From Golden To Olden
At 34, De La Hoya Jabs His Way Into Age of Boxing Uncertainty
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — It was not an auspicious sign.
“Look at that bruise,” the boxing promoter said.
One recent morning during training camp, on the eve of perhaps his most lucrative bout ever, the promot- er glanced at Oscar De La Hoya in the mirror, not liking what he saw. Under his right eye, the 34-year-old fighter had a deep purple shiner, suffered during a sparring session. For the promoter, it was further evidence of a discomfiting truth: The boxer’s days were ticking down. The promoter’s fight company would soon lose its greatest meal ticket — a handsome, media-savvy champion known as the
Golden Boy who, more aptly, has long been his sport’s Golden Goose. But the promoter also knew that some fighters got old in the ring overnight, that for the sake of his health the boxer had to know when it was time to quit. It was then that the promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, looked into the mirror and smirked at the reflection of Oscar De La Hoya the bruised fighter. “It’s complicated,” De La Hoya said. “Sometimes I ask myself: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I know this isn’t going to be going on for me a lot longer.”
Next Saturday in Las Vegas, he will defend his World Boxing Council super welterweight championship against undefeated 30-year-old Floyd Mayweather — generally regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. De La Hoya’s name on the marquee chiefly explains why the MGM Grand sold out its 18,000 seats for the fight, and reached a live gate record of more than $19 million, in only three hours. The biggest draw in boxing even in the wake of four major losses, De La Hoya has generated about a halfbillion dollars in revenue during his 141⁄ 2- year professional career. But Mayweather, winner of titles in four weight classes, is the betting favorite in Vegas — the faster boxer with the reflexes of a cheetah, the quick-talking taunter who has mocked De La Hoya. “He’s an arrogant brat who thinks he’s invincible and, I’ll admit it, he gets under my skin,” De La Hoya said. “He’s a good fighter. I want to do him a big favor now, teach him a lesson, and help straighten out his attitude.”
For his part, Mayweather has been busy honing his antihero pose, happy to play Dr. Evil to De La Hoya’s Dr. Phil. Mayweather hangs with 50 Cent, calls himself the “villain of boxing,” refers to De La Hoya alternately as “the Golden Girl” and a “fake-ass fighter,” and suggests that De La Hoya lacks courage, predicting in expletive-ridden tirades that De La Hoya’s losses have proven that he will “lay down” in a tough fight. As if in need of added motivation, the challenger has worked up a grudge against De La Hoya the promoter, furious that his rival, as the fight’s bigger attraction and principal moneyman, has essentially dictated the terms of their meeting — everything from the fight purses (De La Hoya will receive a guarantee of about $25 million to Mayweather’s $10 million, not including De La Hoya’s multimillion-dollar promoter’s share) to the boxing gloves they will wear (Reyes gloves, which De La Hoya’s handlers believe favor their big-punching fighter) and the combatants’ weights (154 pounds or under, heavier than Mayweather has ever been for a fight).
De La Hoya, too, has worked himself into a nicely contained and frothing fury toward Mayweather, whose father, Floyd Mayweather Sr., had been De La Hoya’s trainer until this bout, replaced largely in the interests of avoiding conflicting loyalties, says De La Hoya. “[Floyd] Senior used to tell me the kid was a brat, too. The kid’s embarrassing. He has this guy named King Tut who carries his jewelry around. What’s up with that?”
He laughs, feeling less irritated about Mayweather the more he talks about him. He admits that, perhaps for the first time in his career, his rage toward an opponent has been dampened by his realization that it is late in his career, that this fight has more to do with proving himself to himself than besting an irascible opponent.
“I’m planning on giving him a spanking, but, you know, Mayweather’s still a kid,” he explained. “I know what it was like to be young and undefeated. You don’t think anything can happen to you. Then you lose a fight and get humbled a little. I’m not the same now as I was at 27 or 28. You change. No one loves getting older. I woke up the other day and my elbow was hurting. I’m 34. It’s all different now.”
