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Worth the Wait
Richard Hoffer
October 08, 2001
Long overlooked Bernard Hopkins capped his career and unified the middleweight title with a stunning upset of Felix Trinidad
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October 08, 2001

Worth The Wait

Long overlooked Bernard Hopkins capped his career and unified the middleweight title with a stunning upset of Felix Trinidad

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For one thing, Hopkins believed his reputation had been unfair, based on his long-ago loss to Jones and his failure to get a quality opponent against whom to showcase his abilities. "If I had those hype names years ago," he says, comparing his $2.8 million purse with Trinidad's $8 million, "where do you think I'd be?"

Mostly, though, he knew that he was the better athlete. The 36-year-old Hopkins's boxing ability had been overlooked in the buildup to this match, eclipsed by the 28-year-old Trinidad's youth and power. In Trinidad's previous 40 fights, all wins, he had knocked out 33 opponents. Yet Hopkins easily defused that superior power. He deprived Trinidad of his vaunted left hook, moving from side to side, always stepping in before Tito could load up, delivering crisp right leads to his head. Trinidad, whose style is simply to lock and load, had no backup plan.

It wasn't clear what was happening until the fourth round, when Hopkins realized how baffled Trinidad was. Hopkins would dance in, sometimes throwing stiff jabs, sometimes lone right hands, and drive Trinidad back every time. Trinidad's slowness afoot had never before caused him problems, especially when opponents were willing to wade in and take their licks. Now he couldn't locate Hopkins, and he was getting a faceful of leather every time he turned around. By the 10th round the punches Trinidad was taking had him close to being out on his feet.

Although Trinidad said he thought the fight was even going into the 12th (all three judges had Hopkins far ahead), he could hardly dispute what happened 1:18 into the round, when Hopkins floored him with a right hand that could not have traveled more than eight inches. Trinidad struggled to get up at the count of nine, but by then his father was in the ring, and it was over.

The action, the pace, the surprising result—it all provided a breathtaking resolution for an event that was, given the time and location, problematic, to say the least. The bout had been planned for Sept. 15, but the attacks, pushed the fight back two weeks. Even though it had been keenly anticipated, it now seemed a bit overripe, missing the tang it might have had if it had been held as scheduled. It wasn't only the lack of percussion from Trinidad's Puerto Rican constituency on Saturday night (for security reasons, no drums were allowed in the Garden this time around), it was also the general lack of energy in the arena, as if all in attendance were still uncomfortable enjoying themselves.

Even King seemed to devote more of his precious press-conference time to discussing the recovery of New York City than to the fight. Normally he would have encouraged (if not invented) the fighters' mutual enmity. Now he was obliged to wave flags, promise lavish donations to the fire department and urge New Yorkers to take to the streets against their common foe, terrorism.

It was refreshing to see a major fight reduced from its usual DefCon 4 status all the way to a sporting event. Given the prevailing inclination in New York to celebrate the quiet performance of duty over the violent ramblings of a boxer, nobody was in a mood for hype. Everyone connected with the fight recognized as much, with the possible exception of Hopkins, who was still walking around the week before the bout with a bandanna reading WAR wrapped around his head. This, believe it or not, amounted to a considerable concession to good taste for Hopkins. He had earlier stolen the promotion from Trinidad by—twice!—stomping on a Puerto Rican flag. In July, Hopkins had even performed the sacrilege in San Juan, barely escaping the press conference under a rain of bottles and chairs.

Yet you couldn't fail to see the calculation in Hopkins's misguided mischief. The Executioner tried one other gambit at Wednesday's final press conference, saying he was prepared to offer Trinidad, as is the custom before executions, a last meal. With that Hopkins produced a bag of rice and a bag of beans and flung them on the dais in front of Trinidad. By fight time, however, both men were affecting so much sensitivity that any previous ugliness was forgotten. They either wore or held aloft NYPD and FDNY hats and helmets and behaved as if they had suddenly attained a sense of proportion. They hadn't, of course; they were still too immersed in their own do-or-die struggle to begin to think globally. Still, it was nice that they made an effort.

What mattered most, though, in a time and place that could use an example of redemption and recovery, was the honest effort of two fighters, one of them soaring beyond the capabilities he'd displayed and fulfilling, at long last, the idea he had always had of himself. Hey, you never know.

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