by Cliff Rold
Technique can be taught, skill can be refined, but there are a couple of things fighters are either born with or not.
Those are two of them, and a big two at that. The pride of Cupey Alto, Puerto Rico, Felix “Tito” Trinidad was one of boxing’s brightest stars in the 1990s and early 2000s. Power and charisma were part of his stock in trade. The sky appeared the limit…until it came crashing down.
September 11, 2001, shook the world on a grand scale. On a much smaller one, it pushed a highly anticipated Middleweight Championship unification, scheduled for New York City’s Madison Square Garden, back from it’s originally intended date of September 15 to September 29. The results in the ring indicated date was no matter.
Felix Trinidad met Bernard Hopkins.
And for all intents and purposes, Trinidad was done.
Has it really been ten years?
Just days past the anniversary of that fantastic encounter, and just over a week out from Bernard Hopkins’ latest attempt at mocking Father Time, the time is ripe to look back on the man who gave that legend flower, at the height of a fistic legend all his own.
It’s as good a time as any to ask…
How good was Trinidad, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Born: January 10, 1973
Hailed From: Cupey Alto, Puerto Rico
Turned Professional: March 10, 1990 (KO2 Angel Romero)
Record: 42-3, 35 KO
Record in Major Title Fights (Including Lineal Title Fights): 20-1, 16 KO, 1 KOBY
Lineal World Titles: World Welterweight (1999)
Other Major Titles: IBF Welterweight (1993-99, 15 Defenses); WBC Welterweight (1999); WBA Jr. Middleweight (2000-01, 2 Defenses); IBF Jr. Middleweight (2000-01); WBA Middleweight (2001)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 4 (Maurice Blocker KO2, Pernell Whitaker UD12, Oscar De La Hoya MD12, Ricardo Mayorga TKO8)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 2
(Bernard Hopkins KO by 12, Ronald “Winky” Wright L12)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 8 (Jake Rodriguez UD10, Hector Camacho UD12, Yori Boy Campas TKO4, Freddie Pendleton KO5, David Reid UD12, Fernando Vargas TKO12, William Joppy TKO5, Hacine Cherifi TKO4)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in Defeat: 1 (Roy Jones Jr.)
Trinidad began his career as a seventeen-year old Jr. Welterweight, growing quickly into a full-bodied Welterweight with 16 stoppages in nineteen contests. It was enough to earn Trinidad a crack at the IBF Welterweight honors, at only 20 years of age, on the undercard of the memorable Terry Norris-Troy Waters Jr. Middleweight title bout.
Trinidad added his 20th win, and knockout number 17, with a second round blitzing of veteran Maurice Blocker on June 19, 1993. There would be no looking back. Before 1993 was over, Trinidad would make his first two defenses, the second an off-the-floor knockout of Anthony Stephens. In a true breakout year, Trinidad would add three more defenses in 1994, rising from the deck in two of them for knockouts.
The numbers continued to rack up, 14 in total before Trinidad got to his first unification contest. In one of the richest fights of the decade, Trinidad would escape with a hotly debated majority decision win over Oscar De La Hoya on September 18, 1999. The win gave Trinidad the WBC belt and claim to the lineal Welterweight crown (traced directly to the 1985 Welterweight unification showdown between Donald Curry and Milton McCrory).
It would be the end for Trinidad at 147 lbs. The Puerto Rican’s star grew after the De La Hoya win and exploded during a 2000 campaign that saw him come off the floor to win the WBA Jr. Middleweight crown and then do it again to unify that strap with the IBF honors at 154 lbs. before the end of the year. Looking as good as he ever had, Trinidad leapt up the scale one more time.
With ample buzz about a potential future showdown at Light Heavyweight with Roy Jones Jr., Trinidad was the feature attraction in a Don King/HBO Middleweight unification tournament that featured WBA titlist William Joppy, WBC titlist Keith Holmes, and IBF beltholder Bernard Hopkins. Matched with Joppy, Trinidad snatched Joppy’s 160 lb. crown from his head with a devastating performance and was installed a favorite over a Hopkins who’d defeated Holmes in an ugly encounter.
