By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
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Fajardo, Puerto Rico As he was about to board promoter Don King's private jet, which would fly him from his native Puerto Rico to Las Vegas for his showdown with Oscar De La Hoya, Felix "Tito" Trinidad made it clear that he was fighting for his country. "Oscar's going to learn what a champion is, and what a Boricua is," Trinidad told a throng of well-wishers on September 4. "When I come back, we're going to celebrate I want all of Puerto Rico to come so we can celebrate together in triumph!" Then, as he disappeared into the plane with his father and trainer, Felix Sr., the island, which has whipped itself into a frenzy over arguably the most anticipated bout since Leonard-Hearns in 1981, began to hold its breath.
The fight, front-page news in Puerto Rico almost daily, has been hyped as the Fight of the Millennium. A welterweight title-unification match, it pits the Puerto Rican IBF champion Trinidad (35-0, 30 KOs) against East L.A. Chicano De La Hoya (31-0, 22 KOs), the WBC titleholder, at the new Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas this Saturday. De La Hoya is guaranteed $15 million for the match. Trinidad will earn $8.5 million plus $300,000 for training costs. And both men get an additional $4 each for every pay-per-view customer over 850,000, for a fight that's expected to garner a record number of home viewers. (And jail viewers the Puerto Rican government recently authorized funds to show the fight in the island's prisons.)
The boxing world is divided in its predictions. Some say Trinidad is hungrier, more focused, stronger. Others say De La Hoya is quicker, smarter, and despite his Golden Boy celebrity a determined money fighter who finds the right knockout punch at the right time. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the fight is the way it sets up a series of spectacular oppositions: the country boy versus the city kid; the virtuous versus the flashy; Don King versus Bob Arum; the Puerto Rican versus the Mexican American. "This is the biggest Mexican Puerto Rican matchup since Wilfredo Gomez and Salvador Sanchez [in the early '80s]," says Bert Sugar, boxing historian and editor of Fight Game magazine. "I remember there was a salsa band coming down one side and mariachi coming down the other side and they got into fights all night."
The TrinidadDe La Hoya contest casts light on the little-known rifts and rivalries within the U.S. Latino world, the East CoastWest Coast conflict, as it were. Puerto Ricans, amassed in New York, have always had a little more of the media attention, while Mexican Americans, based in California and Texas, have banked on their greater numbers and longer-term settlement in the U.S. to gain political clout. Mexican Americans listen to norteno and ranchera music, Puerto Ricans to salsa and merengue. Rarely do those twains ever meet.
Trinidad, light-years behind De La Hoya in terms of glitz and recognition, is the kind of quiet, unassuming country boy that Puerto Ricans, who have a longtime love affair with the underdog role, love to love. Born and raised in bucolic Cupey Alto, Trinidad is a clean-living type who attended a Sunday service with the Baptist congregation of the Christ Mission Church in Fajardo, the town where his training headquarters in the Hotel Conquistador were located. At the height of the typically charismatic service, Trinidad was invited to the pulpit by Reverend Jose Luis Acosta, who led a prayer in support of the man they call Tito. Although he doesn't claim to be devoutly religious, Trinidad "asked God that I would succeed and bless me, my family, and all of Puerto Rico."
Luis Santiago Arce, who's been working the Trinidad beat for the San Juan daily El Nuevo Dia, characterizes Trinidad as a "healthy, humble guy who always has time for his fans and his community." Everyone hopes he'll avoid the fall from grace that ruined the careers of previous Puerto Rican heroes like Edwin "Chapo" Rosario, who died of a drug overdose in 1997; Wilfredo Gomez, arrested in 1994 on charges of domestic violence and cocaine possession; and Esteban DeJesus, who had public struggles with drugs and AIDS.
ââ Meanwhile, on the Left Coast, Oscar De La Hoya is a one-man financial empire. He has just signed a recording contract with EMI records, and his total income this year is expected to reach $40 million, making him the highest-paid athlete in the world. His pop-idol good looks rival Ricky Martin's, he's impeccably bilingual, and he plays up his Mexican roots by wearing nouveau-Zorro outfits into the ring. But his incredible crossover success has brought him criticism.
"The big thing around here is Chicanos have problems with Oscar, and Mexicans do too," says Lalo Lopez, editor and founder of Pocho magazine, an influential Chicano satirical rag with a chatty Web site.
"The Chicanos ask, 'Why doesn't he live in the barrio anymore?' even though he contributes heavily to his old high school," says Lopez. "Some Mexicans are down on him because he's too assimilated, asking, 'Why does he bring the mariachi bands into the ring? He's trying too hard to be Mexican.' "
De La Hoya's road to success from East L.A. to Bel Air makes him a target for some, and an object of admiration for others in the Mexican American community. He fits the mold of a '90s Gen X Chicano, albeit with a strong, hardworking striver ethic, but he has also been known to dally with the occasional Bay Watch babe. Mauricio Abaroa, executive VP of the Latin American Recording Arts Society, which will administer the new Latin Grammys, expects his musical venture to be "mucho mas Americanizado," more along the lines of Jennifer Lopez than Abaroa's old client, Mexican singer Luis Miguel.
The Golden Boy also demonstrates a sensitivity and introspection unusual for the macho world of boxing. In a sequence from an HBO special currently posted on the cable network's Web site, he makes a startling admission. "I've been hit in the body, which hurts a great deal," he muses. "You can't breathe. When I'm walking down the aisle I actually get scared. I look up at the sky and know my mother's taking care of me."
Stoic, purposeful Trinidad. Existential, artistic De La Hoya. Fiery Boricua versus Chill Chicano. Will Puerto Ricans and Mexicans please return to their corners and come out swinging?
"It's sad that it's become a Puerto RicanMexican thing," says salsa star Marc Anthony, who sang the National Anthem for a Trinidad bout in New York last March. "It has nothing to do with nationalities. They're two gladiators who are going to do their best. I'm backing Tito 100 percent because he's a friend and I'm a fan."
Joltin' Jose Torres, former light-heavyweight champion turned writer and community-oriented Boricua about town, won't look at it as an ethnic struggle. "I once said that my heart is with Trinidad but my money is with De La Hoya," explains Torres. "But I've switched: my heart is with De La Hoya but my money is with Trinidad."
Even the Latin fight fans in Chicago, which has long-established Puerto Rican and Mexican communities, don't necessarily conform to ethnic camps. "It's not like that," says Chicago boxing writer Sal Santamaria. "Everyone knows Trinidad is tough, Oscar's greatest challenge, but he hasn't faced the caliber of fighter Oscar has. They just want to see a great fight, and the best guy win."
Without a doubt, when the TrinidadDe La Hoya matchup begins this Saturday there will be flag wavers and salsa dancers and lots of hometown sympathies on the line. But maybe the fight will demonstrate the buying power and potential of a united entity of U.S. Latinos rather than degenerate into a pointless internecine conflict. "This century started with the Irish influence in boxing," says Bert Sugar. "It went from Irish to Jewish to black, and now there's the Latino influence. And that's the most important thing established by this fight."