- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 29, 2001

If you are a boxing fan, you were probably looking forward to Sept. 15 the date when Felix Trinidad and Bernard Hopkins were to meet at Madison Square Garden for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world.

Then Sept. 11 happened, and what you were looking forward to changed dramatically. You were probably looking forward to turning the calendar back to the personal peace you felt when all you were looking forward to was a boxing match.

We don't know if we will ever be able to find that peace again. But tonight the boxing match is here, and with the nervous tension that we all still carry with us, it is still a boxing match worth looking forward to and watching, at least from afar.

If you have a seat in the Garden, though, you might be a little more nervous. In fact, you probably should have been nervous before the World Trade Center tragedy took place.

Madison Square Garden the site of an ugly riot five years ago during the first Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota fight could erupt again tonight, which would be a disaster not just for boxing but for the entire sports world.

The business of sports and those who make a living at it have been walking on eggshells since the attack, trying to walk the fine line between respect for the victims and the solemn and fearful atmosphere still gripping the nation, and providing needed entertainment for a populace that needs to be assured that life will go on.

Here was the way life had been going in the promotion leading up to the Trinidad-Hopkins fight before the tragedy: Hopkins, the outspoken 35-year-old ex-con from Philadelphia, doing all he could to incite Trinidad, the 28-year-old Puerto Rican boxing hero, and his countrymen.

On a press tour leading up to the original date, Hopkins grabbed a Puerto Rican flag out of Trinidad's hands and slammed it to the ground. He did this in New York, which got the crowd of Puerto Rican fans there riled up. Then he did it in San Juan, and the fans there got a little more than riled up. They stormed the stage, and security had to rush Hopkins out of the country in fear of his life. It was such a scary scene that the normally unflappable Don King also feared for his safety and was angry with Hopkins.

Hopkins couldn't care less if King was angry. He couldn't care less if all of Puerto Rico wants his head. And, wearing his "War" bandana at the press conference Wednesday, he couldn't care less if anyone was offended by his use of the term in light of the state of the union.

Bernard Hopkins was at war before the tragedy and is still at war after it. He has returned to his daily life an angry one that has consisted of four years in prison on an assault conviction. Since then, he has battled against promoters and managers in boxing that he believes did little but rob him and hold him back. No one is going to rob Hopkins of his right to wage this war.

"I had these bandanas made up about a month ago, before the World Trade Center," he said. "My war started first… . People want me to forget my motivation, but if I forget about it, it won't be me in there. I can't let this incident affect me, because it's beyond my control. There are intentional wars and personal wars. I'm not going to tie one war to another, but I have a personal war to fight. Mine is a war between one man and the powers that be in boxing."

You want a return to normalcy, this is it boxing in all its brutality, tastelessness and intrigue.

Garden officials had already been fearful of what a likely large Puerto Rican crowd would do if the fight didn't go right for their hero. They had good reason to be scared. Hopkins is just as controversial in the ring as out of it and has a well-deserved reputation for using any means necessary to win elbows, knees and anything else, short of a roll of quarters in his fists. The vision of Trinidad bleeding from a head butt or lying on the canvas from a low blow had everyone fearful of a full-scale riot.

And while there is the perception that we are a kinder, gentler nation since the attacks, the good neighbor line may stop at the Garden entrances, where now, for the first time, fans will have to pass through metal detectors to get into this fight.

These are all worst case scenarios, which, of course, is the mode all of us are operating in these day. It could simply turn out to be a great fight.

It has the potential to be. Hopkins has won the right to be considered the best middleweight in boxing going into this fight. He was one of three title holders when King began this middleweight tournament, named after the great Sugar Ray Robinson, in April.

Hopkins put his International Boxing Federation belt on the line against the World Boxing Council title holder, District middleweight Keith Holmes. Hopkins manhandled Holmes through 12 rounds to win the WBC crown, earning his first million-dollar payday and getting a long-awaited chance to earn much more. He stands to make about $4 million for this pay-per-view fight. He has had 13 title defenses, passing Marvin Hagler's record. If he wins tonight, he will tie the middleweight mark for title defenses by Carlos Monzon.

Trinidad won the right to challenge Hopkins in May when he disposed of another District middleweight, World Boxing Association champion William Joppy, in impressive fashion. He put Joppy on the canvas three times with shocking power punches before the fight was stopped in the fifth round. It was one in a series of big wins for Trinidad that began with his upset of Oscar De La Hoya in September 1999 and continued with powerful victories over two undefeated junior middleweight champions, David Reid and Fernando Vargas.

Trinidad, who had fought at 147 pounds from 1993 to 1998, successfully defended his IBC welterweight title 15 times before moving up to 154 pounds. There were concerns that when he moved up to 160 pounds, he would not bring his power with him, but his brutal beating of Joppy dispelled that notion. Now Trinidad is considered the best fighter pound for pound in boxing, and a win over Hopkins tonight could likely set up a mega fight between him and the other boxer who lays claim to that distinction, undisputed light heavyweight champion Roy Jones.

Trinidad said he will do what he can to ease people's fear about safety at the Garden by beating Hopkins decisively and quickly. "I'm prepared for the dirty tactics," he said. "I'm prepared for everything … I feel I can knock him out, and if I can end it early, then I will."

Perhaps everyone except Hopkins is hoping for a quick, clean finish, because there is more at stake than middleweight titles, millions of dollars and Bernard Hopkins' tiny little war. There is this notion that we are a little more willing to put our tiny little personal wars aside between each other and direct our anger toward those who deserve it. It will be put to the test tonight in Madison Square Garden.

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