Joppy would be Trinidad’s final title fight win, Hopkins his final title fight, a TKO loss in the twelfth and final round. Tito would return in May 2002, just months after of his 29th birthday, to post a win in front of his countryman in San Juan.
A retirement announcement in July 2002 caught the boxing world by surprise and, while it didn’t stick, Trinidad would fight only three more times. He returned in 2004, 2005, and finally in 2008, the last two contests ending in points defeats.
Along with the many titles and defenses Trinidad amassed, the Boricua icon also collected his share of outside the ring honors, named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year: 2000
• BWAA Fighter of the Year: 2000
• USA Today Fighter of the Year: 2000
• USA Today Fight of the Year: 2000
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 2001
• #51 – Ring Magazine Top 80 of the Last 80 Years: 2002
• #1 – Ring Magazine Best Jr. Middleweight Fight of the Last 80 Years: 2002
• #30 – Ring Magazine Top 100 Punchers of All Time: 2003
• #21 – BoxingScene Top 25 Welterweights of All Time: 2009
Trinidad began his career with the usual cannon fodder early on, the tests getting harder over time under the tutelage of his father, Felix Trinidad Sr. In his thirteenth fight, he’d post a ten-round decision over then-future Jr. Welterweight titlist Jake Rodriguez. Three fights later, foreshadowing a career long trend, 53-fight veteran Alberto Cortes dropped Trinidad twice, only for Tito to turn out Cortes’ lights in the third. It was only the third loss of Cortes’ career.
Blocker, for Trinidad’s first belt, was on the backside of his career but vastly more experienced and a former lineal Welterweight king. Those honors were gone in 1993, but it was a solid step up win. 1994 was arguably the finest year of Trinidad’s Welterweight career with wins over veteran Hector Camacho, undefeated future titlist Yori Boy Campas, and undefeated generational bridesmaid Oba Carr. As noted previously, Trinidad came off the floor in each of the latter two for stoppage wins.
1994 should have been the stepping-stone to a run at divisional kingpin Pernell Whitaker. Instead, it was a break point, the end of Trinidad’s first strong period and the beginning of his career’s weakest zone. From 1995-98, Trinidad’s momentum would be sidetracked with mostly lesser opponents and management dramas, big fights falling through amid the frustration of a prime slipping away.
Things got back on track in 1999. With Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez no longer viable as superstars, Trinidad got the full attention of promoter Don King, battering by then former champion Whitaker in front of a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd. While Whitaker was past his best, he fought hard on the night and the loss was the first clear defeat suffered by the defensive genius in his long, Hall of Fame career. Trinidad added one more defense before being matched with fellow undefeated titlist Oscar De La Hoya. Regardless of the debates the fight still generates, there is no denying it was the right and best fight to take, financially and competitively.
Trinidad stayed hot in 2000 with his best full year since 1994, besting undefeated former Olympians David Reid and Felix Trinidad in crowd-pleasing wars. The Vargas fight was particularly memorable, a neck and neck contender for 2000 Fight of the Year along with the classic Jr. Featherweight war between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales. In 2002, Ring Magazine would name Trinidad-Vargas the best Jr. Middleweight fight of their 80 years in publication.
Joppy, fighting in front of a Garden insane for their man, had only one loss when he faced Trinidad, and should have been undefeated. Joppy’s 1997 points defeat to Julio Cesar Green largely derided as a robbery at the time. Hopkins, then only in his mid 30s, had been the best Middleweight in the world for years, as tough an opponent as one could face in almost any Middleweight era.
Even after Hopkins, Trinidad continued to be matched tough even if only as an epilogue to a great career. Hacine Cherifi was a gimme’ by 2002, but a former titlist at least. Ricardo Mayorga, in 2004, was a recent lineal Welterweight champion and, fittingly, Trinidad even suffered a flash knockdown before wearing Mayorga down in what some called a Fight of the Year contender. Winky Wright, in 2005, was making his debut at Middleweight after unifying and defending the Jr. Middleweight crown against Shane Mosley the prior year and regarded as one of the pound-for-pound leaders.
