Fresh on the heels of Oscar DelaHoya's split decision victory over Ike Quartey, the 147 pound division's two other big names squared off in an effort to further clarify the welterweight hierarchy. Pernell Whitaker and Felix Trinidad met face to face in Madison Square Garden to hammer out the issue, and the result was a surprisingly exciting, if one-sided fight.
On paper, it was the fighter's weaknesses that provided the intrigue. Whitaker, now 35, was coming off a forced 16 month exile from the sport, having twice failed drug tests in 1998. Trinidad, the younger, stronger, quicker, and more menacing fighter, had his own problems. Struggling to make the 147 lb. weight limit, Trinidad was forced to don a rubber suit and jog the MSG neighborhood before finally, and barely, making weight Friday. All predictions were off, as we waited until the first round to see if either fighter would be their normal selves.
It was Whitaker who shined first, displaying trademark elusiveness and a frequent jab to steal the first round out from under Trinidad. As Tito showed respect, only jabbing occasionally, a flat footed Whitaker began landing chopping left hands. His plan centered on exploiting Felix's infamous chin and pressuring him early. And for the first round, at least, it worked marvelously.
Whitaker continued on into the second round, popping Tito on the chin and getting an enthusiastic reception from the crowd each time he did. Trinidad was only beginning to warm up, and midway through the round, a picture perfect lead right hand found Whitaker's chin and sent him back onto the seat of his pants. Whitaker shook his head and was not hurt, but it was the confidence builder Trinidad needed to get going.
For the rest of the second, and the next four consecutive rounds, Trinidad began firing with more frequency. His punches were straight, sharp and found their target with an amazing degree of accuracy. Whitaker's defense remained his biggest strength, but it was nowhere as potent as it was even a few fights ago. Whitaker's head movement, once a constant, came and went at random. At times he would make Trinidad miss three consecutive attempts, while at other he would take all three on the chin.
One of the reasons Whitaker was getting hit more than we've ever seen him get hit was his age, but part of it was his gameplan. Even though Trinidad was sweeping round after round through six, Whitaker was the one pressing the action. Hoping to knock out Trinidad, if not tire him out, Whitaker was showing the heart of a champion in the ring, hoping it would pay dividends in the second half of the bout.
In the seventh round, having survived Trinidad's most stringent attack the round before, Whitaker again showed us glimpses of his prime. Whipping his head around, Whitaker made Tito miss and landed his best punches of the evening to Trinidad's midsection. Softening him up with several loud body punches, Whitaker threw two hard left uppercuts, the second of which stunned Trinidad and had him moving backwards for the first time all night. As Whitaker continued to rake the body, he looked as though he might do the kind of damage that would slow Trinidad down.
Digging deep, Felix fought back at the end of the round, and after a one minute break, proceeded to repay Whitaker for his efforts. Coming out fast, Trinidad's quick hands wobbled the veteran across the ring. With both hands, Trinidad fired and landed with rage. Pea, taking sustained punishment for perhaps the first time in his career, showed no defense and fired back. The only thing more surprising than seeing Whitaker's head snap to and fro was seeing him standing and fighting, determined to win by knockout.
In the ninth, Whitaker again hurt Trinidad to the body, but could not follow up. Trinidad was swinging confidently, landing close to 50% of his punches. As much as Whitaker pressed the tempo, tried to brawl, and bullied and shoved his way to the inside, it wasn't enough. Looking tired but determined, Trinidad matched punch for punch, with more starch in fists than his opponent.
Clearly leading, Trinidad rested in the tenth and finally boxed in the eleventh to kill some time. Whitaker was the unlikely pursuer, and won the 11th on Trinidad's passivity, but it was not enough. Down by a half dozen rounds or more, Lou Duva matter of factly told Whitaker that he needed a knockout to win. But by the 12th, Trinidad was actually on his toes, moving around the ring, jabbing and landing at will, while Whitaker fruitlessly sought to begin one more final exchange. It didn't happen, and we went to the cards.
The unanimous decision was announced as 118-109 (twice) and 117-110 for Trinidad in the kind of lopsided decision victory that Whitaker himself had built his illustrious career on.
After the fight, Whitaker (40-3-1/17) predictably claimed that he had been robbed of another victory, and for the first time, no one agreed with him. Forget the Ramirez and Chavez heists, or even the erratic scoring of the DelaHoya defeat, this decision was right on the money. Whitaker's protestations that "at least the viewers saw who won" were empty clichés from a fighter facing retirement, but unwilling to let go. In 1997, after decisioning Pestriaev in a snoozefest, Whitaker claimed "I'm gonna fight one more big fight and if I lose, that's it". But tonight he ridiculously answered questions about retirement by saying "I'll retire when someone finally beats me." Translated into English, Whitaker was really angling for a fight with recently defeated Ike Quartey. Both men are promoted by Main Events, and both fighters might welcome the payday.
Trinidad finally gets the career defining victory he has long sought. While many will write off this win as a meager accomplishment over an aging opponent, Trinidad showed the speed and reflexes that will one day trouble Oscar DelaHoya. Rallying from being hurt to the body, a drained Trinidad sucked it up and did the one thing that few thought he could: look good against Whitaker. While Whitaker tried to make it ugly, wrestling in the clinches and disrupting the pace with no less than a dozen "slips" to the canvas, Trinidad still managed to dominate, something that Oscar was unable to do when he decisioned the WBC title off of Whitaker's waist.
And then there were two. Trinidad's performance leaves him as the final remaining foil to DelaHoya's claim of division dominance. After the fight, the DelaHoya-Trinidad matchup was on the lips of everyone. Asked about his weight, Trinidad denied having problems making 147 (as did Don King by shouting "No Problemo! No Problemo!"), despite what had happened with the scales the day before. Claiming that he wanted to meet DelaHoya at 147 instead of waiting for 154, the call-out was complete. Now we'll see if Oscar responds.
On the undercard, weight problems were also the story of the fight. On an untelevised bout, IBF 140 lb. champion Cool Vince Phillips relinquished his title to the unheralded Terronn Millet. Phillips, who lost 47 pounds in 7 weeks of training, was too drained to mount much offense. Reportedly looking sluggish and winded, Phillips was knocked down in the third and fourth rounds, and then staggered by a insubstantial left hook in the fifth. The referee halted the bout as the crowd booed and Phillips looked stunned. Millet, who was described in some reports as "constantly off balance" and "green" was down in the second on a knockdown that was ruled a slip. Phillips, who won his title by upsetting Kostya Tszyu, was already looking to move up to 147, drops to 39-4.