He is at that age when even legendary fighters can feel their mortality, feel it in new body aches and facial swellings un- fathomable in their prime. At 34, Sugar Ray Leonard got floored twice and hammered by a relative unknown named Terry Norris, never to win again. Sugar Ray Robinson was increasingly vulnerable by 34, and Roy Jones showed the first signs of a decline that soon led to two brutal knockout losses. “Look at that — never had anything like this in a training camp before,” De La Hoya said sideways at an aide, touching his shiner, faintly amused and perplexed. He held a tiny makeup jar, trying to decide how much to put over the purple mess, before he sat for a magazine cover shoot and his aides let the rest of a media horde through the doors.
A 35-year-old sparring partner had put the shiner on him, though not just any sparring partner. Fast and wily Shane Mosley, a former world champion, had hit De La Hoya the day before with a left hook that had whistled in between the thick leather of De La Hoya’s protective headgear. It was the same Mosley who had beaten him twice in mega-fights but who, as a business partner in Golden Boy Promotions, De La Hoya’s fight promotion company, had come to San Juan to accept the task of trying to mimic the speedy Mayweather during training.
Mosley had done his job — if anything, done it too well. He had freely clocked De La Hoya with both hands. “We’re trying to get Oscar to react with speed and to counter,” Mosley said softly. The shiner had come after Mosley executed a favorite Mayweather tactic: He hit De La Hoya with a left jab to the stomach and then, feinting a jab toward the identical spot, changed the left hand in the same motion to a tricky hook that he whipped high onto that bit of flesh beneath the right eye of a surprised De La Hoya.
The shiner, looking uglier now as the morning had worn on, suggested something discouraging about De La Hoya’s chances of eluding Mayweather’s swiftest shots. But De La Hoya, blessed with a champion’s gift for denial, nonchalantly dismissed the worries: “It’s only a bruise, a badge of honor, a battle mark.” Just the same, he didn’t need more questions about it; maybe the bruise could be made to disappear before the photographer clicked away and most of the reporters walked in. He opened the makeup jar, studied his reflection again and began dabbing the cover-up on the shiner.
At last he nodded at the mirror, satisfied. The bruise had become invisible. “You get older and you get aches and scrapes you never had before,” he said, chuckling again. “Naturally, it’s like, ‘Why am I here?’ But I know why. This is for me. I know the reasons.”
But his wife, a Puerto Rican pop star named Millie Corretjer, didn’t quite know why. She sat alongside the ring in which her husband had gotten the shiner, watching as he stood now against ring ropes in a pose for his photo shoot, his bruise covered, betraying no secrets. “It’s all a personal thing to him,” she said. “I’m not saying I understand it all. I’ve asked him the last couple of fights why he had to do it. I said: ‘You’re a legend, you have a beautiful son here, you have a [fight] business, you have money, you have your good looks and health — why? What else do you need?’ He just says it’s the fight that makes sense now. I don’t think it’s the opponent here that explains it; it’s not Mayweather. Oscar just needs a challenge. I’m here to support him. But he is my husband, too. My worry is always there. After this, I’d like to see this all end. I’m holding my breath until it does. There are big risks in this sport. He loves it, but he doesn’t need it, does he?”
But need can be a peculiar thing, even for a man who cannot think of anything left to buy for himself other than perhaps a Gulfstream G-4 jet like the kind he leased for the promotion tour, a man who marvels over a climb from a boyhood spent watching his Mexican immigrant parents buy groceries in East Los Angeles with food stamps. A man can be worth more than $150 million, as De La Hoya is thought to be — and still the need is there. A man can have more than 30 fighters in his fight stable, can have a $100 million investment in a real estate development company, can cut a Grammy-nominated Latin pop record just for the hell of it and own a share of a half-dozen Spanish language newspapers in the United States and — and still he tells wife, “I need this.” He can have a 12-room mansion in Puerto Rico, and a yacht that he sails around the Virgin Islands when he wants, and he tells her, “I’ll be careful.”