Trinidad’s farewell, appropriately at the Garden against Jones, closed a chapter that just missed being written years earlier. It was a fitting clash of yesterday titans and Trinidad fought well before being dropped twice and ultimately outclassed over the distance.
Competition Not Faced
What of the men Trinidad missed in his career? There clearly aren’t many but, as always, this section is concerned with the fact that fights did not occur. Why is not what matters.
At Welterweight, the biggest miss was Whitaker while “Sweet Pea” was still champion. The win over Whitaker in 1999 was good, and underrated in the Trinidad legend considering how badly Trinidad struggled to make Welterweight by then. However, there is no mistaking he missed a genuine all-time great when both would have been near their full powers around 1995.
The next biggest miss was long-reigning WBA Welterweight titlist Ike Quartey. “Bazooka” possessed a fierce jab, power, and usually made for fantastic fights. The two would battle on undefeated, in parallel, before Quartey would finally lose a disputed decision to De La Hoya in 1999. One could also make brief cases for James Page and Jose Luis Lopez as misses, both of them holding belts at some point in the Trinidad tenure at 147 lbs.
Trinidad briefly flirted with a rise to Jr. Middleweight in 1997, part of what looked like the build to a showdown with Terry Norris. The fight didn’t come off and Tito resumed his reign. When he returned to Jr. Middleweight in 2000, the only notable miss he had in the division was lineal and WBC champion Javier Castillejo. One could also make a case for Shane Mosley, who rose to Welterweight just as Trinidad was exiting and who couldn’t entice Trinidad to stay at Jr. Middleweight before Tito went chasing 160 and beyond.
Reaction to Adversity
It’s impossible to describe the career of Trinidad without ample variations of the phrase “got off the floor to win by knockout.” Trinidad had a Joe Louis-like ability to get off the deck and win, just one more ingredient along with charisma and power that mark him, still, as arguably the most beloved Puerto Rican fighter of all time.
His chin wasn’t terrible, his feet more a problem than his whiskers on most occasions. Before Hopkins, Cortes may have hurt Trinidad worse than anyone and Tito was still just a kid. Hopkins hit him with a number of bombs and it took all night to beat back the younger star. Regardless, when hurt, Trinidad showed good recovery skills.
He also showed a willingness to bend a rule or two. Trinidad was not above landing a low blow to clear his head or calm a steaming foe. There were also concerns about the method of taping of his hands after a dispute prior to the Hopkins fight. They were not as serious as, say, glove loading but have provided fuel for critics.
Trinidad had other adversity beyond being dropped and hurt. As evidenced in portions of the De La Hoya bout, and definitively against Hopkins and Wright, Trinidad was highly vulnerable to able technicians. The contests showed a fighter without a Plan B beyond exerting more pressure, beyond fighting harder. Against Wright, he barely did that, so subdued and befuddled was Trinidad by the jab and guard of his foe.
What’s Left to Prove
Will Trinidad make it to five years of inactivity? There have been no whispers about a return since the Jones defeat but one never knows. Even if, at this juncture, there were to be a shocking comeback, Trinidad proved everything he was going to years ago.
Measured Against History
Possessing an atomic left hook, an educated straight right hand, and a steady pressure that broke men’s mental games along with their physical, it really is hard to believe Trinidad’s best years are now a decade behind. It’s also hard to believe, given the lapse of time, that Trinidad still isn’t 40. He may not have retired young and stayed that way, but he came much closer than most superstar pugilists.
It is one more admirable ingredient in a great career. But, returning to the original question, how does his career measure up against all time?
The answer can vary depending on what angle the question is asked from. It shouldn’t have been that way. Trinidad in many ways will go into the Hall of Fame (and yes, he will, with a bullet) as one of the bigger what-if’s of recent times.
