A phrase I read more often when boxing pundits discuss the career of Oscar de la Hoya is that “he has never defeated a great champion in his prime.” It is a controversial statement to direct at a six division champion who is also the most financially successful non-heavyweight of modern times, having been involved many of the best fights of the last twenty years. I always find such statements at least a little dubious, not the least because it is sometimes the job of a journalist to stir the pot by making a controversial statement. Also, it always seems that the higher a man rises, the more some people will try to deny what he has accomplished. However, the writers who make this claim are as familiar with the details of de la Hoya’s career as I am, so I’ll not take the route of reviewing de la Hoya’s past opponents. Instead, I’ll examine the career of one of de la Hoya’s former rivals: Felix “Tito” Trinidad. No one denigrates “Tito” by saying he never faced and defeated a great fighter in his prime, so let’s take some instruction from his career.
The Early Days
Felix Trinidad captured his first welterweight world title in 1993, by knocking out Maurice Blocker in two rounds. He was only 20 years old. However, Blocker himself could hardly be called a “great champion;” he fought only twice more after Trinidad against non-descript opposition and then retired.
Trinidad was signed with Don King, who has a habit of only paying attention to fighters like Trinidad when he isn’t dominating his bread and butter, the heavyweight division. An exciting puncher, “Tito” languished in relative obscurity for the next five years, but during that time he fought some solid contenders: “Yori Boy” Campas and Oba Carr. However, neither man could ever be described as “great.” Oba Carr was time often called the best welterweight who never won the title. Campas would not win a world title until he moved up to 154lbs, at that time a weak division. Trinidad even toyed with moving up to 154 himself in those days, fighting an eliminator for the WBC belt held by Terry Norris in 1997.
In February 1999, Trinidad fought Pernell Whittaker, winning a lopsided decision victory against the slick defensive master. However, by that time, Whittaker was very far past his game. His close loss to de le Hoya had been almost two years before, and it had been more than a year since his tune-up fight with Andrei Pastraev. Ominously, Whittaker’s decision victory had been declared a No Contest because he tested positive for cocaine. Although he was beyond question a great fighter, Whittaker was not the same man who had fought de la Hoya and very, very far past his prime. He fought only once more, losing by knockout to an unknown in 2001.
The Mega-Fight: Oscar de la Hoya
The big September 1999 showdown with Oscar de la Hoya remains controversial to this day, with many commentators who are definitely not de la Hoya partisans claiming that “the Golden Boy” was robbed. The typical defense of Trinidad’s performance is that he was drained from making weight, and that de la Hoya got on his bicycle and ran the whole night. The latter statement is irrelevant, since both fighters moved up to the 154lbs division shortly thereafter. As for de la Hoya “running,” it was “Tito” who came out of the fight with a busted up face and blood-stained trunks. Other writers simply say the fight was close and hard to score, which is fine, but then it hardly makes for a defining statement in Trinidad’s career. At best, he got away with a very close, disputed win over a great fighter in his prime.
Triumphant as a Junior Middleweight
Trinidad rode high after the de la Hoya fight. He moved up to 154lbs, and took away the WBA title from former Olympian David Reid. He then met Fernando Vargas, knocking out “El Feroz” in the 12 th and final round in an explosive bout. However, was either Reid or Vargas truly great champions? Reid definitely was not. Prior to Trinidad, his two opponents of note were fringe contenders Laurent Bouduani and Keith Mullings. After Trinidad, he never got his career back on track and retired in obscurity.
Vargas was on quite a roll before Trinidad, even squeaking out a close win over future undisputed champ “Winky” Wright. However, after the beating he received at the hands of “Tito,” Vargas went on to lose all his subsequent big fights: he was knocked out by his bitter East LA rival Oscar de la Hoya, and then knocked out twice by “Sugar” Shane Mosely. In 2005, between Mosely and de la Hoya, he won a minor victory over Spanish contender Javier Castillejo, who was widely derided as being an unworthy nobody when de la Hoya fought him in 2001
Don King then set up the unification series for the middleweight title, including Felix Trinidad. In May 2001, he challenged two-time WBA middleweight champion William Joppy in his first fight at 160lbs, knocking out Joppy at Madison Square Garden in 5 rounds. That set the stage for the showdown with long-reigning IBF middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins. Out boxed and roughed up, “Tito” lost by 12 th round knockout.
Making his comeback fight against French contender Hasine Cherfi, Trinidad scored an impressive 4 th round knockout. That was followed by an 8th round demolition of Nicaraguan brawler Ricardo Mayorga. Both men were good fighters, but limited, and no one describes them as potential Hall of Famers.
When Felix Trinidad left the 154lbs division, the pieces were picked up by Ronald “Winky” Wright, who went on to become the undisputed world champion at that weight. Wright moved up to 160lbs, and fought Trinidad in May 2005 for the right to challenge for the WBC middleweight title. The result was Trinidad’s second defeat, a humiliating decision loss.
One of the qualities that define a great champion is how they handle bad defeats, and the loss of confidence that sometimes goes with them. Many fighters simply never come back from a crushing knockout, or a staggeringly one-sided decision loss. Trinidad’s response to his second clear-cut defeat was to retire at the age of 32. Only recently has he come out of retirement, to fight Roy Jones in January 2008.
Trinidad‘s Legacy vis-à-vis de la Hoya
Felix Trinidad has enjoyed an illustrious career, and deserves his reputation and legion of Puerto Rican fans. No one argues that when the day comes, “Tito” will deserve his place in the Hall of Fame. However, it is beyond question that the only great fighter in his prime that Trinidad ever scored a win over was Oscar de la Hoya, and that win remains controversial and contested to this very day. The rest of his resume is based on wins over good, but not great fighters. The same could be said of “Sugar” Shane Mosely. No one ever calls Mosely anything except a great fighter, but with two losses to Vernon Forrest, two to Winky Wright, and now one to Miguel Cotto, the only other great fighter he has beaten was Oscar de la Hoya. By calling Oscar’s accomplishements into question, doesn’t that diminish Trinidad and Mosely? Apparently not if you have the double standards of a boxing pundit.
So what does this mean for Oscar de la Hoya, and all the critics who say Oscar “never beat a great fighter in his prime?” Simply this: the more you achieve, the more the critics try to tear you down.