War at 154
Twenty two years ago today (Dec. 2, 2000), Felix Trinidad stopped Fernando Vargas in the final round of what was arguably the best fight and performance of his hall-of-fame career.
The IBF-WBA unification bout was third and final bout of Trinidad’s brief (one year) stay in the junior middleweight division. Veteran boxing scribe Dan Rafael penned an article on Trinidad’s three-bout reign of terror at 154 pounds for the January 2022 issue of The Ring, which served as a tribute to the Puerto Rican superstar.
The Felix Trinidad special issue is on sale at the Ring Shop.
TRINIDAD’S BRIEF BUT SCINTILLATING JUNIOR MIDDLEWEIGHT REIGN IN 2000 WAS MUST-SEE TV THAT CULMINATED IN AN EPIC SHOWDOWN WITH FERNANDO VARGAS
Felix “Tito” Trinidad had defended his IBF welterweight world title 15 times from 1993 to 1999 and was already a superstar. Controversy or not, he outpointed Oscar De La Hoya in their mega title unification fight and made previous notable defenses against Pernell Whitaker, Oba Carr, Yori Boy Campas and Hector Camacho.
But when Puerto Rico’s Trinidad decided to move up to junior middleweight after unifying the IBF and WBC welterweight titles against De La Hoya, it was never going to be a long stay in the division. By design, Trinidad and his father/trainer Felix “Papa” Trinidad Sr. viewed it as a brief stop on the way to middleweight glory and beyond. While Trinidad, who was in his prime, had grander plans, his short stay at junior middleweight – only nine months in 2000 – was unforgettable.
It was a devastating three-fight run against quality opponents with a combined record of 67-1, including two undefeated American Olympians, and resulted in Trinidad unifying two titles in what was arguably the greatest fight in junior middleweight history.
“Those fights at 154 were what you call remarkable and irrefutable and the Fernando Vargas fight was one of the greatest fights in boxing history,” said Don King, Trinidad’s career-long promoter. “Here’s a young man who came up from welterweight and performs like he was a natural. He did it and he did it with magnificent style and showed his greatness. It was phenomenal.”
First, Trinidad battered David Reid via punishing unanimous decision to win the WBA 154-pound title on March 3 in a Showtime PPV main event at an outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, harkening back to boxing’s 1980s glory days. Reid was never the same and fought only four more times.
Four months later, having signed a multi-fight contract with HBO, Trinidad blitzed the Senegal-born, France-based Mamadou Thiam, his tough-as-nails mandatory challenger, in three rounds at American Airlines Arena in Miami.
Tito culminated his explosive stay at junior middleweight with a Dec. 2 HBO PPV fight for the ages at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. In a battle without peer at 154 pounds, Trinidad knocked out Fernando Vargas in the 12th round of an epic fight of the year contender to unify the IBF and WBA titles.
Five months later, Trinidad would move up to middleweight, but it was that ruthless three-fight run at 154 pounds, which culminated in Trinidad’s selection by The Ring and other outlets as the 2000 Fighter of the Year, that went a long way toward sealing his legendary, Hall of Fame legacy.
After the De La Hoya fight, King met with Trinidad and his father to discuss their plans.
“His dad said, ‘I don’t know about him going up because he’s really good right here and doing phenomenal.’ And Tito said, ‘Dad, I’ll fight anybody!’ He said, ‘I don’t care who it is.’ He was from the old school,” King said. “I thought he would be great at junior middleweight also. I wanted to help him do what he wanted to do, and he wanted to go up in weight.”
“… at junior middle, [Trinidad] looked like he was in his glory. He was basically the same guy at welter only he looked sturdier.”
– Max Kellerman
Kery Davis, then an HBO Sports senior vice president, who was responsible for much of the network’s boxing deal making and decisions on which fighters and fights to pursue, was enthralled with Trinidad. He loved the power, the smile and the passion he displayed. Trinidad and HBO had done a few fights together before he went to Showtime for the Reid fight, but Davis was as excited as could be to help engineer a multi-fight contract to bring him back to the network, where he would fight the final eight bouts of his career.
“My feeling on Trinidad was I always thought he was going to be a star even though he didn’t speak English,” Davis said. “The theory was anybody who is that exciting to their own culture has something that would sell to everyone. That’s the same way I felt about [Manny] Pacquiao.”
Longtime TV analyst Max Kellerman believes Trinidad’s best weight was 154 pounds even though he wasn’t there long.
“He was a phenom at welter, but at welterweight you always got the sense that he could be toppled somehow, like he needed to fill out a little, and at middleweight he was fighting bigger guys, like Bernard Hopkins, who could take his punch,” Kellerman said. “But at junior middle, he looked like he was in his glory. He was basically the same guy at welter only he looked sturdier.
