Nothing like Tito at the Garden
NEW YORK -- The gestures are simple enough, but they speak volumes. A single fist, followed by an extended index finger to signify "number one, and a smile that seems out of place in such a violent sport.
If you don't know who this is, then you haven't watched boxing too closely in the past 14 years, or at least since 1993, when a skinny 20-year-old kid punched his way into the hearts of boxing fans everywhere.
If you still don't know, watch him in the ring Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, when draped in the colors of his homeland, he will scream his name along with the ring announcer:
"From Cupey Alto, Puerto Rico -- Felix 'Tito' Trinidad!"
Then all hell will break loose in boxing's mecca, as a packed house will erupt with the type of enthusiasm reserved for the seventh game of the World Series. If you haven't felt the Garden during a Trinidad fight, you haven't truly experienced one of the sport's great moments. Note my wording, because you just don't hear the crowd, you feel it.
"There are three performers who sell out Madison Square Garden -- Marc Anthony, The Rolling Stones, and Tito Trinidad -- and two of them are Puerto Rican," said Everlast's Joe Guzman, who has spent many hours with the Trinidads over the years. "When he fights, it's like the Puerto Rican Day Parade; it's like carnival time. People just can't get enough and they know it's something special. He may not necessarily be the greatest fighter of all-time in Puerto Rico, but he puts people in the seats and they say, 'That's our guy.' "
"Their guy" has been MIA for over two years, opting to retire after a stoppage of Hassine Cherifi in 2002. It was, many believed, a farewell win, something to leave a good taste in his fans' mouths after a devastating 12th-round stoppage at the hands of Bernard Hopkins in 2001.
"When Tito lost against Bernard Hopkins, maybe the sport lost because he could have continued to create more momentum and more of a fan base," said Guzman. "And he's accomplished these things without speaking English. You could have four of the greatest fighters today -- any four you want, and you put them in Madison Square Garden, and they probably wouldn't be able to sell out the big arena."
Trinidad has done it against Hopkins, Pernell Whitaker, William Joppy, and Troy Waters. He'll most likely do it again this weekend against Ricardo Mayorga, but when Trinidad left, among dozens of rumors and speculations, a lot of people thought that he was going to be one of the rare fighters who stayed retired, bank account and legacy intact.
But you know how that goes.
Earlier this year, with the rumor mills once again working overtime, Trinidad announced that he was indeed coming back to the sport that made him a hero to millions. I asked him what he missed the most when he was gone, and he smiled and slapped his face with both hands.
"The punches," he said.
In a media teleconference Monday, I asked him the same question.
"You can miss a lot of things in boxing, especially the people," he said. "Walking to the ring from the dressing room, people are cheering for you. That's why I'm back."
It's said that for elite athletes, nothing in retirement could ever come close to equaling the roar of the crowd. For someone like Trinidad, who has specialized in filling arenas in an era for boxing where arenas are rarely filled, that desire to hear the crowd must have been even worse.
So he's back, and boxing needs him, especially when three of the sport's most bankable stars -- Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, and Roy Jones Jr. -- have all fallen via knockout in recent months. Forget a gradual changing of the guard -- this is an all-out Coup D'etat to go out with the old and in with the new.
Does Trinidad worry about lightning striking a fourth time in this year of upsets?
"I don't know how they trained for their specific fights," said Trinidad. "I know how I train, I know how I do my things. I haven't had doubts about my fight, even for a second. I'm very positive right now I came to win; I'm gonna win, and that's the way I feel right now. These things have nothing to do with my fight."
And Trinidad's getting no gimme as he takes on the wild-swinging Mayorga, who has vowed to let Trinidad hit him on the chin with his vaunted left hook.
"If he puts his chin there and I can hit it, let's see if he really can resist my punches," said Trinidad. "I bring big power in my hands, and I will be ready to take him out."
If Mayorga knocks out Trinidad, the silence will be deafening on 7th Avenue. After losing to Hopkins just weeks after 9/11, there were fans in tears on the Brooklyn-bound trains that night, devastated that their hero had lost and did so in decisive fashion.
"Imagine the Yankees losing in the World Series," said El Vocero's Carlos Narvaez, who has covered Trinidad's career closely over the years. "The same thing happened with the loss of Tito against Hopkins. But no matter what, the people went to the airport to give him support."
You didn't see that after Tyson or Jones lost, and you didn't see many crying for De La Hoya's defeat unless they were teenage girls. It's kind of like watching those old newsreels from the '60s when the Beatles came to the US and girls just broke out in tears at the sight of the Fab Four. You really don't understand it. Some do, though.
"He's truly their hero, someone they can associate with," said Guzman. "He's like their Joe DiMaggio. He's just a warm human being and it comes across -- he's real."
Alan Hopper, Don King Productions' ace publicist, saw the reaction Trinidad gets when he was with him as he arrived in New York on Sunday.
"I was at the airport yesterday and Tito and Papa were mobbed at JFK," said Hopper. "But they're very friendly, almost familial, with their fans and they stay and sign every autograph, every picture, every scrap of paper."
Maybe the people love Trinidad because he's "everyman," someone who has stayed true to his roots and hasn't forgotten where he came from. Maybe it's because people can see themselves in him. Most people can't fathom having the matinee idol looks of a De La Hoya, the physical gifts of a Jones, or the ferocity of a Tyson. But they can see themselves in the kid who grew up training on a farm, who never moved from Puerto Rico, and who patriotically carries his heart on his sleeve everywhere he goes.
"I can explain it to you in one word -- charisma," said Narvaez. "This guy is the same one that everyone knew since he started in professional boxing. Nothing changed in him, and that's the reason of his popularity in Puerto Rico."
"The people have been with him, watching his career, and people know that he never quits, and that he accepts all challenges during his career," adds Trinidad's father / manager/ trainer Felix Sr. "Out of boxing he's been a good human being; the people give love to him and he gives back that love when he signs autographs, when he takes pictures, and when he takes time with the fans. I think he deserves that popularity right now. It came with time and with his behavior in and out of the ring, and even though he is not a champion, people still call him champion when they see him."
And not to horn in on anyone's territory here, but non-Puerto Rican fans have also taken in Trinidad as one of their own, much like Roberto Duran was accepted by all boxing fans Spanish speaking or not. Duran never spoke English but still became a legend here in the States, someone who can make grown men still act like awestruck fans (I know, I've done it).
For those people, it's Trinidad's punching power, willingness to fight, and general enthusiasm that makes it impossible not to like him. Sure, he's not the greatest fighter of all time, but when you hit as hard as he does and enjoy doing it, that covers a multitude of sins. And being willing to take on all comers is a trait to be admired not questioned, even though many eyebrows were raised when Trinidad announced his comeback would be against the hard-hitting Mayorga.
"We prefer always going straight to the big fights," said Trinidad.
Try finding that attitude in this day and age of tune-ups and moneymaking schemes designed to milk the boxing fan for every last penny. Unfortunately for those involved, in 2004 those schemes have backfired, as the "dogs" have been coming up roses in recent months.
Felix Trinidad doesn't worry about such things - about the critics, the big future paydays with Hopkins and/or De La Hoya that await him, or the trash talking of his opponent on Saturday. What he cares about are the fans that will pack the Garden on Saturday, ready to cheer every hook, every jab, and every cross.
Two years was too long for them and for him.
"I feel good when I see people who support me and my career like this," said Trinidad. "I don't feel afraid about disappointing anybody. I'm coming back to do my job. When I see the love from the people, it motivates me even more to do things right.
"I want to be here. I want to be back in boxing and do good things for boxing and for my people."
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