One of the true marks of superstardom is the ability to turn your rivals into superstars themselves, and that was a major recurring storyline of the Oscar De La Hoya era. Felix Trinidad was already a beloved Puerto Rican icon, but he became a mainstream name by winning a controversial decision over De La Hoya in a record-shattering event in September '99. Fernando Vargas was a 1996 U.S. Olympian with a devoted following, but it was his personal grudge against De La Hoya that got him mainstream exposure before he and "The Golden Boy" had even fought. With De La Hoya coming off a loss to Shane Mosley six months before and his future in boxing somewhat uncertain, Trinidad vs. Vargas matched two men best known for their rivalries with De La Hoya. But it was much more than just a placeholder; it was a true fan's superfight, no Oscar required.
Trinidad and Vargas were both unbeaten, come-forward warriors, and both held a claim to the 154-pound crown. Longtime welterweight king "Tito" won a junior middleweight belt in March '00 by dishing out a beating to David Reid. Vargas won his strap in '98 by stopping Yory Boy Campas and scored a career-best win in April '00 over Ike Quartey.
How compelling was the matchup? HBO analyst Emanuel Steward said moments before it began, "This is the first fight in my life that I can not pick a winner."
But there was a simmering undercurrent of doubt, and it centered on Vargas. He was only 22 years old. Trinidad was in his prime at 27. Opinions were mixed as to whether "El Feroz" was stepping up to face one of the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the world a bit too soon.
"It was clear that [Vargas' promoter] Main Events was rushing Fernando," opined HBO blow-by-blow commentator Jim Lampley, looking back on the fight nine years later. "They were rushing Fernando because they wanted him to make whatever money he was going to make in the ring before he got into so much trouble outside the ring that it would end his career. He had already almost gone to the big house for hitting a guy with a golf club. That's what put them in the position of fighting Felix Trinidad at age 22; they just didn't have any faith that Fernando was going to be able to sustain this over a logical career arc."
Lampley's on-air partner, Larry Merchant, disagrees.
"Vargas was precocious because of his physicality and his passion. So he had stormed through amateur and professional opponents who were more experienced, older, etc.," Merchant said. "He went in to fight Trinidad, and many people say he was rushed. I never bought into that, because at the end of the day the idea is to make money, and he had an opportunity to make an awful lot of money, and he did."
Vargas, speaking to HBO.com for this article, addressed the issue of whether he was rushed into the Trinidad fight succinctly: "I asked for it," he said. "I'm the one that wanted it."
Trinidad's father and trainer, "Don Felix" Trinidad Sr., was well aware going into the fight of Vargas' enormous self-belief. But he also had unwavering confidence in his son.
"One of the things that made the fight so great was that Vargas was made to believe by his people that he was the best. He had that in his mind," Trinidad Sr. said. "We never underestimated Vargas. We knew it was going to be a war.
"But I think he underestimated Tito."
If Vargas did underestimate his opponent, he had a much more realistic impression 20 seconds after the opening bell.
Trinidad landed a left hook high on the jaw bone, and Vargas temporarily lost control of his limbs, his right hand pinning itself to his chin in a sort of instinctive, one-second-too-late defensive reflex. A couple of grazing punches later, Vargas was down for the first time in his career. He got up immediately, and the next punch Trinidad landed, another hook to the point of the chin, put Vargas right back on the canvas. There were still two minutes and 18 seconds left in the opening round. It looked like the hotly anticipated battle wouldn't last 60 seconds.
Trinidad was confident enough that it was ending that he jumped on the middle rope to celebrate after the second knockdown.
"I thought that the fight was going to end very soon," he remembered. "When I get to the ropes, it's like a custom. People tell me, 'Don't waste energy jumping on the ropes. You are losing energy, don't do that.' But I trust in my conditioning."
At that moment, Vargas had little he could put trust in. All he had to get him through the round was a fighter's instinct.
"I remember him knocking me down, and I was like, 'What the f---?'" Vargas said. "And then I get up, he knocks me down again! And I had never, honestly, ever felt anything like that power. I just got the feeling that he was not human. I had never been down before in my life, and it was crazy because I don't remember a lot of that fight. I'm like, exchanging punches with him, and his punches felt like f---in' baseball bats."
The rest of the round was pure drama: Trinidad trying to finish, Vargas trying to compose himself and survive. And though El Feroz was flat-footed and not overly elusive, survive he did. When the bell rang, he flashed Tito a smile to tell him he'd recovered. (Then Vargas mistakenly walked to a neutral corner, suggesting maybe he wasn't recovered all the way.)
Other than one scary moment in the second round, when Vargas was wobbled by a Trinidad jab, he was getting his legs back under him. In round three, two pivotal moments unfolded. First, Vargas' left glove grazed Trinidad's right eye in such a way that Tito recoiled in pain, pawing at the eye, giving Vargas an opening to pounce and land effective punches. Then, with 15 seconds left on the clock, Trinidad landed a low left hand in the most painful of spots, directly on the side of Vargas' cup, earning the Puerto Rican a stern warning from ref Jay Nady while Vargas took about two minutes of recuperation time.
The drama was building, and it ratcheted up several more notches in the fourth round. Just 30 seconds in, as Trinidad tried to throw a left to the body, Vargas got there first with a left hook to the jaw, and down went Tito for the sixth time in his career. As he always had before, Trinidad rose and went right back into battle, but about 15 seconds later, he doubled Vargas over with what looked like a deliberate low blow.
"When he knocked Trinidad down with that left hook, I thought tactically, Vargas was in control of the fight," Lampley said. "He was beginning to stop Felix's stuff, he was landing his left hook, he was stepping past Felix's jab and jabbing effectively himself. To me, it looked in the first minute of the fourth round like Fernando had made this amazing transformation from having been lost at sea and too callow for that experience in the first round, to suddenly controlling Trinidad. But then came the low blow. And it was the most calculated and intentional and devastatingly effective low blow I ever saw."
