Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad take rightful place in International Boxing Hall of Fame

Yahoo Sports

Boxing changed forever on Sept. 18, 1999.

It was on that night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas that Felix Trinidad defeated Oscar De La Hoya in what was billed as "The Fight of the Millennium."

The bout was a mega-hit at the box office, selling more than 1.4 million pay-per-views, a record for a non-heavyweight bout at the time.

It was that fight that ended the heavyweight division's longtime stranglehold over the sport's audience.

The De La Hoya-Trinidad welterweight bout showed that lighter weight fighters could be stars the equal of the heavyweights, and it changed the focus of the sport.

For much of the 1990s, for example, Ricardo Lopez was one of the greatest fighters in the sport, but he was largely ignored by the American media and unknown by the American fans because he was a minimumweight.

Television executives never gave Lopez a thought, despite his brilliance in the ring.

But after De La Hoya-Trinidad's stunning box-office success in 1999, that all changed.

De La Hoya and Trinidad literally changed their sport, and it's why it is so appropriate that on Wednesday, the two longtime rivals were chosen along with longtime super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe for the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

In addition, referee Richard Steele, writer Graham Houston, photographer Neil Leifer and promoter Barry Hearn were elected.

It was a slam dunk that De La Hoya, Trinidad and Calzaghe would make it. The Hall's rules dictate that three fighters are chosen each year, and that meant that Prince Naseem Hamed, a Hall of Fame fighter if ever there were one, would not be chosen. The Hall is lesser for his absence.

But the election of De La Hoya and Trinidad, in particular, signifies an unofficial end of the stranglehold the heavyweights have had on the sport.

If you don't believe that heavyweights have been the dominant fighters in the sport, just go back in time. In the Forties, even though Sugar Ray Robinson is widely regarded as the greatest fighter ever, the decade is most remembered for Joe Louis' dominance atop the heavyweight division.

In the fifties, it was for Rocky Marciano's run of perfection. Muhammad Ali ruled the Sixties and Seventies. It was Larry Holmes at the beginning of the Eighties and Mike Tyson at the end of that decade who were the biggest stars.

In the 1990s, it was Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield who ruled and garnered most of the attention.

But when De La Hoya and Trinidad met as undefeated welterweight champions in 1999, they burst into the public consciousness in a manner that few non-heavyweights had previously.

This was attributable in large part to De La Hoya's personality. He had great talent with an exciting style and fought all comers over his nearly 20 years in the ring. There is no one he ducked.

But it was his ability to appeal to non-traditional fans that raised his stature. De La Hoya was bilingual, and was as fluent in Spanish as he was in English. He was charismatic and accessible and brought scores of new fans to the sport.

His fights, much like the heavyweight title bouts had long been, had become must-see events for the celebrity crowd and the casual boxing fans.

He couldn't have done it by himself, however. He was a big star prior to the Trinidad fight, but nothing on the level he became in a match that wound up becoming his first loss.

Trinidad represented a challenge to his supremacy atop the welterweight division. Trinidad, too, was a charismatic, charming guy whose punching power and aggressive style was made for television.

The fight turned out to be not so good. De La Hoya deserved to win, though Trinidad earned the decision. De La Hoya, of course, opted to dance the final three rounds, believing he was far ahead, and didn't engage his opponent.

That gave Trinidad a clean sweep and allowed him to steal the victory in a fight in which he was outclassed.

The result of that fight, though, is not what mattered. What mattered was the sign it sent to promoters and television executives, that the public would buy the right fight in big numbers even if it wasn't a heavyweight match.

They deserved to make the Hall of Fame on the merits of what they accomplished in the ring. De La Hoya went 39-6 with 30 knockouts after winning a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

He won world title belts at 130, 135, 140, 147, 154 and 160 and was 24-5 with 17 knockouts against fighters who were champions and/or Hall of Famers.

Trinidad was 42-3 with 35 KOs and was 20-1 with 16 KOs against champions and/or Hall of Famers.

They'll be remembered forever for their brilliance in the ring, but they contributed far more to boxing than just their physical talents.

They were welterweights in the ring, but heavyweights in the business, and their election on the first ballot to the International Boxing Hall of Fame is a testament to that.

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