For boxing, 9/11 a tale of three cities

Kevin Iole, Yahoo! Sports
Yahoo! 9/11 10th Anniversary

Three of the most prominent men in boxing had New York City on their minds the morning the Twin Towers came down.

Middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins was in the city and desperately scrambling to find a way out.

Promoter Don King was in Ohio determined to get to New York. And Felix Trinidad felt like a prisoner in the city, unable to leave despite his fervent desire to head home to Puerto Rico.

The terrorist attacks sent them scrambling in different directions, their lives intertwined but their actions disparate.

Hopkins was 36 years old, and, despite holding at least one middleweight title belt continuously for more than six years, was still largely an unknown. He was perceived as a brooding ex-con, known as much for his feuds with promoters than for his marvelous boxing skills which, to that point, had carried him to 12 consecutive successful title defenses.

He was in New York because he'd reached the finals of the Middleweight Championship Series by routing Keith Holmes five months earlier. He was to meet Trinidad, the charismatic, power-punching Puerto Rican, on Sept. 15, 2001, at Madison Square Garden for the Sugar Ray Robinson Trophy and supremacy in boxing's deep 160-pound division.

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This was, unquestionably, Trinidad's show. He was a 3-1 favorite and the darling of both King and New York's large Puerto Rican population. Trinidad, 28 at the time, was 40-0 with 33 knockouts and one of the top two or three attractions in the sport.

He was so gifted, and such a big ticket seller, that King would croon the old Manhattans' song, "Shining Star," to Trinidad at news conferences, to the delight of those who heard him.

Trinidad, who only two years earlier had scored the biggest victory of his career by outpointing Oscar De La Hoya in a welterweight title unification bout in Las Vegas, had reached the finals by blowing out William Joppy in his opening-round match.

Four days before the fight, both boxers were in New York, with numerous public appearances on their schedules to promote the bout.

Hopkins had completed a jog in Central Park and returned to his suite in the luxurious St. Regis Hotel. He was planning to take a shower and get on with his day.

The main television in his suite was tuned to a news channel and, as he walked past, Hopkins noticed a building on fire. It was a little after nine in the morning. He didn't pay it much mind, thinking, as he was nearly constantly, of the fight and how he would win it. He didn't stop to watch the television. His clothes were dank and uncomfortable. He wanted to get them off and get into a shower as soon as he could.

When he went into the bedroom and began to undress, another television was on.

Hopkins looked at the TV and saw a plane fly directly into one of the towers at the World Trade Center. The voices on the television began shrieking. There was a commotion in the other room. Hopkins was slated to go to a tiny gym near the World Trade Center to train later that day. He knew instantly that he wouldn't be training.

"You see that and you see that this is big, that it's very serious," Hopkins said. "Of course, you can't really think about boxing at a time like that. This was the fight that I had worked my whole life to get, and I knew – I absolutely knew – that I was going to win. And then, all of a sudden, New York is under attack."

From another part of the suite, someone shouted, "They're bombing New York. They're bombing New York. We have to get out of here."

There would be no shower. Hopkins and his party left their room, not really sure what was happening or where they were going. They walked into the hall and saw it was crowded with people.

Hopkins and his team commandeered a white van owned by King that was used to shuttle fighters around town to various promotional events. They drove to Harlem, then later to Philadelphia, his hometown where he had trained for the fight.

At the same time Hopkins was frantically trying to exit the city, a couple of hundred miles away in Orwell, Ohio, King was desperate to get into New York. He'd been preparing to fly on a private jet from his company's training camp later that day to officially kick off the fight-week activities.

When King recognized what happened, he immediately wanted to be in New York to do what he could to comfort victims and project strength.

"Whatever the terrorists thought they were going to achieve, it wasn't going to happen, because we're Americans and we're very proud to be Americans," King said. "We needed to go out and preach the word that the American spirit was still alive and that with a never-say-die attitude, we got right back up after those terrorists knocked us down."

Clearly New York was in no shape to host a major sporting event in four days. But King picked up the phone and spoke with Madison Square Garden owners Charles and James Dolan, as well as New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani, stressing his desire to put the fight card on as soon as possible.

A few days later, King's plane landed in New York. He immediately scooped up Trinidad, who was staying at the now-closed Millennium Hotel, and took him to Ground Zero to help comfort rescue workers and those searching for loved ones.

Trinidad was afraid and confused and badly wanted to go to Puerto Rico. However, he had no choice but to stay because commercial flights were grounded. Asked how badly he wanted to go home, Trinidad said, "On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 15."

Stuck in New York, Trinidad used his celebrity to try to comfort the victims. He and King donated a fire truck to the city's fire department. They spent hours every day for the next 10 days, visiting Ground Zero, posing for photographs, signing autographs and just consoling those struck by tragedy.

The delay, Trinidad's father, Felix Trinidad Sr., told reporters after the fight, "helped Hopkins, because if the fight was held on the day it was supposed to be held, he would already be knocked out."

King recalls Trinadad's reaction as he saw mangled bodies lying in the wreckage. Trinidad was an easy-going, sensitive young guy and the tragedy impacted him greatly.

"In my humble opinion, those days were about Tito the humanitarian and not about Tito the fighter," King said. "The overriding thought in his mind was that he wanted to do whatever he could to help these people."

While Trinidad was spending hours a day at Ground Zero, Hopkins had gotten to Philadelphia and the gym where he prepared for the fight.

He tortured his body, pushing himself hard to be in the best possible shape for that bout. He knew that, sooner or later, the fight would be rescheduled and he needed to be ready.

Guys like Hopkins didn't get second chances. And now that he had the biggest fight of his life ahead of him, he wasn't going to blow it. So, while he mourned along with the rest of the country in the days following the attacks, he also threw himself into his work.

The fight was rescheduled for Sept. 29. A few days earlier, Hopkins returned to New York and visited Ground Zero. His family was to have stayed in a hotel at the World Trade Center complex, but now, that was cordoned off.

He could smell the burning hair and the charred skin and the unmistakable smell of death.

"It was a horrible thing to see, but we had to send a message that they couldn't stop our way of life completely and that we would go on," Hopkins said.

When he arrived at the arena that night, Hopkins was put through a metal detector and his gym bag was thoroughly searched. He was one of the stars of the show, but no one in the building got special treatment.

New York policeman Daniel Rodriguez sang the national anthem, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Hopkins stood in his corner, listening, goose bumps rising on his skin. He was confident that in a few hours the crowd would be deathly quiet. He was convinced he would beat Trinidad, and he did. Hopkins dominated from the outset and stopped Trinidad in the 12th round.

In many ways, it was the greatest night of his life. It was the triumph of his professional career, unmatched before, unmatched since. Many in boxing had believed Trinidad to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world at the time, virtually unbeatable.

Hopkins made it look easy, dismantling Trinidad and making him look amateurish.

As he raised his arms in triumph as referee Steve Smoger jumped in to stop the bout, a wave of melancholy overcame him.

He knew that many of the people in the crowd had lost someone in the tragedy. Others were among the thousands of volunteers trying to assist the victims. He felt a kinship with them.

"No matter who you were or what you believed, black, white, Christian, Jew, whatever you were, whatever you believed, that night, we were all Americans and we were all respecting and supporting each other," Hopkins said. "The terrorists put us down with those planes, but we got up and fought back. And that was what that night was all about."

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