“I would say we never really got to know him at junior middleweight because he was only there briefly, but you could argue that that was him at his very best. He had this big size advantage, absurd punching power, and he just looked a little sturdier on his feet. My suspicion is Felix Trinidad’s best weight was 154. That’s what I suspect. I don’t know if I could prove it, but I know what I saw. Trinidad at 154 was a whole lot.”
After Trinidad defeated De La Hoya, King took Trinidad to Showtime to challenge Reid, the undefeated 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medalist.
“I thought he would be a better ’54-pounder than he was a welterweight only because he was fairly tall and I thought he would be able to carry his power and not have to shrink down,” Davis said. “One of the things we talked about at the time was an Oscar De La Hoya rematch and Oscar’s people thought of that fight happening at ’47. When Trinidad announced he was going to ’54, it sort of put that fight on the backburner in terms of a rematch happening.”
The first half of the fight with Reid, 14-0 at the time, was competitive. Reid found a home for one hard right hand after another and one caught Trinidad clean on the jaw with a little over a minute remaining in the third round to drop him to a knee. As close as the fight was for the first six rounds, however, it was all Trinidad thereafter as he severely punished Reid.
“Reid was a fast guy with real athletic ability and an amateur pedigree, and Trinidad beat him up,” Kellerman said. “It was like there was nothing Reid could do with him. [The late Hall of Fame trainer and broadcaster] Emanuel Steward had the best description of him. He called him a killer robot. First couple of rounds he’d study you; then he’d put the program in and run the program and that was it; and he’d steamroll you. He overmatched David Reid.”
Trinidad dropped Reid with his vaunted left hook late in the seventh round, opened a cut over his right eye in the eighth round and battered him for the rest of the fight. The 11th round was a huge one for Trinidad, who scored three knockdowns against his fading foe but also had a point deducted for a low blow. In the end, he won handily, 115-106, 114-107 and 114-106, to take Reid’s belt in a highly entertaining fight and move to 37-0.
“The knockdown did not bother me,” Trinidad said after the fight. “If you don’t get me in the first few rounds, the fight is over. I came here to win. That’s what I told everyone I was going to do, and I did it.”
Trinidad was a broadcast free agent and Davis was keen to bring him back to HBO.
“We had worked with David from his pro debut and I knew David was a strong puncher and had some talent, but I did not think he was the same caliber as Felix, so the result of that fight did not surprise me,” Davis said. “Then we met with Trinidad afterwards, probably within weeks of the Reid fight.”
Davis, other HBO executives, Trinidad, Papa Trinidad and King gathered at the HBO offices in Manhattan to discuss a Trinidad contract with the network. It was at that meeting where Davis realized Trinidad’s stay at junior middleweight was going to be quite brief.
Papa Trinidad had the floor but was speaking in Spanish “and it was interesting because I remember sitting next to [HBO attorney] Peter Mozarsky and the only thing I could understand were the names, so he’d say a couple of phrases in Spanish and then he’d say ‘Mamadou.’ OK, got that, he’s going to want to do the mandatory.
“Then he spoke for a while and then he’d say ‘Vargas.’ And we were like, ‘Ohhh, OK! If that’s next, that’s great.’ Then he spoke for a while longer and he says, ‘Hopkins.’ And we’re like, ‘Wow, OK, that’s at middleweight. He wants to move up to middleweight and fight Hopkins. And then he spoke for a few more minutes and he said ‘Jones.’ And I turned to Peter and I said, ‘Is there a Jones in the middleweight division?’ Peter said to me, ‘I don’t know a lot of Spanish but I think he’s talking about Roy Jones.’ I was like, ‘Ohhhh! We’re talking about a different type of fighter.’ They were so ambitious in their plans and that’s one of the things we loved about Felix. He would fight anyone and take on any challenge.”
Trinidad had made it clear that junior middleweight was going to be a pit stop, but a memorable one based on his desire to fight Vargas before leaving.
“I thought the plan was incredibly ambitious,” Davis said. “Before [going to middleweight] he took on Vargas, who was the best junior middleweight. He did not shy away from fighting the best competition. That was one of the best deals and the names were in that deal. It wasn’t just that he signed a multi-fight deal and we’ll pick the opponents later. No, it was, you’re gonna fight Mamadou for this, Vargas and then you’re going to go to middleweight and [eventually] fight Hopkins.”
But first was the mandatory defense against Thiam, who was 33-1 and a tremendous puncher who had drawn comparisons as a bigger version of former welterweight titlist Ike Quartey, who had fought well against De La Hoya and Vargas in competitive losses. Trinidad started very fast and battered Thiam in the first round. Thiam was wobbling from taking so many clean shots, and with a minute left his right eye began to badly swell. It was such a dominant round the judges all had it 10-8 without a knockdown. Thiam mounted a rally in the second round and even knocked Trinidad back with a right hand.
