Spurred To Greatness Felix Trinidad has emerged from the shadows of lesser champions and is now boxing's cock of the walk

May 13, 2001

Reports of his Stateside fame reach him like this: A young man
from Philadelphia, in Puerto Rico to visit an aunt, troops up
the long driveway, passing dogs, cars and clots of Trinidads,
and proclaims the fighter's greatness. "You're the man," he
tells the fighter, who is sitting on the porch of his mother's
house in Cupey Alto, enjoying that little window of time between
roadwork and sparring. The visitor is out of breath, exhausted
by a town-to-town search but brimming with news. "Do you know,
for the Reid fight, we took a TV into the middle of the street
to watch? That's what it's like, man. The whole neighborhood was
going crazy."

Felix (Tito) Trinidad, at first embarrassed by the idolatry (and
possibly unnerved by the lack of security), finally grins. It's
one thing to bring Puerto Rico to a complete stop--"San Juan was
paralyzed after he beat Fernando Vargas," a local sportswriter
says. "We haven't had a crowd like that since the pope
came"--but another to get the attention of Stateside fans. You
think it's going well there: You've beaten all the champions,
just about every gold medal winner they have; it had better be
going good. Still, you don't know. Every time you go north (as
you will this week, for Saturday's bout with William Joppy at
Madison Square Garden, which should lead to the unification of
the middleweight title, you read how boring you are, how
inaccessible, how robotic. You take that to mean that you don't
speak English, which is true. Still, you have to ask yourself:
How many gold medal winners do these Americanos have left,
anyway? So this pilgrim from Philadelphia is a welcome
validation of your status in the States.

Puerto Rico gives the fighter plenty of validation, honoring him
on every possible occasion. A lofted room in Trinidad's suburban
house (in a gated community near Cupey Alto that is more
remarkable for its density than its grandeur) is devoted to such
tributes. Plaques and pictures cover every inch of wall space.
Here's Tito and a Little League team. Here's Tito and Mike Tyson.
Here's Tito and a handful of fries. Here's Tito and Don King,
Tito and his father-manager, Don Felix, Tito and a bottle of
juice that he endorsed.

The accumulation of Tito-ness is unexpected, for he has never
seemed especially needy when it comes to fame. When it's his turn
to fight, "going from champion to champion, mountaintop to
mountaintop," as his promoter Don King likes to say, he's a clam.
On instructions from his father, Tito goes into hiding six weeks
before each mountaintop. So, whereas Oscar De La Hoya is singing
ballads for Jay Leno, Trinidad makes infrequent and reluctant
appearances.

The logic on this is with Tito. As Don Felix says, "Oscar has
lost twice, Tito hasn't." The old man (the old man is 48) says
this without a smile. Still, the sentiment always goes against
Tito during fight week, when all the principals except him are
making wild proclamations and giving reporters material for their
notebooks. Before his last bout, on Dec. 2, in which Trinidad
chopped down the up-and-coming Vargas, a translator had Tito
saying Vargas had run off so many sparring partners because he
was "obnoxious." So out of character was this that not even the
Stateside press ran with the quote. Going to the tape, sure
enough, reporters found Trinidad saying, "If he sent seven or
eight sparring partners home, it was because they decided not to
work with him." Oh.

Now this guy comes loping up his mother's driveway to tell him,
never mind all that, there's a growing Tito-wave in the States.
He has penetrated the language barrier by virtue of skill alone.
"You're the man," the guy says. Tito nods. He thought so.

In fact, almost everything we think we know about Trinidad is
wrong, starting with the part about his being closemouthed. If
you get to him before or after that prefight embargo, bring an
extra notebook. He grew up quiet and serious--"an old man as a
kid," his father says. Now he'll jabber away. Other
misconceptions: Trinidad is inaccessible, is controlled by his
father, is unmindful of his success, doesn't enjoy attention, and
would never engage in anything as roguish as, say, cockfighting.

Yet everybody agrees that the 28-year-old Trinidad, for years an
undercard boxer on King's Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez
promotions, has finally emerged as the sport's main event. It was
a long time coming. Trinidad started in his father's makeshift
gym in Cupey Alto at age eight, a stick figure dodging raindrops
in the abandoned tire-repair shop his father, who ran a swimming
pool installation company, and a friend had converted for the
local kids. Slowly maneuvered by the old man, who had no clout
but a healthy skepticism after a middling boxing career of his
own, Trinidad did not burst into public consciousness until 1999,
when he began to figure as a necessary opponent for more famous
Americans.

The fight folk knew about Trinidad; how could they not? He had
been the IBF welterweight champion since 1993, won all 33 of his
bouts going into 1999, including 13 for the championship.
Otherwise he was merely somebody De La Hoya would have to beat to
unify the 147-pound division.

Thus began Trinidad's run through the gold medalists, a feat he
is exceedingly proud of, as only somebody without Olympic
experience of his own could be. Starting in February 1999 with
an easy victory over '84 champ Pernell Whitaker, continuing in
September of that year with a disputed decision over '92 gold
medal winner De La Hoya (in which De La Hoya gave up a lead by
reverting in the closing rounds to a kind of four-corners
offense) and ending in March 2000 with a K.O. of '96 champion
David Reid, Trinidad bagged three of the precious little
Olympians. "It took me one year and 11 days," says Trinidad,
whose apparent modesty is belied by his vengeful delight in
arcane statistics. "It's a record."

