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Elder Trinidad Built A Career For Self And Son…The Right Training For This Job

Elder Trinidad Built A Career For Self And Son

Steve Springer
Times Staff Writer

May 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.


The road home wasn't easy for 18-year-old Felix Trinidad.

Felix Trinidad Sr., that is.

After laboring at a construction job in Condado, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico, he would travel by foot, by bus and by van to reach the modest home in Cupey Alto he shared with his mother and seven brothers and sisters.

Today, at 52, Trinidad can only smile and marvel at how high he has climbed on the economic ladder. As manager and trainer of his son, Felix Jr., he negotiates with the financial giants of the boxing world and works his son's corner against some of the sport's toughest opponents.

Known as a give-no-quarter bargainer, Trinidad has not flinched in the face of either Don King, his promoter, or rival promoters, such as Bob Arum. He turns down offer after offer until he gets the purses he thinks his son, one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world, deserves.

The younger Trinidad, known as Tito in the Trinidad camp, will get $10 million to fight Winky Wright, who will get $4 million, Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Both Trinidads, and the rest of their camp, are spending the week in a two-story luxury suite atop the MGM Grand Hotel, the vista of the Las Vegas strip spread out before them.

The older Trinidad, known as Don Felix, directs not only the negotiations and the training regimen, but the leisure time as well. This week, he is running a pool tournament on a table in the suite.

Don Felix, who presents a stern face in public, is relaxed with a pool stick in his hands, teasing opponents and relishing the moments when his own shots are successful.

Which quite often are. Tito was eliminated early but Don Felix is going strong, heading into the final rounds.

Life certainly wasn't that good for Felix when he was growing up in Cupey Alto. Nobody had a pool table. Still, there was always food on the table. His father, Dolores Trinidad Benitez, was foreman of a crew of 96 farm workers.

It all changed when Felix turned 11. His father died of liver cancer at 45, leaving Felix, youngest of the brood, and the rest to survive in the fields.

Felix did his part, did it so well that, at 14, he was summoned to the residence of Puerto Rican governor Roberto Sanchez Vilella and given a certificate naming him as the best young farm worker on the island.

"And," Don Felix said through a translator, "they also gave me a fountain pen and $35."

To Felix in those days, $35 meant more than $10 million means today.

Despite the honor, Felix saw beyond the fields to a better life. He just didn't know what it might be. Sports? There were no facilities.

"We didn't even have a baseball field near us," he said.

At 16, Felix became a construction worker. Which led him to a fateful trip home from the job two years later.

It had begun like any other trip, Felix and his fellow workers walking and joking as they headed for the bus stop. Then they spotted Nelson LaSalle, a local fighter they had seen on television. Excited, they decided to follow him. When LaSalle disappeared inside the Mata Corona gym, they followed.

It was the beginning of a new world for Felix, one that would become his life.

Encouraged by trainer Johnny Toledo, Felix put on a pair of gloves and discovered love at first punch.

He was quickly locked into an arduous daily schedule. He would leave home at 6:30 in the morning, get to his construction job early and finish by noon, then head to the gym for a two- to three-hour workout. After dinner, he went jogging into the gathering darkness.

Soon, he was fighting as an amateur in the featherweight division. At 22, he turned pro, but his career lasted only 16 fights because of eye and neck injuries.

Even so, his biggest moments in the sport were yet to be. Tito would shadow box with Felix almost from the time the youngster could walk.

Today, with the Trinidads at the top of the boxing world, never a day passes that Don Felix doesn't think of his father, his mother, Matilde, and those days of picking crops.

"They would be so proud of what we have achieved," he said. "They would be happy to know the family they started has stepped into a much better place. I wish they had known the comfort we enjoy. They had such a tough life."

The Right Training For This Job

May 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.


They were survivors. They fought for what they got. The economics of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and Youngstown, Ohio, were not so very different. For the man who has come to be called Papa Trinidad, and who was one of 11 sisters and brothers, there was the farm where the family tried to bleed out a living from the grudging earth.

