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Fifty-seven seconds into the 12th round of his 2000 championship match with American junior middleweight Fernando Vargas, Puerto Rican Felix “Tito” Trinidad bounced to the canvas from his perch atop the second rope in a neutral corner. He strode at Vargas, tilted leftward for an instant and snapped another hook. It caught Vargas flush and dropped him for a fourth and penultimate time. Trinidad took two large strides, jumped on the turnbuckle once more, and thrust his right glove in the air. Vargas beat the count. Trinidad bounded off his perch again, sprinted across the mat and finished him.
If it is possible for a decent man to delight in the athletic feat of pummeling another to temporary unconsciousness, Trinidad delighted in it that evening. On June 9, when Trinidad is inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, it will be that sense of joy and the connection it engendered with his countrymen in Puerto Rico, an island where boxing has accounted for as many Olympic medals as all other sports combined, for which Trinidad is remembered most fondly.
“Thank you to the people for all the moments that you lived together with me, for all the moments you invited me to. Thank you for all the moments you went to look for me at the airport, for all the moments you came over and gave me your blessings,” Trinidad said at the December press conference in Puerto Rico announcing his selection.
“Sixto Escobar, Pedro Montanez, Jose ‘Chegui’ Torres, Carlos Ortiz, Wilfredo Gomez, Wilfredo Benitez, Chapo Rosario and referee Joe Cortez have been the other Puerto Ricans recognized by the International Boxing Hall of Fame,” editorialized the national daily El Nuevo Dia. “Trinidad is without doubt the most popular fighter in the history of Puerto Rico.”
“I haven’t seen, in my mind, a quote-unquote next Trinidad,” said Bobby Goodman, who, as vice president of boxing operations at Don King Productions, made Trinidad’s matches. “I haven’t seen any quite like him.”
“Tito was one of the most devastating, exciting fighters of his era,” said matchmaker Bruce Trampler. “He was a thrill to watch. It’s easy to see why he is an icon in Puerto Rico.”
The very thing Trinidad’s American supporters might’ve found lamentable – his indifference to learning English and the tight restrictions on his availability – helped make him immortal to fellow Latin Americans. It placed him squarely in a tradition of crossover stars who did not cross over so much as stand on their countries’ and cultures’ sides of the linguistic divide, saying, in their native Spanish, if America was interested in them, it could make a compromise of its own.
“He had no remorse for stating again and again that his allegiance was to Puerto Rico,” said Alan Hopper, who, as vice president of public relations at Don King Productions, handled Trinidad’s publicity for nine years. “And Puerto Rico only.”
“Trinidad is in a very select trinity,” said Seth Abraham, the president of HBO Sports when Trinidad came to the network. “A holy trinity.”
That trinity began with Panamanian Roberto Duran, continued to Mexican Julio Cesar Chavez and ended with Trinidad.
“It’s almost a crusade, it’s almost a form of idolatry,” said Abraham. “If I think of the great fighters that I saw at HBO and the Garden, I’m not saying they’re the best, but I’ve never seen a following as I saw with Chavez, Duran and Felix.”
The language and cultural barrier that framed Trinidad was one his father and trainer, Felix “Papa” Trinidad Sr., used as a convenient sequestration system during his son’s training camps. Complaints about access to Trinidad, ubiquitous for a time among members of the English-speaking press corps, were ever rare among members of the Puerto Rican press, an army of scribes who found their island’s hero preternaturally accessible.
“Americans want to adopt people as their own,” said Hopper. “There were those in the media that wanted more access, and Papa did not allow much access. He didn’t allow Americans the type of access the Puerto Rican press was allowed on the island.”
That accessibility found a multitude of metaphorical expressions, the most visible of such, often, being the straw hat Trinidad wore during his winding, celebratory and nearly interminable ringwalks. No image of Trinidad is more memorable to the pay-per-viewing public than what enormous grins he wore en route to violent confrontations with other men.
Afforded 24 or so hours to rehydrate and allow his body and humor to return to a natural state, Trinidad would emerge from a dressing room and promenade to ringside, nodding, singing, waving and flashing his gigantic smile. The joy of a fight, the particular thrill very few find in giving and receiving concussive blows, and the smile it formed on Trinidad’s face, secured Puerto Ricans’ adoration for him.
“Ray Leonard loved to fight. He had a wide, wide grin,” said Abraham. “But if you’re asking me just on the smile-meter, I would say that Felix is equal with Ray.”
“Felix was one of my favorite fighters, ever,” said Jesse James Leija, a former junior lightweight titlist who shared training camps and fight cards with Trinidad early in their careers. “Just the way he carried himself in the ring, the way he carried himself outside the ring. Always smiling.”
Trinidad was a manifestation of masculinity tempered by boyishness, a handsome man seemingly oblivious of his magnetism, one who wanted the sporting company of other men as they did manly and athletic things, while a sea of women unquietly desired him. Unlike his longtime rival Oscar De La Hoya, Trinidad was not marketed as a sex symbol but a national hero. He was promoted as a figure many times larger than the petty resentments of men, or desires of women: Men hadn’t a reason for jealousy because “Tito” was about being one of them, not looking round them at their girlfriends and sisters.
De La Hoya was many times a larger star in the United States while preparing for his eighth defense of the WBC welterweight title than Trinidad was in 1999, despite the Puerto Rican’s then-75-month reign as IBF champion. The rivalry culminated, as boxing things often do, in an anticlimactic if controversial spectacle at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay on Sept. 18, 1999. If, as the old saw has it, styles make fights, De La Hoya’s style and Trinidad’s made them not fight.
“I didn’t think it was a particularly strong matchup because of speed,” remembered Goodman. “De La Hoya had such speed.”
