In the fight of the year Felix Trinidad proved he's the best in the game by knocking out Fernando Vargas
By Richard Hoffer
Felix Trinidad is a long way from becoming a star, given his near-total lack of charisma. A man ambitious for celebrity does not conduct his life in the sort of secrecy that Trinidad and his domineering father prefer. But if performance counts for anything (it does; it just doesn't count for enough these days), Trinidad might have become the marquee fighter of his generation last Saturday when he teed up Fernando Vargas and nearly knocked him out of Las Vegas.
Vargas, like the others, was much more fan-friendly than Trinidad cares to be. Before the fight, the brash 22-year-old from Oxnard, Calif., practiced a tale of misspent youth and childhood abandonment, calling his father a "maggot" for his early desertion. It was easy to see Vargas as the star, arrogant and likable at once. That he pursued a fighter as dangerous as Trinidad at this point in his career -- after only 20 bouts -- indicated an advanced ambition. That, coupled with vulnerability, made him an appealing prospect for celebrity. He could fight a little too. Like Trinidad (38-0 coming in), he entered the match undefeated.
That Vargas speaks English in addition to Spanish is not to be overlooked. Trinidad, 27, may be beloved in his native Puerto Rico, but he remains a mystery in the greater world of pay-per-view buys. Still, watching him move Vargas around the ring with his left hooks, you had to wonder why Trinidad isn't given wider credit for his boxing skills. He's not flashy, but he's got plenty of style and, as he showed in the first and 12th rounds, plenty of power.
Vargas fought bravely but he had taken too much too soon. He did connect in the fourth, sending Trinidad skidding on his seat with a left hook. But by the final round Vargas was far behind and had to resort to some reckless behavior, jumping in to try for a knockout. Trinidad, implacable in the face of sudden easy pickings, knocked Vargas down three times, ending it with 1:27 remaining and sending Vargas to a hospital for what his promoter called "precautionary" testing. Though mostly one-sided, the fight was still the year's best.
Vargas will have other big bouts. He's young enough that his psyche can probably accommodate this defeat. The question is whether Trinidad, who is kept under tight wraps by his father-manager, Don Felix, can become a star on the sheer force of his ring persona. If he continues to move up in weight, as he promises, and finds Roy Jones Jr. at some level, it will be hard to deny his place in the game.
Maybe by then he will seem less enigmatic to the rest of us. There was a chink in his armor last Saturday after the fight when he began, in rote fashion, thanking those responsible for his success: the Puerto Rican press, his father. At that, he began crying. It was a strange but reassuringly human moment. Then Don Felix took the microphone and said, "Sorry for the emotion."
So we've still got a ways to go, don't we?
Issue date: December 11, 2000
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