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Warlike Hyperbole, But Peaceful Ending


September 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

t was during a midweek gathering in a corner of Madison Square Garden far from the arena's boxing ring that the father and guiding spirit of the Puerto Rican icon, the man known in the trade as Papa Trinidad, addressed his son's sycophantic support group.

"I guarantee to Bernard Hopkins that we know how to behave because this is a fight for history," Felix Trinidad Sr. said. "And we will not allow anybody to make us mad."

The men, front and center, waved Puerto Rican flags and chanted, "Tito! Tito!" like the audience props they were, granted access by the promoter to heighten tension for a long-awaited middleweight championship fight.

"Don King had all these guys here, all these free passes," said Hopkins, the mouthy opponent by way of Philadelphia's mean streets and the Pennsylvania penal system. "And you see the behavior of uneducated people."

In point of fact, their level of education during those moments was no more discernible than the outcome of last night's unification fight, when the ruse of the pre-event hyperbole finally gave way to the reality of fight-night heat – when the couple dozen of those Tito Trinidad fans expanded into a virtual army of raucous patrons who wound up watching the unthinkable – their man outboxed, outclassed and beaten on a technical knockout in the 12th round.

It was a tense, fierce fight that lived up to its billing, or Hopkins's. In case you missed it, Hopkins and other assorted boxing luminaries granted us permission last week to speak in the language of combat and for Hopkins to wear his hideous red executioner's mask into the ring. Boxing is not golf or tennis, is how the conventional argument went. But aside from Hopkins's flaunting "war" as his motivational mantra amid the circumstances of Sept. 11, doesn't this rationale delegitimize the defenses of boxing as sweet science, as opposed to bloodthirsty pseudosport?

"I do not see how he's showing disrespect," said Lou DiBella, who advises Hopkins, as well as Trinidad's previous Garden victim, William Joppy. "The Trinidad fans booed the national anthem before the Joppy fight. They don't hate America. They were trying to upset my fighter, which they did."

In other words, do what you must to win. If Hopkins could be portrayed as insensitive, then Trinidad's people could, according to the inverse of DiBella's logic, be characterized as anti-American. No matter that the overwhelming majority of them were from a much larger army, Giuliani's New York, and that those hailing from Puerto Rico itself, Trinidad and dad included, are American citizens, too.

Even on a night when the alphabet soup dominion was for once serving up a clear championship broth, boxing operates less as an identifiable entity and more as a deeply flawed but persistent concept, especially within New York's Puerto Rican community of roughly 800,000. "Puerto Rico has had 46 world champions but we still suffer from a colonial mentality," said Jose Torres, one of those champions as a light heavyweight in the 1960's. "Tito is more beloved than all of them because he is so close to perfection."

Until last night, that is, when he suffered his first defeat in 41 fights. For his entry headgear, Trinidad chose a police hat, but it was Hopkins who enforced the fight, almost from the start. On stunningly spry 36-year- old legs, Hopkins solved the Trinidad mystery as a jabbing, counterpunching whirlwind more than as a brawling executioner to became the first undisputed middleweight champion since Marvin Hagler in 1986.

Before the fight's original Sept. 15 date was changed in the aftermath of the hijacking terror, Hopkins set off nationalistic alarms with his throwing of the Puerto Rican flag to the floor. Closer inspection of the video revealed the spinmaster King, during a photo opportunity with the fighters, tantalizingly waving the flag under Hopkins's nose.

The problem with inflammatory sales pitches is that they sometimes catch fire under combustible conditions, such as one of boxing's witching hour title bouts mixed with a boozed-up crowd. Most boxing people have a favorite riot story, and Torres's is from the night he was barely outpointed in Madison Square Garden by Dick Tiger for the light-heavyweight crown in 1966.

"They said they knew that Puerto Ricans drank Rheingold more than any other beer because of all the bottles that came into the ring," he said.

One would hope that no one, not even Hopkins, would begrudge the Trinidad fans their flag-waving Puerto Rican pride during these times of swelling devotion to the Stars and Stripes. Weeks before Sept. 11, which flag was being displayed became an issue for the Bronx Dominicans at the Little League World Series. These choices usually draw more attention when they involve people of color, but the reality is that most Americans honor their family heritage, generations removed.

Diversity is our strength, and it was important to remember that last night and to recognize the difference between promotional farce and fight-night passions. As much as the crowd was for Trinidad, the evidence that he wasn't the man of the hour grew round after round, until a final right hand put him down in the 12th.

"There was nothing personal," Hopkins told Trinidad of the so-called flag fiasco. "A great fighter," Trinidad called Hopkins.

Thankfully, a big fight night ended peacefully, in the heart of the already wounded New York.

Regional stability: Good


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