NORTH PHILADELPHIA and western Virginia might be more than 300 miles apart, but, apparently, distance is no factor in matters of character. "We've got the same DNA!" exclaimed Bernard Hopkins, Germantown product, about spiritual brother Charlie Manuel, the pride of Buena Vista, Va. Hopkins, who, on Saturday, became the oldest boxer in history to win a significant title, continued, "We might have grown up on opposite sides of the tracks, but we're the same guy!" It might interest Hopkins that Manuel's big family lived on the wrong side of town, too. But that doesn't matter; not much. Hopkins' larger point is well-taken. He and Manuel succeeded later in life despite obstacles both real and imagined. They overcame hurdles both unfair and self-made. Hopkins' comments came in hyperbolic response to Manuel's soliloquy of admiration for Hopkins, an unprovoked show of devotion Manuel issued before last night's game against the Reds. Manuel saw Hopkins interviewed on TV, and he recalled his meeting with the champ. Manuel said Hopkins visited the team in 2005, invited himself into the manager's office, sat down and, as Hopkins is wont to do, offered his take on the world. Manuel was fascinated. Manuel said he would welcome a return visit from Hopkins, and he would love for Hopkins to address his team. "I will do it!" Hopkins trumpeted. "I will walk to him! "I will walk to him with no shoes on!" Coincidentally, that is how Manuel spent most of his youth. Manuel, his shoeless days far past, yesterday watched a rebroadcast of "Daily News Live" on Comcast SportsNet, during which Hopkins testified about the benefits of clean living, hard work and dedication. Hopkins, 46 going on 26, became the oldest fighter to win a major belt when he whipped 28-year-old light-heavyweight Jean Pascal Saturday night in Montreal. Manuel watched the fight. Of course he did. Manuel has been a huge Hopkins fan since Hopkins visited the clubhouse between fights with Jermaine Taylor (middleweight title losses, by the way). Manuel's details were fuzzy - he mistakenly recalled that Hopkins was between fights with Floyd Mayweather Jr., whom Hopkins never fought - but his memory concerning Hopkins' strength of will and dedication to diet and preparation was spot-on. "In baseball, that's what separates the average guy from the real good one," Manuel said. He pointed to Roy Halladay and Chase Utley as players who match Hopkins' focus. Manuel sees those guys every day. Hopkins' visit was an unexpected surge of inspiration. "He gave me a lift," Manuel said. He inspired Manuel again on "DNL." "Any professional sport, from a mental standpoint, if you know him, you can learn something from that [interview]," Manuel said. "That's what professionalism is all about. It's about being the best champion. The guy is 46 years old; what he can still do - I think that's about as good as it gets." Uncle Chuck and B-Hop: An unlikely couple, perhaps, but a good match, nonetheless. Manuel misspent his youth as an angry slugger starring in Japan when the major leagues would not have him.Hopkins went to prison at age 17 for robbery. During his 56-month incarceration, he witnessed murder and exited determined to succeed. Manuel did not know about Hopkins' criminal past. "I know this: I know he wants to be a champion," Manuel said. "I wish he could hit. I'd sign him." Manuel languished as a minor league manager and a hitting savant before he talked himself out of a dead-end manager's job with the Indians, a club bent on rebuilding after an exodus of stars. Hopkins needed years to build the skills and résumé to command top purses and the best fights. Manuel was promoted from Phillies adviser to manager on Nov. 4, 2004, a position then deemed nepotistic. The job seemed fated for failure in 2007, after the Phillies' trade-deadline purge. Then 63, Manuel likely would have seen his career as a skipper come to an end if he had been fired. But, that year, Manuel managed the Phillies to the National League East crown, as the Mets famously collapsed, then won the World Series in 2008. Hopkins was a Manuel fan long before the Champagne flowed for the Phils. He knew of Manuel's illnesses, of his brushes with death, of his persistence and his unending good nature. "I have mad respect for him," Hopkins said. "He's been through tough times, too. He has taken criticism like I have taken criticism." Both have borne it; sometimes, both have deserved it. Most recently, Hopkins made headlines by firing away again at Donovan McNabb, accusing McNabb of not being black enough, attributing McNabb's failures in his biggest moments to a protected, privileged childhood. McNabb's agent fired back with a stilted statement 2 days later, only reinflame passions. On the same episode of "DNL" on Tuesday, Hopkins acknowledged that a perceived snub by McNabb in 2004 was the root of Hopkins' enduring resentment. Hopkins, flying high after defeating Oscar De La Hoya, visited the Eagles' practice facility as the team's guest. Until Tuesday, Hopkins repeatedly denied being hurt by the snub. Manuel has endured similar snubs his entire career; indeed, his whole life. Hopkins frequently and passionately espouses his views, sometimes to his own detriment. That is what he did Tuesday on TV. Manuel also has been the target of critics for what he says and how he says it. There is real sympathy between them; sympathy, and, as Hopkins put it, mad respect. So, yes, Hopkins will return to the Bank. "I will," he said. "I will be honored." Yes, he will. Manuel will make sure of that.
Champs Manuel, Hopkins form mutual admiration society