Even if one assumes his titanic career was always going to hit an iceberg called ‘Nard, his place in Welterweight history could have been more defined. The 1994 Trinidad was sharp, quick, and drawing comparisons with some of the great ones. Promotional issues killed the Whitaker fight in 1995, both men featured on HBO in an effort to make the fight to no avail. Similar issues killed off the hopes for unification with Quartey in 1997.
Even as his body was betraying him, begging him to go up in weight, he remained at Welterweight trying to find the right fight. The reins should have been loosed years before they were. Fans clearly missed a better use of some of Tito’s best years.
It’s hard not to wonder how much the struggle to make weight affected him by the De La Hoya fight, especially considering how much better he looked at 154 and 160 lbs. and much better he looked against most of their common Welterweight opponents. Even with weight struggles, he performed better against De La Hoya than he ever gets credit for in a fight where neither man gave fans twelve good rounds.
Yes, Trinidad was outclassed severely in the middle third of the contest, but what of the first, and last, four rounds? The latter Trinidad swept with pressure against an Oscar who took flight after a clipping Trinidad right in the ninth, never to come down again that disappointing Saturday night. The first four were where the fight was largely decided; rounds one, two, and four were all much more difficult to score than often recalled, the official judges unanimous in scoring rounds two and four for Trinidad.
Give Trinidad a younger Pea and Quartey, and the lack of closure fans felt at the end of Trinidad-De La Hoya wouldn’t matter as much. As it was, Trinidad failed to concretely define whether he was truly the best Welterweight of his time or just the most consistent. That Trinidad did enough to merit discussion with the top 25 Welterweights all time, perhaps history’s deepest weight class, is a great honor. The chance was there to be more.
At Jr. Middleweight, Castillejo was hardly a miss. Mosley was just a case of two fighters whose timing wasn’t right though it would have been a barnburner. Reid could be fairly argued as damaged goods, his left eye vision problems and stamina issues well documented. That said, the former Gold Medalist was athletic and dangerous early in fights, as he proved with Trinidad. Vargas was never the same after the Trinidad fight, and was less experienced going in, but still good enough to handle Quartey and go tit-for-tat with Winky Wright before he warred with Tito. It was an outstanding win. One class up, at Middleweight, he split with the two best in the world at the time. One can’t ask for more than that.
The scale, in terms of opposition, tips favorably to Trinidad. He fulfilled the obligations greatness demands. In the end, if he wasn’t the best Welterweight of the 1990s, his longevity and best performances merit a close behind a Whitaker who was defined from 1993-95 against the likes of Julio Cesar Chavez and Buddy McGirt. His defense numbers were second only to Henry Armstrong at Welterweight. His lone year was enough to include Trinidad in discussions about the best ever at Jr. Middleweight, if somewhere behind the likes of Tommy Hearns and Mike McCallum. His losses showed limits to his game, but they also displayed the level of fighter it took to overcome the narrow dimensions Trinidad threatened with.
There is also the issue of his pantheon among Puerto Rican greats. His popularity was overwhelming and, when discussing the whole greatness of a fighter, how much the fans loved them counts. That said, in the ring, he comes up short in comparison to the likes of Carlos Ortiz, Wilfredo Gomez, and Wilfred Benitez. There is no shame in that. Being one of the greatest, instead of numero uno, given the field of talent the island nation has produced is high praise.
So, sure, what if? Perhaps Felix Trinidad could have been more. So could lots of fighters. In the end, he was more than enough. He might not rate with all-time greats at the Robinson level, or even Hopkins, but greatness has its tiers and he’s still high enough to have plenty to survey from above.
It’s fair to wonder if, somewhere in Puerto Rico, right now, there might still be someone remembering what it was like back in the day, the chant of “Tito, Tito” slipping from their tongue without embarrassment, the others around them just acknowledging with a nod.
And a smile.
Verdict on Felix Trinidad: All-Time Great
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series that will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]