De La Hoya vs. Trinidad revisited

Controversy and cash are the twin engines that power boxing rematches, and Felix Trinidad vs. Oscar De La Hoya produced bundles of both. When they exited the Mandalay Bay ring Sept. 18, 1999, with confetti clinging to their sweaty shoulders, Trinidad pumping his fists, De La Hoya uncharacteristically pumping out F-bombs, it seemed a certainty that Trinidad-De La Hoya II would happen soon. Their fight had been inconclusive in every possible way -- except at the box office, where it shattered non-heavyweight records with 1.4 million pay-per-view buys and earned its combatants a combined $40 million.

But somehow, despite all the controversy and all the potential cash, the rematch never happened. De La Hoya and Trinidad went in different directions, barely even fighting in the same weight class at the same time during the new millennium. However, because both men fought for the final time in the same year, 2008, their paths will intersect again this Sunday. They meet not in the ring but on the dais, two 41-year-old ex-fighters entering the International Boxing Hall of Fame together.

It is a wonderful coincidence, that as the 15th anniversary of their historic showdown nears, their careers are celebrated in unison. Where once they seemed destined to be each other's chief rivals on the road to the Hall, they are instead memorable footnotes on each other's BoxRec résumé, standing as neither the opponent against whom each earned his plaque in Canastota, New York, nor as a reason to keep each other out. De La Hoya is not defined by his "loss" to Trinidad. Trinidad is not defined by his "win" over De La Hoya. Both are icons who put plenty of distance between themselves and that fight.

And yet, in a sense, it is their generation's Ray Leonard vs. Marvin Hagler. Everybody who watched it has an opinion about who should have won. The key difference between Trinidad-De La Hoya and Leonard-Hagler is that the idea of rewatching and rescoring 1999's welterweight showdown a decade and a half later isn't remotely appealing.

The lasting legacy of Trinidad W12 De La Hoya is not that it was "Tito's" signature win (though it was his highest-profile victory) nor that it was "The Golden Boy's" worst defeat (though it does haunt him more than any other). Rather, the legacy of the fight is as perhaps the most disappointing major fight in boxing history. You can debate who deserved to win all you like. You can't debate that the action, relative to expectation, was abysmal.

To understand just how high the anticipation was, note that both fighters were undefeated, both were ranked in everybody's pound-for-pound top three (along with Roy Jones), and both were 26 years old, in their absolute primes. The betting action was so balanced, the fight closed at -$1.10 in both directions at many sports books. De La Hoya, like Leonard before him, was a welterweight star beginning to outshine all of the heavyweights of his time, save for maybe what was left of Mike Tyson. And Trinidad, the second most popular non-heavyweight in boxing at that moment, was emerging as the most beloved Puerto Rican athlete since Roberto Clemente, and perhaps the best pure puncher in the sport to boot.

This was one superfight that wasn't allowed to over-marinate. It was happening at just the right time, when public demand was reaching a crescendo. It was an absolute can't-miss.

At least until the bell rang.

"The record book will simply say Felix Trinidad won the fight and Oscar De La Hoya lost. But that's a superficial view at best. The real loser, regardless of what you thought of the official verdict, was boxing," wrote Nigel Collins in his postfight feature in The Ring. "When the spotlight shone the brightest and the challenge was the greatest, neither risked all in the pursuit of ultimate glory, settling instead for a restrained, conservative approach."

Collins noted that an angry fan called the Ring editorial office the Monday after the fight and vented, "One guy was scared, and the other was glad that he was." The former insult was aimed at De La Hoya, who ran shamelessly for the final three rounds; the latter was aimed at Trinidad, who performed wholly ineffectively until his opponent stopped punching down the stretch.

For the first eight, maybe nine rounds, however, De La Hoya was boxing as masterfully as he ever had before or would again. Despite the fact that he stopped fighting with a quarter of the bout remaining, my podcast partner Bill Dettloff still considers the Trinidad fight Oscar's greatest performance; that's how magnificent the Golden Boy was, right up until he made the curious decision not to be magnificent anymore. De La Hoya rarely sat down on his punches against Trinidad, but he didn't have to. On his toes, moving in all directions, then stopping and popping, he'd managed to bloody Trinidad's nose, handcuff the Puerto Rican puncher, and build what seemed like a sizable, if not necessarily insurmountable, lead on the scorecards.

But Trinidad never stopped plowing forward, and if he was being exposed as relatively one-dimensional, he was showing appropriate doggedness to accompany that dimension. He stuck with his game plan. And De La Hoya deviated from his.

"I have to admit I was a bit tired," De La Hoya told HBO a few years later. "I've never boxed like that in my life, my legs were shaking. I thought I had the fight in the bag after nine rounds, so I'm going to cruise the last three rounds. That's what my corner told me too, so I said, 'OK, let's do it.'"

Oscar assumed, as many observers did, that if it came down to a close decision, it would go his way. That's what had happened against Pernell Whitaker in '97 and against Ike Quartey earlier in '99, both in Vegas. The chief strategist in his corner, Gil Clancy, told De La Hoya going into the 11th, "Box the next two rounds." Was it bad advice? Or did De La Hoya not understand the difference between "box" and "run"?

