The Felix Trinidad-Oscar De La Hoya welterweight title unification bout proved intriguing from the day it was scheduled because the outcome appeared almost too close to call. The betting at Mandalay Bay remained even up to fight time. Boxing experts were divided between the two champions with perfect records. But almost everyone agreed that De La Hoya would get the decision if the fight were close. Las Vegas has a history of favoring boxers with a touch of glamour.

Not surprisingly, the fight turned out to be close. But the outcome was surprising. Trinidad rallied over the last four rounds of Saturday night's 12-rounder, prevailing on a majority vote among the three judges. Jerry Roth scored it 115-113 for Trinidad. Bob Logist had it 115-114 for Trinidad. And Glen Hamada saw it even, 114-114. There were no knockdowns. It was a difficult fight to score because De La Hoya landed almost 100 more punches but backed up defensively much of the time while Trinidad pressed the attack from the second round.

"Now I know how Lennox Lewis felt," said De La Hoya, likening the decision to the draw that Lennox Lewis was awarded after pummeling Evander Holyfield in their heavyweight title fight in New York. But few--and not even De La Hoya partisans--would go that far. Instead, some observers believed that the decision was good for boxing in that it proved that the fighter who figured to lose if the verdict were close was able to win. When De La Hoya stuck to the statistics, he had a better case. "I landed a hundred punches more than he did. What else do I have to do?"

It was clear, however, that De La Hoya wilted under Trinidad's intense pressure in the last four rounds after frustrating him in the middle rounds. Because De La Hoya did little in the crucial final 12 minutes, most observers agreed with the decision even though De La Hoya contended that he had given a boxing exhibition worthy of victory and had won enough rounds before Trinidad began catching up to him.

In one sense De La Hoya gave away the fight, because of fatigue or caution or both. After the eighth round, the fight was his on all three scorecards: 77-75 on two and 77-76 on the other. But in finishing much more strongly, Trinidad landed several heavy shots to the head as De La Hoya intensified his retreat. Roth scored the last four rounds for Trinidad, Hamada gave him the last three rounds and Logist favored him in Rounds 9 through 11.

The winner looked like the loser. Trinidad suffered a smashed nose and a puffed eye in winning for the 36th straight time and adding the World Boxing Council's 147-pound title to the International Boxing Federation title he has held for six years. He refused to meet the media afterward, saying in the ring after the decision was announced: "I always said from the beginning that I was the number one welterweight. I was going to prove it and I did tonight. It took me time to go through my game plan but in the last four rounds he was on the run."

Today, in a news conference, Trinidad said: "He showed what everybody had said he was: Chicken De La Hoya."

De La Hoya, with but a few scrapes on his face to go with his ever-present smile, decried the decision that ended his streak at 31 victories. "I felt I had it in the bank, I really, really did, I swear," he said when asked about his lack of offense in the late rounds. "I really felt he was hurt two or three times. But still the strategy was not to take him out and knock him out. I was thinking of just boxing."

De La Hoya connected with 263 of 648 punches thrown while Trinidad landed 166 of 462 thrown. De La Hoya commanded a stunning advantage in jabs connected, 143 to 42. Power punches landed were virtually even, with Trinidad at 124 and De La Hoya at 120.

"Give him the last four rounds," De La Hoya said. "[Then it was] eight to four. I'm not hurt. If I felt like a defeated fighter I would feel bad and I would admit that I lost. But at least I can feel in my heart that I did a good job. I tried to box. People are so used to watching me fight and brawl. For one time I wanted to box and just show a good boxing lesson. I guess that wasn't enough for the people at ringside. This is boxing."

Don King, Trinidad's promoter, rejoiced while Bob Arum, De La Hoya's promoter, looked ashen. "Today, Oscar's shining star has been dimmed," King bellowed. "Oh, I'm so happy. What a day."

As King continued shouting hosannas, Arum cried out: "Mr. King, will you please shut the hell up?"

King offered a rematch with the financial terms reversed. For this meeting, De La Hoya was guaranteed $21 million to Trinidad's $8.5 million. Arum refused King's bid. But sources close to Arum suggested that eventually the two likely would come to terms--although it might take some time, perhaps a full year.

Don Felix Trinidad, the fighter's father, said of the possibility of a rematch: "We will sit down at the table with Don King and discuss our future."

As Trinidad headed homeward to Puerto Rico and what is expected to be an extraordinary celebration, De La Hoya said he planned to take "a long time off--I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm just very disappointed in boxing right now."