From Golden To Olden

At 34, De La Hoya Jabs His Way Into Age of Box­ing Un­cer­tainty

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By Michael Leahy

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.

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