And while Nevada judges had shown a predilection toward the Golden Boy, they'd also shown a historical leaning toward the aggressor, which in this case was Trinidad. There was also the small matter of Tito being promoted by Don King, who, along with Trinidad's father and trainer, Felix Sr., had been vocal before the fight about getting a fair shake. They even arranged a prefight meeting with Nevada Athletic Commission Chairman Dr. Elias Ghanem, which was treated by Team De La Hoya as inconsequential until after the fight, when suddenly it became the subject of great scrutiny.

That's because, as it turned out, De La Hoya's lead was not safe on any of the official scorecards. Glen Hamada had him backing into a draw, 114-114. Bob Logist saw it 115-114 for Trinidad. And Jerry Roth scored it 115-113 for the Puerto Rican, handing De La Hoya his first defeat, by majority decision.

The "Oscar was robbed" drumbeat has grown steadily louder as the years have passed, but in the moment, opinions were mixed and few felt much sympathy for De La Hoya after he spent the final three -- some would say the final four -- rounds dancing away from danger. HBO's Harold Lederman had De La Hoya ahead six rounds to three before giving Trinidad the 10th through 12th to end up with a 114-114 card. Collins, seated ringside, had it 115-114 for Trinidad. The majority of the press seemed to favor De La Hoya, but in nearly all cases, the margin was only a point or two.

To most, it seemed easier to find seven rounds to give Oscar than to find seven to give Tito. But you certainly don't need a "smoking gun" round to count to seven for Trinidad. You just need to give him a couple of the close early rounds in which not a whole lot was happening offensively. That's what Roth did, and then some, stretching the bounds of reason by giving Trinidad three of the first four rounds. Even more curious was Logist's round-by-round, which saw him somehow award De La Hoya the 12th; conspiracy theorists have since suggested it was a make-up round to make the scorecard look closer.

The CompuBox statistics (which are not a substitute for scoring the fight round by round, but do typically offer insight) heavily favored De La Hoya. Oscar landed 263 of 648 punches, while Trinidad went 166-of-462. It was a CompuBox blowout -- though that was based mostly on jabs, as De La Hoya's edge in power punches landed was only 124-120.

In Puerto Rico, the numbers didn't matter much and there was minimal second-guessing. Rather, the result was greeted with pure celebration. Trinidad went home to the same welcome he would have received if he'd scored a first-round knockout. The Trinidad backers emphasized that you can't win a fight by running. That is, of course, untrue. But in this case, running did cost De La Hoya victory on a night when it sure looked like he was the superior boxer. And perhaps more devastatingly, it cost him the respect of countless fight fans, especially those who were forever looking for reasons to question his "Mexican-ness."

In the end, it could be argued that the Trinidad-De La Hoya fight revealed that neither man was as great as we previously thought he was or had the potential to be. It showed the blueprint to beat Trinidad (assuming you were an elite boxer and had the stamina and resolve to follow that blueprint for 12 rounds) while also underscoring how stylistically confused De La Hoya was and would continue to be during a career with more cooks in the kitchen than a "Top Chef" season premiere.

Trinidad insisted afterward that if the fight didn't meet the hype, "it was not my fault." Wherever fans placed the blame, the reality was that few of them had a burning desire to see another fight like this one. That probably goes a long way toward explaining why there was no Trinidad-De La Hoya II, even with all the unfinished business and the business business that a rematch promised.

After they went in their different directions, Trinidad enjoyed more immediate success, while De La Hoya went on to a longer stay at the top.

Tito was everybody's choice for Fighter of the Year in 2000 when he defeated David Reid and Fernando Vargas to conquer the junior middleweight division. He was on his way to doing the same at middleweight until he ran into Bernard Hopkins, who executed that De La Hoya blueprint and closed the show with a 12th-round knockout. From there Trinidad retired and unretired twice, finishing his career with two one-sided decision losses, against Winky Wright in '05 and Roy Jones in '08. But he never stopped being the most beloved boxer his island home ever produced. Even the audiences Miguel Cotto attracts to Madison Square Garden, including the one he'll draw this weekend when he faces Sergio Martinez, come a few decibels shy of those "Tito!"-chanting MSG crowds.

De La Hoya went on to win belts in all the same divisions as Trinidad, but with five losses sprinkled in against the very best fighters of his time: Shane Mosley (twice, one of them highly controversial), Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. The Mayweather fight broke Trinidad-De La Hoya's non-heavyweight PPV record while the Pacquiao fight brought to an end a decade-long run for Oscar as the most bankable attraction in the sport. De La Hoya changed the market for Latino fighters in America, raised the bar for attracting women to the sport, and to an extent carried boxing in the U.S. after Tyson no longer could and until Mayweather and Pacquiao were ready to.

Unfortunately, life after boxing has not been pain-free for either ex-pugilist. De La Hoya's troubles with substance abuse have been well-documented, and just last December, he completed his second stretch in a rehab facility. Meanwhile, word came out of Puerto Rico this April that Trinidad is broke, having lost some $63 million that he invested in now-worthless government bonds.

Fans of the fight game and of both fighters can hope that their Hall of Fame inductions this weekend will provide a welcome escape from their troubles, and a reminder to them of how much they both mattered as athletes. There is nothing controversial or debatable about either man's entrance into the Hall. Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad were both as indisputable as first-ballot selections get.

That neither gave a performance to remember when they shared the ring almost 15 years ago is of little consequence now. Fans do continue to debate who won, and there will never be a definitive answer as to who was the better fighter. But there are no tiers or rankings at the Hall of Fame. Either you're in or you're out. Oscar and Tito are both going in. And they're doing so together, as equals.