His trifecta not so incidentally combined all three titles under
one roof. The list of gold medalists could have been even more
impressive had Vargas done as well in Atlanta as U.S. Olympic
teammate Reid had. In December, Trinidad moved up to fight
Vargas, who had lost in the second bout at the 1996 Games but
gone undefeated in 20 pro bouts and held the IBF 154-pound
championship. Trinidad destroyed him, stopping him in 12.

The savagery of that fight, which, typically, required Trinidad
to climb back from an early knockdown, was persuasive. It was yet
another example of Trinidad's offensive pressure--he doesn't take
rounds off--and his frightening single-mindedness. The speed and
guile of De La Hoya cost Trinidad that bout on a lot of
ringsiders' cards, but Tito's straight-ahead attack won it on the
judges' cards. As for other gifted fighters out there, Trinidad's
left hook, one of the best in boxing, makes comparisons
intriguing. Would WBC welterweight champ Sugar Shane Mosley
outbox him? Probably. Would Mosley still be standing? People
would pay to find out.

HBO would pay, for sure. These days the network considers him its
star. "Now," says Kery Davis, HBO's boxing chief, "you can market
him, just on his talent." Even King, who has been sued twice by
the Trinidads for what can only be characterized as promotional
neglect, has put his full rhetorical support behind the fighter.
"He's like a surgeon," says King. "Discombobulate you to the
cranium and then discombobulate you to the spleen! Just like
seeing a doctor operate!"

Not a doctor degreed in modern medicine, perhaps ("Nurse! The
discombobulator!"), but a skilled practitioner all the same.
"He's about to join that august body, that heavenly body of
immortality, of which there ain't but three or four guys, Joe
Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali," says King. "This man
done it all."

The old man is sitting in his son's living room, still steamed
by a visitor's insistence that Don Felix holds some kind of
strange sway over Tito. That's the take in all the prefight
stories, that he is responsible for keeping the kid under wraps.
"That's vicious," Don Felix says. Sure he closes the camp come
fight time, but what trainer doesn't? The rest of the time, the
camp is so open, it's comical. That afternoon, for example, Tito
entertained 40 schoolkids (he seems to make an appearance every
day), found time to talk to a reporter from the local tabloid
and to another who said he was from an Australian boxing
magazine--and made the case with SI that he ought to be on its
cover.

More to the point, Don Felix points out, "I don't interfere, I
give him his space. I haven't been to his house more than two,
three times a year." That this visit could be no more than the
third or fourth is proved when Don Felix bends to pick up
four-year-old Ashley, and the granddaughter begins squalling. Don
Felix quickly hands her back to Tito. "You see?" says Don Felix.

The bond between father and son is mostly about a trainer and his
fighter by now (especially because Don Felix left Tito's mother
in 1995), although that's not inconsiderable, given that Tito
basically trains year-round. They trust each other and, except
during their forays to the States--where their relationship is
endlessly fascinating to reporters--hardly think about it.
Pressed, Tito becomes almost exasperated. "I've always respected
him," he says of Don Felix. So? "It wasn't necessary to rebel to
become a man."

If anything, Tito is a mama's boy. His plate seems full, with
training, cockfighting (which is legal in Puerto Rico; he'd just
won $3,200 in bets when one of his 10 fighting roosters scored a
unanimous decision; they don't always do so well) and a family of
his own (Sharon, his wife of seven years, Ashley and one-year-old
Leysha--none of whom enjoy cockfighting). Still, Tito finds time
to drive one of his fleet of vehicles (Viper, Mercedes, or '70s
LeMans--what'll it be?) up the long, winding drive of his boyhood
home, where his mother, Irma Dores, still lives. "He's always
been by my side," the mother says, lowering her voice lest Don
Felix, an infrequent visitor, overhear her, "especially since we
separated." She all but winks.

Lately, Tito has begun to consider the legacy he intends to forge
in boxing. It's a nice legacy, he'll tell you. For instance, in
two days he's off to Las Vegas for the ESPY awards, where he
expects to win boxer of the year. "Who else?" he says reasonably.
"In an HBO poll 70 percent said I was fighter of the year, 65
said [my bout with] Vargas was fight of the year, 60 said I was
the best pound for pound." He pauses, shrugging. "In that range."

He did win the ESPY--and he expects more. He has decided, prodded
by his father and mother, who were unnerved by a Vargas
eye-thumbing, to put the wraps on his career. He'll fight Joppy
and then IBF and WBC 160-pound champ Bernard Hopkins. Finally,
the middleweight division secured, he'll meet Roy Jones Jr. at
168 pounds. Then he'll retire undefeated and study law.

Jones, infamously robbed in the 1988 Olympics, has since been
more or less proclaimed the rightful gold-medal winner. "And
that," says Tito, invoking his own Olympic history, "makes
four."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES Unruffled Trinidad, here high above San Juan with a feathered fighter, doesn't let the hype of a big fight rattle him. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO GOLD CRUSH De La Hoya, one of three Olympic champs Trinidad has beaten, reverted to a defense-first policy that cost him the bout against the relentless Tito. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES KIDDING AROUND Written off Stateside as boring and inaccessible, Trinidad is a p.r. knockout back home.

"HE'S LIKE A SURGEON," SAYS DON KING. "DISCOMBOBULATE YOU TO THE
CRANIUM AND THEN DISCOMBOBULATE YOU TO THE SPLEEN!"

AFTER UNIFYING THE MIDDLEWEIGHT TITLE, TRINIDAD SAYS HE'LL MEET
ROY JONES JR. AT 168 POUNDS, THEN RETIRE UNDEFEATED.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)