When Bernard Hopkins and Felix Trinidad got together weeks after the fall of the Twin Towers
A few hours after Bernard Hopkins defeated Felix Trinidad, I was poaching eggs with Budd Schulberg and he told me about the arrest of Leni Riefenstahl.
“She was beautiful,” Budd told me that morning. “But she mixed with bad men.”
I was in a town where other bad men had done their job a few weeks earlier and postponed the fight for two weeks. The dust was still heavy from the fallen towers during my unforgettable five days in New York City. Budd had been coughing when we emerged that Sunday morning, the sun bright and the memory of a truly epic fight, 12 rounds at middleweight, fresh in our minds the night before in the Garden.
“It really was one of the best,” added Budd. I Agreed.
The words and sound of singing by Ray Charles America the beautiful as Bernard walked to the ring, he lingered. What a night. In the seats next to me, hundreds of firefighters clutched each other desperately, crying and crying. Many came straight from the ruins of the Twin Towers, with dust and grime still smeared on their faces, broken only by their tears. They had signed up at 9:45 pm, a show of walking defiance and the biggest standing ovation I’ve ever heard. It was a drama, make no mistake.
Don King dabbed his eyes, waved his two flags and nodded to the men and women of police and firefighters. The place was wet with grief and sorrow and then Hopkins walked to the ring. And Ray Charles sang.
The ring was already full before the first bell. Roberto Duran, Emile Griffith, Jake LaMotta and Vito Antoufermo. Icons on a night of pride, more than just a parade – they were men having their big nights in New York City.
I made a little note about King’s flags: “His flags are so faded; they look like battle relics. Flags on display in a museum.” They merged into a night that had been washed from color by the horror just a few miles away.
Tito wore a police hat; Hopkins wore a red mask and his team held up fire helmets. Oh boy. And Ray Charles sang.
The old garden had been many things over the years, that night it was the scene of a worldwide and very public vigil for the thousands who died. It was also the perfect location for the delayed and truly brilliant Trinidad and Hopkins fight.
The pair had met at the conference, not the one in Puerto Rico where Hopkins was on the flag. This was the one, four days before the fight, where Hopkins offered Tito some beans and rice. Even King knew that was awkward. But Hopkins was great with his time that day, talking about the terrorists, talking about his firm beliefs in Islam, and talking about the battle.
“Those guys who took the planes and did what they did,” Hopkins said. “They followed a message like a soldier – don’t be a follower, because it can lead you straight to hellfire. Ask questions, look for answers; Read the book.” He was on edge, ready. Besides, he got a guarantee of six million dollars less than Tito’s guarantee. Hopkins just knew; the bookmakers had 40-and-zero Tito as their favorite.
King concluded the conference by asking everyone to pause for a moment, then said, “Tell someone you love them.” Ten minutes later, Hopkins said, “Love isn’t in the air. I have to block what happened.” It was cold, all of Hopkins. His black bandana had three letters in white: WAR. He had made 500 before the attack. Sensitive executives in the Garden and on television decided to let him “It’s war in boxing for him, it’s always war in boxing for him,” King noted. Hopkins is said to have refused to drop the simple fight message. “I’m not looking to make money off a tragedy,” he said. “I’m at war, I’m always at war.”
King and Tito had visited Motor Company No. 54 and King never mentioned the fight. The city was consumed with death and destruction, but King had rightly refused to move the fight to Las Vegas or Detroit, in my opinion. “New York City deserved it,” King insisted.
Hopkins had been in New York when the attack took place. He had looked at the smoke. He would train at 11 that day at the Waterfront gym in the shadow of the Twin Towers. He had flown in from Las Vegas two days earlier. “I saw the first plane; I thought it was crazy. I saw the second plane, that was it. I completely forgot about the fight,” Hopkins told me. It was part of the revised week.
It was set for the miracle in the ring. Hopkins in the master class. Tito broken, his father in tears. The end on the last lap was brutal. At nine o’clock Tito’s father intervened. It was a special fight. Never forget it, either the city or the crime.
I spoke to Lou DiBella, a longtime fighter and a fixture in New York, in the waiting room at the post-fight press conference. He still seemed a little dazed. “I can’t remember a time when a great fighter at his peak was so thoroughly and completely defeated.” DiBella was Hopkins’ advisor for the fight.
Hopkins was gracious that night, respectful, kind to the man he’d just ruined. Trinidad was broken, I could see and feel it broken after the fight by the way undefeated fighters, who have been told they are unbeatable, suffer when they lose. “I said for months it was going to be an easy fight,” added Hopkins. He was so right on the night, so perfect, so Hopkins.
Yes, Bud, it really was one of the best.