For Dan Birmingham, who has been the only trainer Winky Wright ever had, there was the institution where he and his five brothers were warehoused after divorce separated their parents. There were the nuns of the Oblaide Orphanage on the edge of Youngstown, who were long on discipline and short on funds.

"Things were different so they could be mean as hell. Breakfast was dry cereal. We had no milk. What they gave us was the coffee left over from the priests and nuns the night before and we poured it on top. It was discipline and more discipline but I learned a lot of life lessons there."

This is how the two men who will be in the corners tomorrow night when Tito Trinidad and Winky Wright face their moment of truth at the MGM Grand Garden Arena have stamped their teaching on their pupils. Each fighter bears the brands of his trainer. Each fighter has never been trained by anyone else. And each trainer, one the father of his fighter, the other his fighter's friend, brings to the moment more than casual knowledge of what his role is.

Just as the fighters are who they are - Tito, the puncher, Winky, the boxer - so it is with the men who taught them.

For Papa Trinidad, there was the unyielding determination of the earth to give up as little as possible to him and the family, followed by catch as catch can work masonry work and tough times in the city.

For Birmingham, there was the toughness of Youngstown, where steel was on its way out and the hard times were on their way in.

Tough jobs make tough people.

And tough people make small fight clubs a thing of beauty. The fight clubs of Puerto Rico and Youngstown are still the fraternity houses where nobody had to go to college as the price of admission. In Puerto Rico, the adoration for fighters is almost genetic. In Youngstown, there are still folks who remember Tommy Bell and Tough Tony Janeiro and Boom Boom Mancini and his father, Lenny.

Papa Trinidad and Dan Birmingham were fighters. History was kind to neither one in that milieu. Trinidad had 19 pro fights as a featherweight. Near the end, they brought him to Houston and gave him Salvador Sanchez as a reality check. Sanchez was on his way to becoming the best fighter in the world before his tragic death in an automobile rash.

Papa Trinidad lasted fewer than five rounds. He discovered later that difficulty with his right eye forced him to twist his neck slightly to see left hands coming at him with bad intention. He quit the ring but he could not quit boxing. He stayed on as a trainer.

For Dan Birmingham there is the memory of Art Mayorga, himself a former fighter, who trained kids not to become champions but to become men. "He did that for me," Birmingham said yesterday, "and I wanted to do that for another generation of kids in St. Petersburg where I had moved. My gym was always in the 'hood; that's where the fighters generally come from one.

"One day Winky walks through the door. I said, 'Show me your stance,' and he got into it with his right arm extended and his left hand near his chin. So I knew he was a southpaw - only he wasn't. He writes with his right hand. He told me that he felt more comfortable in a southpaw stance when he fooled around with the other kids."

Birmingham saw no reason to fix it until he could find out is it was broken, which it wasn't. So Winky became a right-handed southpaw fighter and everything else about him has been "different." The trainer taught him well, and the best thing he taught him can be summed up in Birmingham's own words:

"Get off first ... never punch 'during,' be first and then be after instead. That way you initiate. That way, you counter his counter as a finisher. That way, you become very tough to handle."

Papa Trinidad was smart enough to know that the technique of power can be explained. But its root either resides deep within the fighter or not at all. Tito was born with that gift.

The elder Trinidad taught him how to use it.

There is a danger in father-son boxing partnerships. Most of them end badly. The roster of such things is long and one-sided.

But not here. This was never clearer than when Tito came to his father and told him he was determined to end what was roughly a two-year retirement.

"I was not surprised," the elder Trinidad said yesterday. "He is a fighter and fighters fight. Actually, I was the one who told him to retire. And I expected the conversation that brought him back.

"I told him, 'If you want to fight, go see the rest of the family. Ask them what they think and if they agree, then, and only then, come back to me.'"

"Why?" a guy asked.

"Because I know him. Because I know this family. Because I know what boxing does to you in your heart. He needs no doubters around him."

Nobody will lose this fight because he hasn't been taught what to do.

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