One of the brightest lights in boxing returns to the ring Saturday night, and Felix Trinidad's timing couldn't be any better. In recent weeks such stars as Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson have been humbled in knockout losses. The sport's top-shelf names are disappearing just as the Puerto Rican star known as "Tito" has opted to end a two-plus year retirement.
Trinidad, 31, a champion in three weight classes (147, 154 and 160 pounds), has chosen Madison Square Garden as the venue for his return. He's back among the 160-pounders, choosing Ricardo Mayorga, hardly your typical shake-the-rust-off tuneup fighter, as his opponent.
The Garden, with a crowd of more than 15,000 expected, will be rocking. New York's Puerto Rican population has a long history of loud support for Trinidad, and there will be booming chants of "Tito! Tito!" heard in the deep recesses of the historic arena Saturday night. "If there's one person at Madison Square Garden rooting for Mayorga, it will be one more than I think there will be," said longtime boxing observer Bert Sugar.
Trinidad's return indeed will be an event. Whether it will be triumphant, however, is not as certain.
He has decided to forego a tuneup bout against a lesser opponent, instead opting for Mayorga, a powder keg in shorts known for his fearless style, heavy hands and tough chin. Further, whether he wants to admit or not, there could be "ring rust" from his inactivity. And in his last fight of note, against reigning middleweight king Bernard Hopkins three years ago, the aura of being undefeated (Trinidad won his first 40 fights) was blasted away by a steady, precise attack that led Trinidad's father and trainer, Don Felix Trinidad, to throw a white towel in the ring in the final round.
The loss to Hopkins was psychologically damaging for several reasons. Hopkins dismantled Trinidad with a patient, counter-punching style and had built significant leads on all three judges' scorecards before the stoppage. Many boxing observers believed Hopkins used the blueprint for beating Trinidad provided by De La Hoya, who won the early rounds of his 1999 bout with Trinidad before retreating and allowing Trinidad to come back.
"When you are a puncher, as Felix is, that first loss is going to damage your confidence, because Felix went 40 fights expecting he was the one with the advantages," HBO commentator Jim Lampley said. "And to be taken apart by someone with demonstrably greater craft, it's a humbling experience for any fighter.
"Felix learned against Hopkins how much of the game he left out over the years. A puncher doesn't feel one-dimensional until he's turned out like that."
Trinidad received another psychological blow in the moments before the fight when Hopkins's handlers asked Trinidad to re-tape his gloves.
"It was always claimed that Trinidad over-wrapped his hands," Sugar said. "Hearing this rumor, [Hopkins] dictates the hands be re-wrapped and re-wrapped again. It may have hurt his game because Trinidad was on the verge of calling off the fight."
Trinidad (41-1) rebounded from the loss and won easily in his next fight, against lightly regarded Hassine Cherifi, but then, somewhat surprisingly, walked away from the sport. That decision has Mayorga (27-4) convinced that Trinidad will not be mentally ready to step back into the ring. And Mayorga has confidently predicted an early knockout.
"Tito has already retired from boxing," Mayorga said. "And I really, really am adamant about the theory that once you retire from boxing, boxing leaves your heart. That's why I don't have to respect him as much as I would have back then."
Trinidad, however, claimed he is both mentally and physically prepared for Saturday night. He said his long layoff will not be a factor because he never let himself fall too far out of shape.
"I'm always a guy who leads a healthy life and a good life," Trinidad said. "I'm coming back to prove to people that in some boxers it may affect you being inactive, but in others it doesn't if you live the right lifestyle. I've been training very hard like I always used to. That's the key."
And it is part of the reason, Trinidad said, that he will take the less-traveled comeback path. He was known for fighting the best competition he could find before his retirement, and that has not changed.
"We wanted a big fight right away," Trinidad said. "I've always taken care of myself and I've been used to the tough fights. There was no reason to start with a softer fight."
He certainly won't have one with the free-swinging Mayorga, who shelves any sort of tactical plans in favor of an all-out barrage of punches, each intended to deliver a knockout. Whether or not that style is suited for Trinidad is a matter of debate among boxing observers, as is what Trinidad will do next. Should he win Saturday night, the best options appear to be rematches with either De La Hoya or Hopkins.
"I think he wants a rematch with De La Hoya, I think that's where the money is," Sugar said. "I think he's had enough of Hopkins. Hopkins handled him badly."
In a conference call with the media earlier this week, Trinidad and his father deflected numerous questions about possible future opponents. "At this moment, I would hold my answer on that because I'm so focused on this fight," Trinidad said.
All of Puerto Rico and most involved with boxing are as well.