Middleweight contender Felix Trinidad turns 32 today. For the Trinidad faithful, his ring return on October 2, 2004 – after a 29 month retirement – against the garrulous, chain smoking ring iconoclast Ricardo Mayorga had the air inside Madison Square Garden crackling with celebratory anticipation. For all eight of the contested rounds against “El Matador” the smiling, punching machine from Cupey Alto, Puerto Rico, had his rabid faithful dancing in the aisles of MSG. Almost to a person, they were inwardly transfixed with curiosity, praying, outwardly their bodies twisting rhythmically, palms wet, as wonderment turned to excitement, in seeing that ‘their guy’ had, indeed, retained that venomous punching fluidity and stalking aggressiveness that had made him one of thee knockout specialists of his generation.

Honesty tinged with humility, ardent professionalism projected, manifest talent honed and sportsmanship ever honoured were characteristics embodied and projected via Trinidad’s sense of Puerto Rican ‘nationalist’ responsibility to act and live heroically. Always heartily translating his belt winning victories as public thanks to his followers, his manifest persona elevated Trinidad to the status of beloved, an all but extinct stratification in the post-Ali era.

Felix Trinidad has never had to Americanize himself to become a boxing pay per view star across the North American mass media sports networking market. For more than a decade, he’s been a fighter ‘of his people’, and yet a ring warrior who transcends Hispanic-only demographic loyalties, happily communicating in Spanish to the English-only speaking fans. He’s never needed to spit on a flag or shout profanely at press conferences or emasculate referees and judges, preach to the choir about vast promotional conspiracies or castigate himself as a bi-polarized victim managing only public self-sacrificial therapy to embarrassed sports writers. There’s nothing of Bernard Hopkins, James Toney, Mike Tyson, et al. about Felix Trinidad. The man’s cool and engaging. Even his all too human marital failings – deceit and adultery – become, in hindsight, a soap opera imploded, having become a personal disaster resolved over time, partially redeemed by defeat overcome.

Coming out of his corner in October, facing the rushing power gesticulations of Ricardo Mayorga was considered a big risk for a comeback fight. And frankly, the quality and precision of his boxing, after so long a lay off, shocked many fight fans and pundits alike. His balance was superb. The classic tendency of aging greats to punch wider to create power hitting arches, never materialized. Right hand detonations came down the middle, as the left hooks scored in tight circular patterns with that reflexive counter motion of his absolute prime. But the true tale of Trinidad’s future was to be seen below his waistband. At 160 pounds, Felix Trinidad’s foot movement had lightened from the flatfooted, straight lined searching shuffle that Bernard Hopkins had so effectively evaded. By the fifth round, it was almost worth a shake of the head to consider how many boxing pundits had prognosticated the always awkward yet physically intimidating Mayorga was exactly the wrong kind of fighter for Trinidad to make his ring return against. Why fight a bulling, lunging fighter with a granite chin, who had a habit of pounding out heavy favourites in title fights?

The simple answer was that Mayorga, though a potential terror, was always there to be hit and had been his entire career. What fighter who stands before Trinidad and dares a firefight could possibly withstand Trinidad’s hall of fame offensive flourishes? Well, not Mayorga, let’s put it that way. He did appear rested and resolute. Finding his rhythm took about two and a half minutes, and not the two or three fights some suggested as a reasonable time frame. And how Trinidad enjoyed the fighting, the give and take of battle, especially in knowing he still had the ability to dominate a world class, though confused, opponent.

If boxing is largely bereft of big ticket issues heading into this boxing year, one certain tonic will be if Trinidad is able to sustain his Mayorga fight performance level. And as in the selection of Mayorga, many are currently questioning Team Trinidad’s approval of “Winky” Wright as Trinidad’s April, HBO opponent. Of course, Wright’s promoter Gary Shaw and even HBO executives are fully behind the match. HBO seeing it as a reward and meritorious advance given Wright’s double salting of “Sugar” Shane Mosley, in 2004. At first glance the critical, neutral observer might caution Team Trinidad for making this particular bout. If they don’t view Felix as needing ‘developmental outings’ then why engage Mr. Wright, with no world belts and plenty of logistical headaches ensured? The southpaw Wright, who employs quick fisted counter measures effectively, fights ambitiously over the tough rounds and engages well from angles, having the kind of neutralizing offense that might stylistically short-circuit Trinidad’s long range power hitting.

Then again one must consider that Wright has been catching more leather in his last few outings and that his strength quotient has been largely measured against jr. middleweights and former welterweights. If the same can be said of ex-welterweight and jr. middleweight champion Trinidad, at least his raw hitting power and up tempo volume hitting would represent a major step up in trauma tolerance for the now thirty-three year-old Ronald Wright. We defer back to the maxim earlier implied: if Trinidad can hit a target for a sustained period, who can withstand him?

Last time out – November 20 – Winky hooked back up with Shane Mosley for their rematch only to produce a less than expected performance. We can’t give all the credit to Mosley’s trainer, Joe Goossen. Clearly, there was less dominating Wright in the fight, in other words, less dominating fight in Wright. Team Trinidad take the stand that if they can’t vanquish Wright, then the two pillars at middleweight, champion Bernard Hopkins and heir apparent Jermaine Taylor are beyond his powers. And they would be – are – correct.

So there is more method to Team Trinidad than their statement from last fall: “we only want big fights.” True, they do. But they are plotting a progressive campaign back to the top of the middleweight ranks. Clearly, getting Trinidad an ‘A’ level test before taking on Bernard Hopkins has become a cornerstone objective, Wright and his team’s understandable negotiating ploys not at all withstanding. In the light of logical preparedness Wright might be the prefect opponent. Artful in his ring craft, a defusing fighter who tends to wear down opponents’ offensive thrusts, while hitting with quick, stinging combinations, all the while maintaining a physical first inside game. Sound familiar, in aggregate, to any other significant Trinidad opponent of this century?

Bouie Fisher freely admitted to this reporter before Trinidad-Hopkins in September of 2001, that Trinidad had liabilities when either suddenly forced backward or when not allowed to set to punch. Keep Trinidad turning and having to reset his feet and he becomes a target for straight counter punches. Hopkins formula was as simple as a sentence by Hemingway. Having had almost four years to find an answer to Hopkins’ ruggedly applied basic ring geometry has been – one presumes – a quiet obsession for Don Felix and his talented son. What other fight ultimately matters to the historical record Felix Trinidad will leave to the sport of boxing?

Of course, taking on Jermaine Taylor before solving the enigma of Hopkins’ elementary effectiveness would probably be professional suicide. Mainly because Taylor’s probably the real bully on the middleweight block now and not Hopkins. More on that for another time. But at least Team Trinidad are aware of the Taylor threat; and they haven’t made too many missteps so far. So, look for Team Trinidad to offer up his banner in making the challenge to Hopkins for the end of 2005, if not slightly sooner. As far as HBO are concerned it’s one of two or three fights that MUST happen this calender year. And who could imagine the pride of Philadelphia’s boxing gyms walking away from the man he forged his late career reputation on? Not to mention all that money!

All in all, 2005 should be a year Felix Trinidad and his loyal fans will never forget, no matter how they plan things, no matter what titles belts Don King arranges, no matter how, or upon whom, the ultimate punches land.