The fight, organized and promoted around Mexican Independence Day weekend, a nod to De La Hoya’s heritage, not Trinidad’s, saw Trinidad sacrifice his last-to-ringwalk right as the longer-reigning champion so he could choose what gloves the men wore. In the best foreshadowing their fight held, Trinidad chose puncher’s gloves made by the Mexican company Cleto Reyes, gloves noteworthy for wrapping a protective coat of horsehair, not foam, round the knuckles. It would be Trinidad who sought to hurt his opponent for all 36 minutes, in a title-unification match that saw De La Hoya concentrate disproportionately more on avoiding blows than landing them, particularly in a fabled pair of championship rounds during which De La Hoya made frantic circles away from Trinidad in an anxious race to the 12th-round finish line.
Trinidad’s inability to make regular contact with De La Hoya, particularly in their match’s opening six rounds, allowed De La Hoya to amass a lead in many observer’ minds that was mathematically insurmountable when Trinidad’s rally and De La Hoya’s pronounced fade finally began. Official scores favored Trinidad, though, by majority decision: 114-114, 115-113, 115-114.
“When I meet De La Hoya [in June], I will shake his hand and congratulate him,” Trinidad said at his December press conference. “He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.”
The victory over De La Hoya, one that kept Trinidad’s record unblemished, forced the winner into a prominent place in the American consciousness. He would remain there for the final nine matches of a career that continued to accelerate until a 2001 loss to middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins and then meandered through a 29-month retirement between 2002 and 2004, a knockout victory over Nicaraguan Ricardo Mayorga, a lopsided 2005 loss to American Winky Wright, a 32-month retirement and finally a decision loss to American Roy Jones Jr. in 2008.
Trinidad’s career ended in consecutive losses, as most prizefighters’ careers do, but it was not shameful. Fighting a fellow faded but all-time great in Jones, and fighting him at 170 pounds, 23 above the welterweight limit at which Trinidad spent most of his career, Trinidad acquitted himself honorably and entertainingly, causing Madison Square Garden to vibrate for a sixth and final time with chants of “Tito! Tito! Tito!”
“I remember he used to have his back foot up, and I liked that style,” said trainer and former three-division titlist Ann Wolfe. “He could box, he could bang, he could do anything.”
“The only time I ever saw an edge to Tito was after Fernando Vargas got into it with him at a press conference,” said Hopper. “He was shook up after we left the stage. Through a translator, Tito told me, ‘We have an old saying in Puerto Rico: ‘It’s one thing to call out the devil, but it’s quite another to see him coming.’
“Fernando Vargas could call him out all he wanted, but (Tito) was coming for him.”
The fight for which Trinidad is remembered most fondly, the match of his that stands above others for its competitiveness, brutality and decisiveness, is the one he made with Vargas at Mandalay Bay on Dec. 2, 2000, one that came 14½ months after Trinidad decisioned De La Hoya, featured six collective knockdowns, including Trinidad on the mat in Round 4, three collective point deductions for low blows, including two by the Puerto Rican, and ended with Vargas on the blue mat at 1:33 of the 12th. It was a match that presented Trinidad’s extraordinary offensive arsenal, occasional recklessness and passion for a spectacle in which two men stand and fight until one is unfit to go on.
“One of the greatest fights of all time between two, very talented, undefeated kids,” said Goodman. “[Tito] dug down deep … and so did Vargas. But in the end, Tito took Vargas apart.”
The fight changed both men, altering dramatically Vargas’ career trajectory. Six months later, Trinidad climbed weight classes again, this time to participate in promoter Don King’s middleweight tournament. Making his 160-pound debut in Madison Square Garden against William Joppy, a middleweight titlist enjoying his second reign as WBA champion, Trinidad scored a fifth-round stoppage, and his Puerto Rican fans made the venerable old cylinder tremble with delight.
“Trinidad at the Garden was like The Beatles at Shea Stadium,” said writer Thomas Hauser, recalling the mania that engulfed the first of his final three fights in New York City.
Four days before Trinidad’s Sept. 15, 2001, middleweight title-unification match with American Bernard Hopkins at Madison Square Garden, two passenger jets crashed into the Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan. The Trinidad-Hopkins fight was postponed two weeks. Hopkins returned immediately to his native Philadelphia. Trinidad remained in New York.
The night they fought, Hopkins neutralized Trinidad, using balance and timing to take the ferocity from Trinidad’s left hook, countering him repeatedly with short right crosses that struck flusher the later the fight went. One minute into the final round, Hopkins dropped Trinidad, and Felix Sr. climbed in the ring, strode across the canvas and removed his son’s white mouth guard and any possibility the match might continue.
“In seeing the way they would bring Tito to his peak during fight week, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been different if 9/11 didn’t postpone the fight,” said Hopper. “Tito has a very big heart, and he stayed in New York. Don took him down to the food lines, to feed the workers, and I believe that he was tremendously affected by what he saw.
“I’m not taking anything away from Bernard, because that was the performance of his career. But I really wonder.”
“Tito had a great natural instinct,” said Goodman. “As we got closer to a fight, he got snappy, and I would be worried if he didn’t get that way. The one exception we did have was going into the Hopkins fight. We were at Ground Zero, not far from it. His gym was there, too, and we had to find another place to train. When 9/11 happened, it threw him off his game.
“But Hopkins was a very, very smart fighter, and styles make fights. He had the kind of style to frustrate Trinidad.”
Despite later, high-paying events with Mayorga, Wright and Jones, the serious portion of Trinidad’s career ended in Madison Square Garden on Sept. 29, 2001.
This weekend, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, his father and what promises to be a cadre of Puerto Rican aficionados, will fill Canastota, N.Y., and pay homage once more to a man whose importance to his island and boxing cannot be overstated.
As Goodman puts it, “Tito came to the sport when it needed a hero.”