- Don Steinberg
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Sometimes it seems like there are only a handful of story lines in boxing and the same narratives keep repeating, with fresh actors playing roles that were written long ago.
Take this scenario: An undefeated young knockout artist from Puerto Rico is welterweight champion, and although he has been battering opponents into submission, he remains under-recognized by the American public.
To boost his exposure, his promoter sets up a fight at Madison Square Garden against a future Hall of Famer, a popular American with wide name recognition.
His opponent is a fast-handed former multiple titleholder who once was considered the world's best pound-for-pound fighter but now is nearing the end of his career and could be ripe for defeat.
That should sound familiar: It's Miguel Cotto, 27, versus Shane Mosley, 36, on Saturday.
Or it's Felix Trinidad, 26, versus Pernell Whitaker, 35, on Feb. 20, 1999.
Even in boxing, where the torch frequently passes from old to young in matchups like these, the recurring elements between these two scraps have a certain touch of "Groundhog Day."
"I've been mentioning that to people myself," says HBO analyst Larry Merchant, who called the Trinidad-Whitaker bout from ringside at the Garden. "The parallels are strong. Two Puerto Rican welterweights, two Americans who were both lightweight and welterweight champions."
Trinidad against Sweet Pea. Cotto against Sugar Shane.
"Even though Cotto has won the title, this is a kind of defining moment in establishing an identity in the U.S.," Merchant says.
It was the same way for Trinidad, who at age 26 had a 33-0 record with a brutal 29 knockouts. No opponent had taken him the distance in five years, but he needed to step up and beat a name-brand guy to become a pay-per-view attraction.
So there was Whitaker, a former Olympic gold medalist and four-division titleholder with a 41-2-1 record. In his prime, Whitaker had been a defensive freak, as hard to hit as a headless ghost. But he was on the comeback trail. He had lost a disputed decision to Oscar De La Hoya in 1997 and later that year tested positive for cocaine. Plus, he would be fighting after a 16-month layoff.
Still, Whitaker had a glittering resume -- 10 years of title fights against guys like De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez -- that got Trinidad attention he never had received before.
From the opening bell, Trinidad began landing his hard right and backing Whitaker up. He floored Whitaker with a straight right to the face in Round 2. Whitaker got in his share of pops, but the younger Trinidad kept coming, tying up and muscling the smaller Whitaker and throwing in an occasional forearm or elbow for good measure. It was either a punch or a Trinidad elbow in the fifth or sixth that broke Whitaker's jaw.
Twice Whitaker lowered himself to the canvas -- voluntarily, it appeared -- to avoid punishment, although neither time was ruled a knockdown. When Whitaker rallied to score some big blows in the seventh, Merchant said, "Whatever happens, you're seeing the champion heart of a once-great prizefighter."
Whitaker survived to lose a unanimous decision. He was hit 278 times. He would fight just once more before retiring. He now is a trainer.
"Tito" Trinidad would become the most celebrated Puerto Rican ring hero since Wilfred Benitez.
On Saturday, it's happening again. Everyone wants Cotto, 30-0 with 25 knockouts, to step into his role as the biggest Puerto Rican sensation since Trinidad.
"I'm not Tito," the reserved Cotto said last week, frustrated as reporters asked him to compare his reserved personality to Trinidad's talkative style. There are differences, for sure, says Bob Arum, Cotto's promoter.
"Felix had the power, but he was a one-punch knockout guy, a gunslinger," Arum says. "Cotto wears his opponents down and damages them; he hits their body, their arms, their shoulders. It's totally different."
The size equation is different as well. Trinidad, at 5-foot-11, towered over the southpaw Whitaker, who stood at 5-foot-6. Cotto, at 5-foot-7, is a bit shorter than Mosley, at 5-foot-9. And Mosley (44-4 with 37 KOs) is a more dangerous opponent that Whitaker was, a harder puncher with more gas left in his tank. This fight should be more competitive and possibly as foul-filled as Trinidad-Whitaker.
Maybe the biggest repeat of history could come after the fight. By establishing himself as a fighter to be reckoned with, Trinidad's win set up his multimillion-dollar "Fight of the Millennium" later in 1999 against De La Hoya. Cotto, if he wins, could pick up an Oscar of his own, potentially bringing his growing reputation into the next big-money battle against De La Hoya in May.
Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
11hK. Lee Davis