“I’m a fighter,” he says, this meant to be an explanation for what he is doing. “I want to prove to myself what everybody wants to prove, I guess: that I’m still young, that I can still do this. You don’t want to be over with something you love yet. And I know I came up short in some fights. I’ve had good nights and I’ve had bad nights. I don’t want to be remembered for a bad night. If I do well and I’m victorious against somebody who is supposed to be the pound-for-pound [best], it would be a great thing. Critics don’t give you credit for mediocre [matchups]. They want something like this.”
What he does against Mayweather will go a long way toward determining whether he goes down in his sport’s history as a top-shelf fighter or merely a crafty marketing force. His career inside the ring never has come close to matching his allure outside it. In his early years, his mystique was largely built on his 1992 Olympic gold medal that he had dedicated to his late mother, Cecilia; his professional title fight victories were over two aged superstars — Julio Cesar Chavez and Pernell Whitaker. He had a wrecking ball for a left hook and a pop star’s appeal, packing ringsides with young women and Hollywood celebrities who never had seen a prizefight. He became to Vegas fight venues what Sinatra was to the Sands: a sure thing, guaranteed to fill a hotel’s arena, and its casino, too.
But, in the years since, he has never won a true mega-fight. In 1999, he lost a welterweight unification title bout against another star of the time, Puerto Rico’s Felix Trinidad, in what remains the most successful non-heavyweight pay-per-view fight in boxing history, with a gate of more than $70 million. Ahead on points going into the late rounds, a wilting De La Hoya stayed away from a rallying Trinidad rath- er than trade punches. Afterward, he faced questions about his courage and resolve, the climax to a searing night that haunts him to this day. “I still can’t get away from people asking me about it,” he said. “That’s the fight I would do different if I could.”
The two losses to Mosley further diminished his stature. In recent years, the bestremembered image of De La Hoya is that of him writhing on the canvas and being counted out in the ninth round after a body shot from then-middleweight king Bernard Hopkins, sparking whispers among skeptics that De La Hoya chose to stay down, something he bitterly denies but that has fueled the Mayweather camp’s sniping that he might quit if pushed.
He has been a relatively inactive fighter. By the time he enters the ring against Mayweather, he will have fought only four times in four years, losing two of those and fortunate not to have dropped a third, defeating German middleweight Felix Sturm in a much-derided Vegas decision. But none of that has mattered to his devout fans. A year ago, he whacked out a brawling, heavy-punching Ricardo Mayorga in six spectacular rounds to win his 10th world title across six weight classes, and the pay-per-view numbers were the biggest of the year for his sport.
He is the last of boxing’s reliable bigtime draws. When he retires, boxing will have seen its last mega-fight for a long while, and the sport will face more problems than ever. It threatens to be eclipsed in popularity by such fighting forms as mixed martial arts, better known as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), whose pay-per-view revenue exceeded that of boxing last year. “Our sport has brought problems on itself with boring, uncompetitive fights,” observes De La Hoya, who talks of an “obligation” to make sure that his encounter with Mayweather “is a real exciting fight that won’t turn off audiences — because if the fight is a bad one, it could really hurt the sport. The eyes of the whole world will be on us. . . . I hope Mayweather comes to fight, too, after all his boasting. I hope he has the heart to be a man of his word and really fight and not run. We owe it to fans; we owe it to the sport.”
That is both De La Hoya the promoter and fighter talking. The promoter in him aspires to succeed Bob Arum and Don King as the sport’s next great impresario, so serious about building his four-year-old business that he unabashedly talks of how last autumn he gave a briefcase filled with $250,000 to super-featherweight champion Manny Pacquiao (“The fighter said he wanted cash”), in an unresolved effort to woo the Filipino star away from Arum’s stable. “This is a serious business and you need to work hard at it,” De La Hoya says. “And you need the [pay-per-view] numbers to be good. That is why every big fight is important. If Mayweather is in there to fight hard, everything is better for everybody — there are no losers.”
