If you're wondering why Oscar De La Hoya's new reality boxing show has been on the ratings ropes since its Sept. 7 premiere, consider F�lix Trinidad's rousing pay-per-view showdown with fellow middleweight Ricardo Mayorga last Saturday night.
In De La Hoya's The Next Great Champ, 12 unremarkable novice fighters punish and torment each other on what is essentially a bare Los Angeles soundstage. In the pay-TV bout, two ex-champs pounded each other in front of 17,406 wildly partisan fans at Madison Square Garden.
For Trinidad, who was returning from a 29-month retirement, the drama played out so perfectly that it almost seemed scripted. He had been undefeated before losing his 160pound title to Bernard Hopkins in 2001 on a 12th-round TKO. Despite winning his next fight handily, Trinidad, unable to come to terms with Hopkins for a rematch, walked away from the sport in his prime.
Trinidad retired to his native Puerto Rico and spent his time riding horses, going to cockfights and ballooning to almost 200 pounds. "It was nice not having to wake up at 4 a.m. to run," he says. "I could do anything I wanted, whenever I wanted." Early this spring, what he wanted was to fight again. He missed the excitement, the parades, the fans screaming Tito! Tito! Tito! The money, he insists, was incidental. "He had enough," says his father, F�lix. "But if the chance came to make more, it would not have been a bad thing."
The opportunity came in the ever-persuasive form of promoter Don King, who lured Trinidad out of retirement with a lucrative offer to fight Shane Mosley. But when Mosley was upset by Winky Wright last March, King offered Tito $10 million to face Mayorga, a malevolent former welterweight champ with a disdain for defense and hair dyed a shade of orange only found in a Crayola 64-pack. "Ricardo is insane!" gushed King, who likens him to Muhammad Ali, Rasputin, Mao, the "Archduke of Ferdinand" and Professor Irwin Corey.
At the prefight press conference the Madman of Managua offered to bet his opponent $100,000 that he'd knock him out. Trinidad countered by dangling a contract for such a wager in Mayorga's face and daring him to put his money where his mouth was. Mayorga double-dared Trinidad to sign first. Trinidad then double-dog-dared Mayorga.
Things didn't reach the triple-dog-dare stage until Round 1, when the awkwardly fierce Mayorga dropped his gloves and invited Trinidad to pop him on the chin. Mayorga's punches came in torrents, and he landed an overhand right that dropped Trinidad in Round 3. Trinidad was never in real danger, though, and in the fifth he landed a wicked right that cut Mayorga under the left eye and marked the beginning of the end.
For the next two rounds Mayorga, his head jerking to and fro as Trinidad landed at will, somehow stayed on his feet. But the beating he absorbed was ferocious. A left to the body in the eighth sent him to the canvas for the first time in his 32-fight career. He was up at the count of nine, took a lot of punches and fell again. He rose once more, but with 21 seconds remaining, a left hook sent him to his knees, and referee Steve Smoger mercifully stopped the bout.
Both fighters were freckled with blood, but their bravery gave the bout a splendor you just don't see on reality shows. What Trinidad and Mayorga did to each other was something to behold.