By the middle of the fourth round, his face smeared with the blood running from his nose and his legs backpedaling shakily, Rodney Moore had reached the end of a short tether and wore the desperate look of a man who wanted only one thing—a place in the night to hide.
Undefeated Felix (Tito) Trinidad, the International Boxing Federation's welterweight champion, had been stalking Moore last Saturday night from the opening bell, methodically cutting off the ring while stepping inside to drive hard left hooks and right hands into his body. The fans at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas sensed the inevitable when Trinidad threw a hard right that bloodied Moore's nose near the end of the third round. They came out of their seats in the fourth round as the champion crashed a low hook into Moore's right hip, dropping him to one knee. "I thought he had broken my leg," Moore said. "It felt paralyzed."
Trinidad bore in after Moore beat the 10 count. Two more crushing hooks to the body had Moore casing the exits, an uppercut staggered him, and a left hook to the head, flush on the glove Moore was using to cover his face, set him up for the patty-cake finale. It was a hook that merely glanced off Moore's temple but sent him reeling awkwardly backward into a neutral corner, where he turned and again settled to his knees, facing the ring post. He had just risen, looking dazed and disoriented, when the bell saved him from certain annihilation, and he chose to stay on his stool when the bell signaled the start of the fifth round. At once there was Trinidad striking his most familiar pose, standing just inside the ropes with his long arms thrust high in the air.
The 23-year-old Trinidad is now 28-0, with 24 knockouts, since going pro almost six years ago. The victory over Moore was his eighth successful defense of the title he won from Maurice Blocker on June 19, 1993, and the seventh defense that ended in a knockout. Only Hector Camacho, against whom Trinidad won an easy 12-round decision two years ago, has been able to go the championship distance with him.
Although Trinidad was never challenged on Saturday, there was much in his performance that underscored why many regard him as one of the top fighters, pound for pound, in the world, in the company of IBF super middleweight champ Roy Jones Jr., and perhaps WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker. And why, among great Puerto Rican fighters, he has already been named as heir to the tradition built by the likes of Wilfredo Gomez and Wilfred Benitez. The 5'10" Trinidad moved with a dancer's grace against Moore. He threw every punch in a fighter's repertoire—leading with the jab, doubling up on hooks and uppercuts, crossing with the right—and pressured Moore relentlessly, increasing the heat slowly as he closed in.
"Did you see how beautifully he cut off the ring?" said veteran California trainer Jimmy Montoya. "He was putting so much pressure on him. All the time. Jabbing. Throwing combinations. In and out. A real tough kid. Very hard puncher, full of energy. Very smart. I don't think there's anybody in or around the welterweight division who can beat him. I don't think Whitaker can handle him. And I think he'll knock out [IBF junior middleweight and WBC super welterweight champion] Terry Norris. The only question is whether he can take a hard shot from a guy like Norris."
The plan is for Trinidad to defend his IBF title again, perhaps against former super lightweight champ Frankie Randall, while holding out hope for a welterweight unification bout against either WBA champ Ike Quartey or Whitaker. "I want Whitaker. That's my goal," Trinidad said after Saturday's fight. "It's between him and me to show the world who's the best pound-for-pound boxer."
Whomever he fights, Trinidad hopes to be the main attraction. Until the Moore fight, he had a reputation as one of the greatest living fighters who had never fought a main event. And even last Saturday's bout was overshadowed by the medical suspension of Tommy Morrison, who was scheduled to fight on the undercard. Trinidad had become the best-kept secret in boxing. Just a year ago, when Whitaker was asked if he wanted to fight Trinidad, Sweet Pea thought the reference was to the country. "I don't want to fight there," said Whitaker. Now Trinidad is among the most appealing and marketable fighters in the world—a rising slugger with Sugar Ray Leonard's choirboy looks and more than a few of his skills.
Unlike Leonard, who used the 1976 Olympics to launch his career, Trinidad failed to qualify for Puerto Rico's Olympic boxing team in 1988, despite being a five-time Puerto Rican amateur champion. His father, Felix Sr., was upset at the snub, and in 1990 he arranged for his son, who was only 17, to turn pro.
Trinidad had a mere 12 KOs among his 51 victories as an amateur, but the amateur game rewards movement and volume of punches landed. All that changed when he began to fight for money. "I started planting myself, with my feet more firmly on the ground, and the punches got stronger," Trinidad says. He knocked out his first five opponents, and by his second year as a pro he was flooring fighters one after another. The boxer had become a puncher, and his handlers were matching him as though he were Leonard. In only his 16th pro fight, in Paris, Trinidad faced the hard-punching Alberto Cortes, who had already won 51 fights. It was a war. Cortes had Trinidad down twice in the second round, but he came charging back in the third and was punching Cortes senseless when the referee ended the bout.