Nothing would please De La Hoya the fighter more than for Mayweather to “fight hard,” to stop moving, to engage him in a slugfest, to run into one of De La Hoya’s huge left hooks. It might be the older fighter’s only chance, skeptics say. In a less than encouraging sign out of the De La Hoya camp, no one among the fighters’ chief aides talks with certainty about the outcome. “I didn’t want him to take this fight,” said Eric Gomez, De La Hoya’s best friend and Golden Boy Promotion’s matchmaker. “This kid he’s in there with is fast, a runner.”
In Puerto Rico, Camp De La Hoya talked of Mayweather as if he were a phantom. De La Hoya’s new trainer, Freddie Roach, admitted to the difficulties in hitting Mayweather: “He rolls, he glides, he protects his chin well behind his shoulder, so a straight right hand against him is just not going to work.” Roach discussed game plans complex enough that it sounded as if he and De La Hoya were about to try storming a fortified beachhead. “We’ll use an overhand right sometimes against [Mayweather’s] temple,” he said, demonstrating a clubbing punch. “Floyd won’t like the feel of that. He might start ducking down and then Oscar can bring up an uppercut on him and bam. I’m not guaranteeing anything. . . . We’re going to try to set a lot of different traps and count on Oscar to be fast enough to take advantage of any mistake Floyd makes. We’re still working on [De La Hoya’s] speed. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.”
That covered-up shiner indicated that the aging fighter still had much work to do. Meantime, his wife would never stop feeling jittery. The proof of the risks stood nearby. Roach’s left hand was trembling. Roach has pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome, the result of his own ring wars as a fighter. “Sometimes Oscar asks me about how much medication I take for it,” Roach said. “But that’s about all we ever say about it. He’s 34, but he’s neurologically sound; he hasn’t had a lot of fights the last few years; he hasn’t gotten hit a lot. He’s gonna get out of the sport just fine, because he’s smart enough to know when to get out.”
The media mob entered the gym, and De La Hoya climbed into the ring. He shadowboxed, he hit mitts held by Roach, he sweated profusely. The makeup covering his shiner ran down his face, exposing the welt to everyone around him.
He was able to laugh about it by then. “What the hell am I doing here?” he repeated, tapping the shiner, and contemplated his own question. “I like the night [of a fight]. The butterflies are just huge and your legs are shaking. . . . But once you’re in the ring, you’re great, you’re ready. . . . I feel safe inside the ring. . . . That’s my element.”
He was grinning, happy, answering all of the reporters’ sometimes zany inquiries. Howling with pleasure, he addressed what is seemingly a staple at boxing media sessions, an inevitable question about his pre-fight sex life. “My wife is very happy,” he said, cracking up some more, adding how much he’d always loved “all this craziness” leading up to a big fight.
He would miss it all someday, he added, but he knew that he couldn’t stay at the zoo much longer. Having resolved to his wife that he would get out in time, he repeated what had become his refrain around Camp De La Hoya: “In boxing, you can turn old overnight. . . . I have to be smart about it.”
On Monday, he’ll be gone from Puerto Rico, touching down in Los Angeles for a day to do “The Tonight Show,” flash his smile and promote. Then he’ll get on a private jet and fly to Las Vegas, where Mayweather will be waiting. De La Hoya knows there aren’t many pretty endings for 34-year-old fighters. “The truth is you’re probably gonna do it until someone shows you that you can’t,” he says. “And when that happens, you have to be strong enough to move on.”
“You get older and you get aches and scrapes you never had before,” said prohibitive underdog Oscar De La Hoya.
“He’s an arrogant brat who thinks he’s invincible,” Oscar De La Hoya, left, said of his opponent on Saturday, 30-year-old Floyd Mayweather, here posing at a news conference in New York in February.
De La Hoya’s aura of invincibility took a beating Sept. 18, 2004, when Bernard Hopkins put him down, sparking whispers among skeptics that De La Hoya chose to stay down.
De La Hoya sports a shiner he got in training for his upcoming bout. “It’s only a bruise, a badge of honor,” he said.