“The second round of that fight was pretty competitive and I remember thinking Mamadou was a strong opponent and I was surprised by how Tito was able to stand in there with him and trade,” Davis said.
Trinidad continued to stalk Thiam in the third round. With the challenger’s eye swollen completely closed, he could not see Trinidad’s left hooks coming. He took a bit more punishment until referee Jorge Alonso stopped it with 12 seconds left in the round.
With Thiam vanquished and Vargas easily disposing of Ross Thompson in four rounds a month later, their unification fight was set. It was billed as “Forces of Destruction” and was as eagerly anticipated as any fight in recent years. It matched the two best junior middleweights in the world, was universally expected to produce great action and it would add another glorious chapter to the Puerto Rico-Mexico (OK, Mexican-American in this case) rivalry.
“I thought Vargas was going to be an incredible challenge for Tito. It turned out to be a pretty good fight, right?” Davis said with a laugh. “It was a terrific fight. I thought it was a fight of the year. It made me think that Tito at ’54 is a problem. This may be his best weight and he’s probably the best fighter in the world at this weight, and I thought well of Vargas, that he was the second-best at the weight. You had the two best fighters in the world at that weight in an incredible action-packed fight. It was can’t-miss television.”
The fight delivered on all fronts as that rare big fight that exceeded lofty expectations. Trinidad-Vargas served up 12 rounds of dramatic toe-to-toe action with both men getting knocked down before the brutal ending.
“Trinidad just kept chopping away, methodically, calculated, by design, and he did the job,” King said. “It made me proud. I was just so proud. It makes me feel good to talk about it. Tito was calm and wasn’t trying to rush to victory like many guys would do. He kept his game plan together and he just gave Vargas a terrific whupping.”
For many, the 20-0 Vargas, who was just 22 years old but had become, at 21, the youngest junior middleweight champion in history, was taking on too much, too soon in Trinidad. Those critics looked like prophets early on because just 20 seconds into the fight Trinidad connected with his calling-card left hook and dropped Vargas. He jumped right up, but moments later, Trinidad floored him again with another clean hook. A huge fight looked like it might be over in about 45 seconds as Trinidad ran across the ring and jumped on the ring ropes and raised his arms in victory.
Vargas, however, gathered himself and, with the guile of a veteran, survived. He took a nasty low blow from Trinidad in the third round but shook it off and rallied in the fourth, sending Trinidad to his backside with a clean left hook on the chin 30 seconds into the frame. Later in the round, when they were in an exchange, Trinidad nailed Vargas with a left hand well below the belt – many opined it was purposeful – that did damage and stunted Vargas’ momentum. Referee Jay Nady took a point from Trinidad.
Back and forth they went in an all-out slugfest, even though Trinidad was getting the better of the action. When Vargas went low in the 10th round, he lost a point too.
Vargas would need a knockout to win in the 12th round, but he was fading fast and Trinidad closed the show in memorable fashion with three more knockdowns. When Trinidad savagely connected with a flush right hand to drop Vargas for the third time in the round, and fifth time overall, Nady waved it off at 1:33 to end the all-time great fight.
“That might be the greatest fight in junior middleweight history,” Kellerman said. “When you say ‘greatest fight’ you’re talking about what’s at stake, who’s involved, the action and overall you’re in firm territory calling that the greatest junior middleweight fight.”
It was a great fight but also very grueling for both men.
“That was my toughest fight,” Trinidad said in the immediate aftermath. “He hit me with a good left hook and he hurt me a little, but I was in great condition. I always knew the fight would end in a knockout. I think I’m a great champion.”
He was indeed, but his brief but electrifying time at junior middleweight was over. He could have stayed at 154 pounds, where a De La Hoya rematch would have been another blockbuster even though The Golden Boy had lost to Shane Mosley. And there was also the newly crowned welterweight champion Mosley, who was on the prowl and interested in moving up if Trinidad would fight him.
But Trinidad only had eyes for middleweight, where he won a world title in his next fight by knocking out William Joppy in the semifinals of the tournament King and HBO organized to crown the undisputed 160-pound champion.
“I was excited to see the new challenge at the new weight only because he had already beaten probably the two best guys at junior middleweight in Reid and Vargas,” Davis said.
So, it was goodbye 154 and thanks for the memories.
“It was one of the most dominant, electric runs through a division of any fighter, maybe in the history of the sport, even at just three fights, just because of the caliber of the guys he fought,” Davis said. “He wasn’t fighting guys who were past their prime looking to pick up an easy belt. All three of them were in their prime. I think Trinidad’s best weight was 154 pounds and he has to be considered among the top guys who ever fought at the weight.”