“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu
A superfight that was almost four years in the making.
Both welterweight titleholders. Both undefeated. Both pound-for-pound entrants. Both 26 years of age and in their prime. Both superbly talented with concussive knockout power. One of them was a pay-per-view superstar who was setting financial records almost every time he gloved up. The other was destined to be a pay-per-view superstar – if only he could only win the biggest fight of his life.
The stakes were enormous.
Oscar De La Hoya had won belts in four divisions and was the reigning WBC 147-pound titleholder. With a record of 31-0 (25 knockouts), “The Golden Boy” had scored victories over Rafael Ruelas, Genaro Hernandez, John John Molina, Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Ike Quartey and Oba Carr. Despite some critics maintaining that he was a product of media hype, De La Hoya’s resume made such sentiments look silly. He could fight like hell – period.
In the opposite corner was IBF counterpart Felix “Tito” Trinidad, who would be making the 15th defense of the title he had proudly held for six-and-a-half years. Among his victims were Maurice Blocker, Hector Camacho, Yori Boy Campus, Carr and Whitaker. His ability, his resume and his ring accomplishments were of the highest caliber, but Tito’s earning power was nowhere near that of De La Hoya’s. Trinidad, who was 35-0 (30 KOs) at the time, fought for glory, but he also wanted paid.
The story was scintillating as was the national rivalry. Trinidad hailed from the boxing hotbed of Puerto Rico and while East LA’s De La Hoya had won Olympic gold for the USA at Barcelona 1992, he would be representing his Mexican heritage on Mexican Independence Day. Puerto Rico against Mexico in boxing is as fierce as it gets, so this bout was following in the tradition of Carlos Ortiz vs. Battling Torres, Wilfredo Gomez vs. Carlos Zarate, Salvador Sanchez vs. Wilfredo Gomez and Wilfredo Gomez vs. Lupe Pintor.
In general terms, fans anticipated something akin to Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns from 1981, which was the last welterweight superfight to set the boxing world on fire. That’s how high expectations were.
As a fight, however, De La Hoya-Trinidad didn’t come close to Leonard-Hearns. The bout is remembered almost exclusively for the controversial nature of its scoring. On Sept. 18, 1999, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Trinidad officially unified the titles by 12-round majority decision, but for every fan you’ll meet who agrees with that verdict, there are five, maybe 10, who will tell you that De La Hoya should have won.
I hadn’t watched De La Hoya-Trinidad for several years and decided to score it for the first time in two decades. I didn’t find that too difficult. I gave eight of the first nine rounds to De La Hoya and, in my opinion, there were only two swing rounds – the first and the fourth – and I awarded one to each fighter. The fifth round was befuddling on the HBO replay I sourced. De La Hoya, to my eyes, won that session with room to spare, momentarily stunning Trinidad with a sharp three-punch combination before driving him back with a hard flurry late. All three judges (not that I can stick up for them in this fight) gave the fifth to De La Hoya, but the late Harold Lederman, HBO’s unofficial scorer, voted for Trinidad. I can’t even begin to imagine why, but I guess that shows you just how open to interpretation the action was. Trinidad swept the final three frames because De La Hoya elected to protect an insurmountable lead that he didn’t have.
“I know I won,” said a bemused but still smiling De La Hoya after the decision had been announced. “I thought I put on the boxing performance of my life. I thought I had the fight won easy, by outboxing him, by outclassing him. I wanted to demonstrate a boxing lesson – that’s what I wanted – and I guess people didn’t appreciate that tonight.”
“I knew Oscar was a great fighter, but I had the will to win, and I told everybody, the press, I was gonna win,” countered Trinidad through an interpreter. “He moves well and he moves too much, but my corner told me to keep attacking and that’s what I did. Oscar deserves a rematch and we’re gonna talk about that.”
The sequel never happened.
My final score was 116-112 to De La Hoya. If I give Tito both swing rounds, then I still have De La Hoya a 115-113 winner, so a Trinidad win is hard to justify. That was the case for me at the time and that remains the case 20 years later. Indeed, it’s difficult to think of another champion winning such a high-profile superfight by doing so little. De La Hoya’s jab was more effective, and he was the only one putting his shots together. Over 12 rounds, you can count the amount of times Trinidad lands a combination on one hand.
It’s all in the history books now of course, and De La Hoya was the beneficiary of some debatable scoring himself. There are many who felt he came up short against Whitaker and Quartey, and the vast majority had him losing big to Felix Sturm in their 2004 middleweight title bout. The controversial points losses to Trinidad and Sugar Shane Mosley in their 2003 rematch probably even things up.
Following “The Fight of the Millennium”, both De La Hoya and Trinidad went on to capture more glory and more world titles. They would secure true greatness in the sport before succumbing to the apex predator of time. Their final bouts took place in 2008, with Trinidad losing on points to another faded legend in Roy Jones Jr. and De La Hoya suffering a stoppage defeat to a rampaging Manny Pacquiao. As first-ballot Hall of Famers, De La Hoya and Trinidad entered Canastota together in 2014.
Tom Gray is Associate Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
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