Vargas, not surprisingly, shares Lampley's feeling that the foul was intentional, but he doesn't accept the opinion of many that it was a smart tactical move.
"I remember when I knocked him down, I said, 'I got the motherf---er! I got you, bitch!' And then I remember him hitting me in the balls!" Vargas said. "If people want to say that it was smart, I don't know what book they take this out of, but in boxing, that's being dirty. And that kept going on throughout. He hit me low like four times. One time, when I went down, I couldn't even swallow. I'm on my knees, trying to catch my breath, couldn't even swallow my spit."
For his part, Trinidad still insists it was just an errant punch that missed its target.
"I'm going to tell you right now that it was accidental," he told HBO.com. "I have never used dirty tactics in a fight."
Nady took a point from Trinidad, giving Vargas a 10-7 round to counterbalance round one and even up the fight. The Californian continued to roll in the fifth, landing a variety of powershots and staggering Trinidad for a moment with a combination at the close of the round.
But in the final 45 seconds of the sixth, Trinidad turned it back around. He won that round as well as the next, but the fight remained dead even because Tito lost another point for a low left hand 30 seconds into round seven. But Trinidad didn't slow down. He opened the eighth with a hard right hand and closed the round with a left to the temple, probably his best punch since round one. Vargas looked a bit worn down as he went back to his corner, feeling the effects of the accumulation of punches and all of the energy expended getting back into the fight after the disastrous opening round.
The ninth was a scorcher, just two cavemen standing their ground, with Trinidad again doing more damage. And with 30 seconds to go in round 10, Vargas lost a point of his own for a low blow, putting him in serious trouble on the scorecards. Even a combination of Vargas powershots that made Trinidad's legs hop slightly at the close of round 11 couldn't change the fact that the younger man was down by 3, 4, and 5 points on the scorecards and needed a knockout to win.
There would indeed be a knockout, but it wouldn't be Vargas scoring it. A right hand by Trinidad set up an explosive left hook that turned it into Fernando Vargas Bobble-Head Night at Mandalay Bay. Vargas went down and quickly got back up, but Trinidad raced over and caught him on the chin immediately with a short hook, dropping him to all fours.
Again, Vargas rose, though he barely responded when Nady asked him to walk forward. The fight could have been stopped at that moment, but it was allowed to continue. Vargas tried to hold, but Trinidad was relentless, and Nady finally stepped in at the 1:33 mark, with Vargas on his way down after eating a crushing Trinidad right hand.
"The referee and the corner should have protected Vargas," Don Felix opined. "Vargas was a great champion, but Vargas didn't have anything at that point, after the second knockdown. He was totally unable to defend himself. When those things are taking place inside the ring, you have to think about not only the punches your fighter is receiving, but also, who is the person throwing those punches?"
That person was Felix Trinidad, a knockout artist for the ages. At the end of a truly tumultuous back-and-forth punchout, he was, for all intents and purposes, the undisputed junior middleweight champion of the world.
One unexpected postscript to Trinidad-Vargas emerged nine months later, when Trinidad fought Bernard Hopkins for the undisputed middleweight title in Madison Square Garden. Trinidad had to unwrap and rewrap his hands multiple times amid accusations that the way they were wrapped and the amount of gauze used were illegal. Tito suffered his first defeat that night, and many of the men he'd knocked out previously, including Vargas, grew highly suspicious.
"Before I fought Trinidad, I went to Puerto Rico on the press tour, and in Puerto Rico, a guy who had been a part of Trinidad's team told me, 'You've got to watch out for his hand wraps,'" Vargas remembered. "I didn't really understand what he meant by that at the time. But then when I felt his punch and his power, I was like, 'This s---'s not human.' So that's when I figured out what happened to me. I just know that there was something crazy with his hand wraps."
Vargas' opinion is just that-an opinion-but it's impossible to deny the deleterious effects that Trinidad's hands, whether wrapped legally or not, had on him. He fought only 10 more times, losing four (three by TKO), and retired before his 30th birthday.
"Honestly, I think that fight did take something out of me physically," Vargas acknowledged. "I never got hurt before that fight, but after that fight, the punches started taking their effects quick."
Trinidad agrees that Vargas was never the same fighter after he got done with him.
"It is a matter of comparison," Trinidad said. "You can see Vargas was different. There was one Vargas before fighting me. There was another Vargas after that fight. I'm sure that if Vargas never fought me, and he fought against all the fighters that he fought after me, Vargas could have beaten all of them. He could have knocked all of them out-De La Hoya, Shane Mosley-if he had never fought me."
Despite the way the bout derailed his career, Vargas says it was worth it because that defeat bonded him even more closely with his passionate fans. He feels it was a reasonable price to pay to become so respected as a warrior and to be a part of one of the decade's greatest fights.
For Trinidad, meanwhile, it's a no-brainer that the grueling battle was worth it, even if his success rate suffered soon after (he went 3-3 over the remainder of his career). Lampley believes his 12th-round knockout of Vargas was the high point of his Hall-of-Fame-bound career.
"The De La Hoya victory is still open to philosophical and tactical debate, whereas this was a rampaging, big-hitting puncher's triumph over a kid with a world of talent and potential," Lampley said. "This was a big credibility-builder for Felix. All things considered, it was the best victory of his career."
And the most spectacularly entertaining fight either gutsy warrior was ever in.
"I don't remember a lot of that fight. I'm like, exchanging punches with him, and his punches felt like f---in' baseball bats."
Posted 12:00 AM | Jan 25, 2010