Tuesday, May 30, 2023  |



De La Hoya had a hell of a ride

Fighters Network

I knew without a doubt that Oscar De La Hoya was special one spring day in 1996 in El Paso, Texas.

“The Golden Boy” was in the middle of a 23-city promotional tour for his first of two fights against Julio Cesar Chavez. In El Paso, one of the stops, I rode in a minibus with him from the airport to a hotel for another in a series of news conferences.

The streets were eerily empty, as if it were a ghost town. Then, when he we turned a corner and could see the hotel, we were startled to see thousands of people – many of them screaming young women — behind police-guarded barricades.

When the bus stopped and De La Hoya stepped out, the frenzied fans broke through the barricades about 50 meters away and made a mad dash toward us. The smiling young fighter only had time to yell, “HERE THEY COME!” before he was enveloped by hundreds of adoring people and swept away.

It was the closest thing to Beatlemania I had ever seen in person and convinced me that this was not your typical boxer. This was someone who had unusual athletic ability but also could connect with people in a way no else did. He was a star who, with the guidance of brilliant promoter Bob Arum, would dominate boxing for almost 15 years more with both is boxing ability and charisma.

A few years after he was mobbed by those fans, 50,000-plus people would fill the Sun Bowl in El Paso to watch De La Hoya fight journeyman Patrick Charpentier, a remarkable testament to his star power.

It didn’t start exactly that way. He was a skinny, fresh-faced kid, only 19, from East Los Angeles when he called a news conference in a back room at the Forum to announce that he was turning pro. He had a gold medal from the Barcelona Olympics; a touching story, having dedicated the medal to his late mother; and movie-star looks.

Still, at that time, he was more a young boxing prospect than a star.

People forget how dominating he was at 135 pounds (lightweight) and below. He was 20-0, with 18 knockouts at 130 and 135, although he would face his most-accomplished opponents later on. His left hook during that period was one of the most-devastating punches in the game.

At that time, he created excitement mostly with his fists. It wasn’t a question of whether his opponent would be knocked out, it was when, which thrilled the fans.

And he was still just a soft-spoken, accessible kid. I remember having a quiet breakfast around that time with just him and a childhood friend at a small diner in Big Bear, where beginning a few years later hundreds of journalists would descend upon the mountain before every one of his fights.

At breakfast, I remember thinking that he said what he thought I wanted to hear instead of speaking from the heart – a feeling I had his entire career – but he was a nice kid. He was always nice.

Things began to evolve quickly after he fought popular L.A.-area rival Rafael Ruelas, the then-IBF lightweight titleholder, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 1995. The buzz in that precious outdoor arena, largely the result of their hometown rivalry, created an electric atmosphere that became a staple at his fights.

De La Hoya knocked out the over-achieving Ruelas with that amazing left hook in two rounds and both his career and life would never be the same. He became a bona fide star that night, one who would win 10 major titles in six weight classes, make tens of millions of dollars at a time and become one of the more recognizable faces in sports.

He certainly had his ups and downs both in the ring and out. His critics have to acknowledge that he’s a future Hall of Famer but also point out that he lost most of his biggest fights. That includes his embarrassing loss to Manny Pacquiao in December in what appears to have been his last foray into the ring.

Outside the ring, he probably partied too much and let gambling get the better of him at one point. He fathered children out of wedlock. He was known for instability in his camp, regularly changing trainers and other personnel. And embarrassing photos of him cross-dressing – which his lawyer said were fake – made him the butt of many jokes.

However, none of that mattered come fight time. When De La Hoya fought, people were moved. He filled arenas and created drama wherever he went. I’ve been to many of the biggest fights over the past 20 years and nothing topped the palpable excitement of his fight against Felix Trinidad in 1999.

And, more important to the wallets of those associated with his fights, he has been the driving force behind some of the biggest pay-per-view numbers ever. That includes the record 2.4 million he generated when he fought Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2007, a number unthinkable for a non-heavyweight before then.

No one else but Mike Tyson could generate that kind of interest in a boxing match, so powerful has De La Hoya been.

Everyone wanted to fight him, not necessarily for the challenge but for the money he guaranteed them. They wouldn’t make nearly as much as him, of course, but they’d make much more than they ever had before because of his drawing power.

As recently as a few weeks ago, when the possibility of De La Hoya fighting again was more realistic, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. lobbied for a fight with the man who twice beat his father. Chavez knows he could never make a huge payday against anyone else.

Alas, all of this will be over if De La Hoya announces his retirement at a news conference Tuesday in downtown Los Angeles. The other night, at the post-fight news conference after Paul Williams outpointed Winky Wright in Las Vegas, De La Hoya gave way to the featured fighters and remained largely in the background.

For someone who has followed De La Hoya’s career so closely, that was a very strange sight. He has been the center of attention for most of two decades, the guy everyone came to see, the unrivaled superstar, the face of the sport.

The fact that he appears to be at the end of his truly remarkable run is truly sad. It was just so much fun.

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]