Skip to main content
Original Issue

Inside Boxing

His Finest Hour
In the fight of the year Felix Trinidad proved he's the best in
the game by knocking out Fernando Vargas

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.

With his 12th-round stoppage of Vargas, which was more or less
ordained within the first 30 seconds, when Trinidad floored his
fellow 154-pound champ with a huge left hook, he not only added
the IBF junior middleweight title to his WBA crown but also
served notice that he is, pound for pound, the best boxer wearing
gloves right now. The Vargas bout was the latest in a campaign
that has seen him derail a series of more famous boxers--Pernell
Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, David Reid. Unfortunately, he can
appropriate their titles a lot easier than their fame.

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?

Olympians Go Pro
Expensive Debutants

The U.S. Olympic boxers may not have shone in Sydney, but now
that they're home, the kids are doing better. Three have signed
pro contracts for more than $1 million each, and most are
expected to get grand send-offs on major cable networks. All
without even one gold medal among them.

It's often assumed that you need a gold to make the transition
from amateur to pro truly profitable. But Olympic success can
turn out to be irrelevant (chart). Promoters dogged the boxers in
Sydney, and the boxers apparently enjoyed the attention, driving
the price of talent way up.

Shelly Finkel, with backing from Main Events and Showtime, signed
featherweight silver medalist Rocky Juarez and middleweight Jeff
Lacy. Lou DiBella, formerly the boxing czar at HBO and now a
boxing adviser, may end up with six others--Michael Bennett, Jose
Navarro, Jermain Taylor, Brian Viloria, Clarence Vinson and
Ricardo Williams Jr. All of DiBella's fighters will get exposure
on HBO.

Finkel, who has handled such Olympic stars as Evander Holyfield,
Meldrick Taylor and, for a brief while, Oscar De La Hoya, says
the crop from Sydney may be at least as good as those from
Barcelona and Atlanta: "You will have as many champions from this
team as from '92 or '96."

Kery Davis, who replaced DiBella at HBO, says there's no getting
around the escalating price of young talent. These boxers may be
unproven, but recent history shows that Olympians are the way to
bet. "Look at the '96 team, which gave us a couple of world
champions [Floyd Mayweather and Fernando Vargas] fast," says
Davis. "You look at these kids, and you see fighters who can be
quickly moved into megafights."

The fighters know there are megapayoffs as well. Juarez was
walking amid the prefight commotion of the Vargas-Trinidad crowd
the other day, his silver medal hanging from his neck. But it was
plain what he was most proud of--his pro contract. "My long-term
goal was to have a world championship," he said, "not to make the
Olympic team."

Because there's gold, and then there's gold.

From Ref to Promoter
Here Comes the Judge

Mills Lane is ready to get it on again--this time on the business
side of boxing. Lane, 63, a Washoe County (Nev.) D.A. turned
district judge, was boxing's most recognized and respected
referee before he left the ring two years ago to arbitrate legal
brawls on daytime TV. (Judge Mills Lane--Justice You Can Trust
airs five afternoons a week on the WB network.) Feisty as ever,
Lane has thrown his gavel into the promoting ring, teaming with
Tulsa promoter Tony Holden to form Let's Get It On, named for the
judge's favorite catchphrase. It's Lane's hope that the new
company can make both a profit and a difference in the sport.

"Me and my partner will make a deal with our fighters--if they
save five percent of their purse money, we'll match it," he says.
"We will also provide access to accountants, lawyers and others
who will look after the fighters' interests. I want to make
money, but dammit, the kids need to make some too. They're the
ones getting bloodied up in the first place." Lane comes by his
fistic empathy honestly. Before becoming a referee, he fought for
more than three years as a professional welterweight.

"Don King wasn't a fighter; Bob Arum wasn't a fighter," says
Lane. "I was a fighter. I've gotten knocked out, got my teeth
knocked out, my eyes shut. I know what 5 a.m. runs feel like and
what a fighter goes through so he can flat out get it on."

--Victor Nunez

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO After dropping Vargas twice in the first round, Trinidad kept the pressure on throughout the bout.


No Gold? No Problem!

While an Olympic gold medal can be a springboard to fame and
fortune as a professional boxer, a loss at the Games is hardly a
career KO. Here are some fighters who came out of the Olympics
goldless yet still glittered as pros.

Ingemar Johansson
OLYMPIC LETDOWN: DQ'd for "not giving his best" in 1952
heavyweight final PRO CAREER: KO'd Floyd Patterson in 1959 to
win heavyweight title; lost to Patterson a year later and in '61
rubber match (above).

Jose Torres
OLYMPIC LETDOWN: Earned light middleweight silver in 1956,
losing in final to three-time Olympic champ Laszlo Papp of
Hungary PRO CAREER: Won light heavyweight world title in 1965
with KO of Willie Pastrano

Evander Holyfield
OLYMPIC LETDOWN: As light heavyweight in 1984, DQ'd when he KO'd
semifinal opponent after referee called break; got bronze PRO
CAREER: Became four-time heavyweight champion

Riddick Bowe
OLYMPIC LETDOWN: Took super heavyweight silver in 1988 after
being stopped in final by Lennox Lewis PRO CAREER: Beat
Holyfield in 1992 to take heavyweight title; lost it to
Holyfield in '93

Michael Carbajal
OLYMPIC LETDOWN: Earned light flyweight silver in 1988, losing
in final to Ivailo Hristov of Bulgaria PRO CAREER: Four-time
world champ; first junior flyweight to make $1 million for a fight

Roy Jones Jr.
OLYMPIC LETDOWN: Lost in 1988 light middleweight final to Park
Si-hun of Korea on infamous hometown decision; named Games'
outstanding boxer PRO CAREER: Became undisputed light
heavyweight champ