Oscar De La Hoya vs. Felix Trinidad: Remembering the Fight of the Millennium 20 years later

·Combat columnist
(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

LAS VEGAS — The plane sat quietly on the runway at a private airport in Los Angeles, when its two most famous passengers were desperately needed an hour away at a resort casino. Instead, Don King was eating a plateful of ribs, making those waiting on him in Las Vegas very anxious. It was only a bit of the gamesmanship that went on in one of the most significant fights promoted by the two leading promoters in boxing history.

King and Felix Trinidad were supposed to be in Las Vegas for an early evening news conference to push the upcoming bout between Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya, the 1992 Olympic gold medal winner and the star, at the time, of promoter Bob Arum’s stable.

De La Hoya and Trinidad were unbeaten welterweight champions, each with a legitimate claim to the 147-pound throne, and a combined 66-0 record with 55 knockouts.

The intrigue in the fight was obvious. It pitted De Le Hoya, the boxer, versus Trinidad, the powerful slugger. It was De La Hoya, the wildly popular Mexican-American star, versus Trinidad, the idol of millions in Puerto Rico.

And perhaps most of all, it was a battle of boxing’s most intense and long-running rivalry, Bob Arum versus Don King.

“Most of my fights were in the heavyweight division, but there were a couple of guys at that time who were very popular and you knew could do big numbers,” King told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “Julio Cesar Chavez was an idol in Mexico and we did that massive crowd [of over 130,000 in Mexico City] there with [Greg Haugen]. He was a fighter of the people. And then there was Oscar and Tito. They were two really good fighters and they had a great rivalry and there was that Mexican and Puerto Rican rivalry there and the thing with me and old ‘Lonesome Bob,’ and it just clicked.”

The bout was something of a litmus test about how non-heavyweights could do on pay-per-view. Pay-per-view, in the form it is known now, wasn’t quite 10 years old in 1999. It debuted on April 19, 1991, when TVKO, HBO Sports’ pay-per-view arm, put on a heavyweight title fight between George Foreman and Evander Holyfield in Atlantic City.

De La Hoya-Trinidad wasn’t a heavyweight fight on the scales, as combined their 294 pounds were only slightly more than the 257 Foreman weighed eight years earlier when he fought Holyfield. But their bout was a heavyweight attraction at the box office and probably the most compelling non-heavyweight match in the sport since Sugar Ray Leonard fought Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the middleweight title 12 years earlier.

The 20th anniversary of the day that, as King gleefully put it on Sept. 18, 1999, “the lights went out in Arumville,” is one that still makes De La Hoya’s stomach flip.

“That fight haunts me every single day of my life,” De La Hoya told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “Jesus. It’s a tough one for me to talk about even now. Not a day goes by that people don’t bring it up to me. Of course, they tell me that they think I won, but still … ”

His voice trails off, his disappointment at the controversial majority decision that favored Trinidad still gnawing at him.

Oscar De La Hoya, of East Los Angeles, left, congratulates Felix Trinidad, of Puerto Rico, following their WBC/IBF Welterweight Championship bout at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas Saturday, Sept. 18, 1999. Trinidad won the bout by way of decision after 12 rounds. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)
Oscar De La Hoya congratulates Felix Trinidad following their welterweight championship bout at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Sept. 18, 1999 in Las Vegas. Trinidad won the bout by way of decision after 12 rounds. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)

Nearly all of the principals are Hall of Famers. King was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997 and Arum in 1999. De La Hoya and Trinidad went in together in 2014, while judge Jerry Roth was inducted in 2017.

Roth had one of the two scorecards that infuriated many who saw the fight. He favored Trinidad, 115-113. Bob Logist scored it 115-114 for Trinidad, while judge Glen Hamada had it 114-114.

The fight was De La Hoya’s to win, but he inexplicably ran the final three rounds and threw next-to-no punches.

De La Hoya was trained for the Trinidad fight by another Hall of Famer, the late Gil Clancy. De La Hoya was boxing well and scoring, and told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday he felt he could have stopped Trinidad down the stretch had he fought differently.

But Clancy was among the greatest trainers of all time and his instructions in the corner were to do anything but engage with Trinidad.

De La Hoya obeyed instructions and it led to the most disappointing loss of his career.

“I swear to you, my trainer, Gil, he was almost slapping me in the corner and was yelling at me, ‘Get out of the way and box; do not stand in front of him,’” De La Hoya said. “I was hearing it almost every round when I’d go back to the corner. I think in those last three rounds, if I’d have stood in front of him, Gil Clancy might have knocked me out.”

When ring announcer Michael Buffer called Trinidad’s name as the winner, Mandalay Bay erupted and King exulted.

He’d won what would turn out to be the biggest non-heavyweight bout in boxing to that point. The fight did 1.4 million on pay-per-view, then a record for non-heavyweights, and revenue was higher than expected across the board.

King crowed at Arum at the post-fight news conference and insisted the contracts be flipped for the rematch since Trinidad had won. De La Hoya, as the bigger star, had gotten more in the first fight. Arum refused and they never fought again.

King was cackling and mocking Arum so much at the news conference, referring to him repeatedly as “Lonesome Bob,” that Arum ordered publicist Bill Caplan to end the proceedings. Caplan pulled the plug on King’s microphone as King repeatedly bellowed, “The lights are out in Arumville!”

King held his own news conference at the Las Vegas Hilton the next day, where a massive Puerto Rican flag flew in front.

“There should have been a rematch, but that’s Bob, you know?” King said. “You saw how mad he was. If things weren’t his way, if you added your own style or flair or personal interpretation, ‘Lonesome Bob,’ couldn’t take it. He was a my-way-or-the-highway kind of a guy. I’m a promoter for the people and of the people, and I think that common person’s touch is what led to my success.

“But that fight was a good fight, but Oscar didn’t want to get in there at the end. Most people don’t remember how good the fight was, because all they remember was Arum pulling the microphone off of me and then not doing the rematch.”

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