On June 19, 1993, Washington area welterweight Maurice Blocker defended his title against a Puerto Rican hopeful named Felix Trinidad. When Blocker's then-adviser James Cooks reached Trinidad's locker room to observe the wrapping of the fighter's hands as an opponent's representative traditionally does, Cooks found the wrapping almost completed. "Unwrap 'em," said Cooks. He was not suspicious. He merely was taking the opportunity to try to rattle Trinidad.
But Cooks to this day remembers the look in Trinidad's eyes and the certainty in his broken English when he said: "It make no difference. I knock him out anyway."
Trinidad did, in the second round, to win the International Boxing Federation welterweight title. Since then, he has successfully defended that title 14 times to become one of the longest-reigning champions of this era -- still only 26 years old, very much in his prime. Trinidad has won all 35 of his fights, 30 by knockout.
But for all his accomplishments, he is much less known than another welterweight champion. For years Trinidad has wanted a title-unification showdown with his more glamorous counterpart, but he has been blocked by the politics of boxing. Saturday night he will get his wish.
Oscar De La Hoya is Trinidad's target. De La Hoya is boxing's "Golden Boy," handsome, personable, fluent in English, big box office, an even bigger pay-per-view revenue producer -- the biggest ever in boxing among non-heavyweights. De La Hoya, also 26, was born into a Mexican-American family in east Los Angeles, not in poverty but close to it. In 1992 he became America's only Olympic boxing champion in Barcelona. Since then, he has won all 31 of his pro bouts, 26 by knockout, and five different titles in four weight divisions. He has been World Boxing Council 147-pound champion for 2 1/2 years. His ring skills and personality have made him a talk-show regular, a popular magazine subject -- a rare bright light in boxing.
As a result, De La Hoya is guaranteed $21 million to Trinidad's $8.5 million when they bring their belts to the sold-out 12,000-seat arena in Mandalay Bay, one of the newest hotels on The Strip.
"We need this. Boxing needs this kind of fight," said Angelo Dundee, who worked many a memorable fight in the corners of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard and worked fight writers this morning.
De La Hoya and Trinidad, two undefeated knockout artists, tall and rangy mirror images, hold promise of the most memorable fight below the heavyweight ranks since Leonard upset Marvelous Marvin Hagler. That was more than 12 years ago. De La Hoya and Trinidad have created a big-fight buzz. A celebrity-filled crowd is a certainty. At the moment the fight is "pick-'em" and predictions are divided.
"Trinidad has iron fists -- two of them," Cooks said.
"I like Trinidad," Dundee said. "Quicker hand speed. Quicker foot speed. I just feel De La Hoya hasn't fought anybody like him. De La Hoya is used to fighting short guys. Trinidad is going to look big to him. De La Hoya will have trouble landing a hook against a tall guy with his hands up. And Trinidad fires right down the pike. I think he knocks him out in a half dozen. I love Trinidad."
Ollie Dunlap, Leonard's former aide-de-camp, prefers De La Hoya. "Experience means a lot at this level," Dunlap said. "De La Hoya has been at this level for a long time" -- in the public eye and having demonstrated an ability to step up his performance in the midst of a fight when necessary.
Emanuel Steward, best known as Thomas Hearns's trainer, recently picked Trinidad -- although Steward may have had a reason. He is one of De La Hoya's former trainers and believes the "Golden Boy" needs him.
Publicists sometimes play up the two fighters' first names, Oscar and Felix, as in "The Odd Couple." The only "odd couple" involved in the fight are the two promoters, rivals Bob Arum, De La Hoya's man, and Don King, who has Trinidad -- a marriage made by money. The fighters are anything but odd, so the sound of those drum beats are of no consequence. Both fighters have been diligently tucked away in training. Trinidad arrived here Sept. 4 after a tumultuous sendoff in Puerto Rico, at which he sounded like Dundee: "I'm in the best condition of my life. I can't see how De La Hoya could end the fight on his feet. I'm going to knock him out after the sixth round."
De La Hoya kept his training camp closed, in the California mountains, for the first time, and did not arrive here until tonight after a stop to tape "The Tonight Show." At the rare news conferences he's held, De La Hoya has spouted contradictory statements about how he intends to fight Trinidad. "I'm still looking for the perfect performance," De La Hoya said. Critics concurred heartily. They were unimpressed by his unanimous decision over a fading Pernell Whitaker in April 1997 and in a come-from-behind split-decision over Ike Quartey of Ghana in February. Both De La Hoya and Quartey were down in the sixth round of that classic bout. But fans of De La Hoya liked the way he rallied in the last three rounds, knocking down Quartey in the 12th and handing him his first setback.
De La Hoya, somewhat like Leonard, has a history of winning major bouts from the time he knocked out Rafael Ruelas in 1995 in a major battle of lightweights. At 147 pounds De La Hoya twice took apart the aged Julio Cesar Chavez and survived Quartey. Trinidad, however, is a big welterweight growing to the next weight class even faster than De La Hoya. Trinidad reportedly has weighed 160, or more, between fights.
Trinidad has hung a rubber chicken from his speed and heavy bags during training, to remind him that " `Chicken' De La Hoya has avoided fighting me for so long." During the two fighters' promotional tour to several cities before they went into training, Trinidad observed that De La Hoya kept late hours, "partying every night," and that sometimes he was heading out to run at 5 a.m. when De La Hoya was just getting in. De La Hoya, seemingly less concerned with the time of day back then, subsequently contended that boxing is a matter of timing and that his will be impeccable.