhammad Ali. He beat a long list of terrific fighters such as Jake LaMotta, Carmen Basilio, Rocky Graziano and Kid Gavilan to name a few between 1940 and 1965.

2. Harry Greb (263-21-15) – They called him the Human Windmill and those who fought him faced a nonstop punching machine. He was only 32 when he was killed in an automobile accident ending his career as one of the most feared middleweights of all time. A list of fighters he beat reads like a Who’s Who of boxing from 1913 to 1926.

3. Marvin Hagler (62-3-2, 52 Kos) – The southpaw from Brockton, Mass., fought and beat the best in an era filled with great middleweights. Marvelous Hagler’s most notable win came against fearsome Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns in a three-round affair in 1985 that remains a must-see for boxing fans.

4. Carlos Monzon (87-3-9, 59 Kos) – Anybody who saw Argentina’s Monzon fight during the 60s and 70s recall his long arms and awkward looking style. He never looked strained or concerned, but slowly he would figure out his opponents before drilling them senseless. His 14 straight world title defenses set a record for middleweights but has since been broken. He died in a car accident.

5. Mickey Walker (109-21-4, 58 Kos) – Known as the Toy Bulldog, Walker was a glamour boy of sports along with Babe Ruth and fought from welterweight to heavyweight. The native of Elizabeth, New Jersey was an aggressive but skillful fighter who oozed toughness. Some of those he fought were Soldier Bartfield, Mike McTigue, Jock Malone and Greb.

6. Bob Fitzsimmons (54-8-7, 47 Kos) – Most people know Fitzsimmons as the man who knocked out Gentleman Jim Corbett with the famous “solar plexus” punch in a heavyweight bout. Few remember he began as a middleweight capturing the world title in 1891 against Jack Dempsey in New Orleans. He never lost again as a middleweight spanning five years before moving up to heavier competition. He was 50 when he quit.

7. Stanley Ketchel (53-4-5, 49 Kos) – A murderous puncher, Ketchel was known as the Michigan Assassin. Despite a huge size difference, he challenged heavyweight great Jack Johnson and dropped him with a punch. That resulted in Johnson knocking him out within seconds, but his fame as a heavy-hitter was set. He was shot and killed at age 24.

8. Tiger Flowers (132-17-8, 54 Kos) – Anybody who beats Harry Greb not just once, but twice, deserves to be recognized as one of the best middleweights. Flowers, a native of Georgia, died in 1927 at the young age of 32 following surgery to his eye. He defeated Greb for the title in Madison Square Garden and later lost to Walker. He was never given a rematch.

9. Charley Burley (83-12-2, 50 Kos) – A slick boxer-puncher who never got a chance to fight for a world title. Burley fought fighters no one else would fight such as Ezzard Charles, Holman Williams and Archie Moore. In his fight with the Mongoose, he dropped the future Hall of Famer three times en route to a unanimous decision at the Hollywood Legion Stadium in 1944.

10. Mike McCallum (49-5-1, 36 Kos) – Though he fought at the latter end of an era where the middleweight division was filled with stars, few allowed the Jamaican-born puncher McCallum a shot. Known as “The Body Snatcher,” his best victories came against Milt McCrory, Donald Curry and Julian Jackson. He never got a chance against Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns or Marvin Hagler.

Israel Vazquez Retains Title

WBC junior featherweight titleholder Israel Vazquez needed three rounds to convince Ivan “Choko” Hernandez’s corner that maybe he had enough. At the beginning of the fourth round it was over.

Vazquez proved once again that he just could be one of the top prizefighters in the world. Even HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Emanuel Steward chimed in that Vazquez should crack the top 10 of the pound-for-pound list by boxing publications.

After unifying the IBF and WBC titles, Vazquez decided to dispense with the former belt in favor of the much coveted (by Mexicans) green belt of the WBC.

Managed by Frank Espinoza, the Mexico City native now lives in West Covina and has been under the tutelage of Freddie Roach for several years now. Ironically, a stablemate of Vazquez also deserves consideration as one of the best fighters in any weight division: Martin “Gallito” Castillo.

Fights on television

Wed. ESPN2, 6 p.m., Oscar Diaz (24-1) vs. Chris Smith (20-2-1)

Fri. ESPN2, 7 p.m., Anthony Peterson (17-0) vs. Adan Hernandez (14-4)

Sat. HBO, 6:30 p.m., Jermain Taylor (25-0) vs. Winky Wright (50-3).