Bernard Hopkins has been called the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He is boxing's first undisputed middleweight champion since "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler in 1987 and has won an unprecedented 18 consecutive title defenses. Yet, when Hopkins fights Oscar De La Hoya on Saturday night in Las Vegas, the popular "Golden Boy" can expect a purse in the neighborhood of $30 million while Hopkins's take will be approximately a third of that.

Hopkins, the IBF, WBA and WBC champion, isn't complaining. It will be the largest payday of his career by a wide margin (his previous biggest was the $2.85 million he earned by knocking out Felix Trinidad nearly three years ago in New York). The self-managed and self-promoted Hopkins fashions himself as a blue-collar, working-class champion, who says he has passed up marquee fights because he refused to be swindled by promoters and managers.

So while De La Hoya (37-3, 29 knockouts) nears the end of an illustrious career that has earned him an estimated $150 million, Hopkins (44-2-1, 31 KOs) doesn't seem ready to slow down. An ex-con who was deprived of opportunities to earn big money because promoters claimed he was problematic and had narrow appeal, the outspoken Hopkins appears to be enjoying newfound popularity as he nears his 40th birthday.

"I'm the hungriest fighter in the world right now," Hopkins said. "I have a lot to prove. That's my edge, along with a lot of other things. De La Hoya has done everything you can do in boxing. When fighters get into the sport there are two goals: One is to become champion and the second is to make money. . . . I haven't had the luxury, both good or bad, to sit back and say, 'Well, I'm going to quit because I've made $100 million.' I'm not anywhere near one-third of that."

That's not to say he hasn't come a long way. His professional career was delayed more than five years after a judge sentenced him to 56 months in Graterford Prison outside his native Philadelphia for committing strong-armed robbery. Hopkins estimates he appeared in front of a judge more than 30 times before he turned 17.

"I've come a long way from sitting in a 5-by-5 cell with no gold medal, with no big sponsor contract, with no big promoter that's coming out and trying to take me to another level," said Hopkins, clearly referring to De La Hoya's gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. "So this is my motivation."

Hopkins lost his pro debut when he was 22. He didn't return to the ring for 16 months, but eventually won 22 consecutive bouts -- 16 by knockout -- before finally getting a title shot against Roy Jones Jr. in 1993. It was his first and, according to Hopkins, only chance at earning big money. Jones narrowly out-pointed him in a close 12-round bout at RFK Stadium, the last time Hopkins would be beaten. After Jones moved up to a heavier weight class, Hopkins knocked out Segundo Mercado in a rematch to win the vacant IBF middleweight title in 1995.

Since then, Hopkins has won 18 consecutive bouts, knocking out 11 opponents, including a 24-second knockout of Guyana's Steve Frank in 1996, the fastest knockout ever in a middleweight title fight. But aside from his upset over the previously unbeaten Trinidad -- Hopkins, a 5-to-2 underdog, knocked out Trinidad with his powerful right hand in the 12th round -- Hopkins has had to be content defending his title against fighters known mainly to only hard-core boxing fans.

"The Trinidad fight was about getting over the hump," Hopkins said. "I gave up the pay-per-view money, probably millions of dollars, for the opportunity and didn't have too much leverage because I wasn't 'marketable' enough. So Bernard Hopkins bit the bullet."

Hopkins earned the reputation of being troublesome because he sued promoter Butch Lewis for breach of contract in 1997 after Lewis paid him only $250,000 of a $1 million purse for fighting Jones. Last month, a federal judge ordered Lewis's America Presents to pay Hopkins $1.79 million, plus attorneys' fees. Hopkins also had a falling out with former adviser and HBO Sports Vice President Lou DiBella, who successfully sued the fighter for libel, and he has been sued by promoter Dan Goossen and his longtime trainer Bouie Fisher, who claims he was shortchanged of more than $200,000.

Top Rank President Bob Arum, the main promoter of Saturday night's fight at MGM Grand Garden Arena, said Hopkins hasn't been difficult to work with in arranging the bout.

"For all the [expletive] I heard, it was one of the easiest and most pleasant negotiations I've had in boxing," Arum said. "I've dealt with guys who have been in prison and the one thing you can never do with those guys is try to con them. You've got to have full disclosure, and then lay it all out and tell them why you can only pay them so much."

Hopkins may have squandered his chance at becoming one of the most recognized and wealthy champions because he has only reluctantly worked with the sport's major players, mainly Arum and Don King.

He signed a three-year, six-bout contract with King, a deal that got him the Trinidad fight in the King-promoted Middleweight Championship Series, but opted not to renew the contract when it expired in January. When the deal lapsed, Hopkins said: "I'm a free man. I'm out on parole."

Hopkins hoped that, by working with King, he could land major pay-per-view fights such as a rematch with Jones or a move up in weight to fight James Toney. The deals never came off, however, and his first title defense after beating Trinidad was against Carl "the Squirrel" Daniels in front of a sparse crowd in Reading, Pa.

"This fight here [against De La Hoya] shuts my critics up by saying that Bernard Hopkins cannot deliver a big fight and will never get the big payday he deserves because he out-prices himself and is hard to deal with," Hopkins said. "This fight generates the money I truly deserve and the money I'm worth."

Bernard Hopkins, who says he appeared before a judge more than 30 times before he turned 17, still managed to punch his ticket for stardom.