De La Hoya: The building of a superstar
Oscar De La Hoya and promoter Bob Arum (right) were on opposite teams when De La Hoya fought Manny Pacquiao in December. But they were as formidable as any duo when they were together. Photo / Ed Mulholland-FightWireImages.com
Oscar De La Hoya’s abilities probably were no greater than some other top amateur fighters when he turned professional in 1992, although he certainly was talented. He wasn’t the most-loquacious boxer; in fact, he was rather shy early in his career. And he had no idea how to build the career he imagined for himself.
However, the good-looking kid from East Los Angeles was the first fighter since Sugar Ray Leonard to have every single ingredient required to become a star. Also, he had the good fortune of arriving at the optimal moment to make the most of his gifts.
Consider what he brought to the game and what was happening in boxing at the time:
ÔÇó He had innate athletic ability and polished boxing skills, without which nothing much was possible.
ÔÇó He won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics when international boxing still meant something, the only gold won by an American.
ÔÇó He had the compelling story of promising his dying mother he would win gold and then doing it after she passed away, which tugged at people’s heartstrings.
ÔÇó He had those good looks and sparkling smile, which attracted women to him and boxing.
ÔÇó He was bilingual at a time when Hispanics began to dominate boxing and were growing in influence in general.
ÔÇó There was a void at the apex of the sport in the mid-’90s, Mike Tyson having begun his decline.
ÔÇó The lucrative pay-per-view television market was just heating up.
ÔÇó He happened to live in a major media market that embraced his dramatic rise.
ÔÇó And, finally, he made the decision to hire promoter Bob Arum as the architect of his promising career.
Indeed, whether it was God-given or sheer luck or a combination of both, De La Hoya had it all. The result: He would evolve into the face of the sport and its second biggest money-making machine in history after Tyson.
“Oscar came at the right time,” Leonard said. “I came along when (Muhammad) Ali left. (Mike) Tyson came when I left. And then Oscar came along. Ali had a lot of impact on the game. I hope I did the same thing. Tyson did. And then Oscar did.
“We were fortunate to come at just the right time, right after each other.”
To be clear, De La Hoya was an exceptional boxer. He was skilled, quick-handed, powerful and stylish. As Eric Gomez, his childhood friend and matchmaker of Golden Boy Promotions said: “He’s a beautiful fighter to watch.”
And he would prove later on that he also had a fighter’s heart and one of the best chin’s in boxing. He was rarely hurt in his 45-fight career.
However, to make the impact he made on boxing and beyond, there must be much more than that. Ali, Leonard and Tyson were certainly more than just fighters. Ali and Leonard had charisma, Tyson a sinister attraction.
The gold medal was an enormous boost, particularly combined with the story about his promise to his mother. Even today, with Olympic boxing as an afterthought, a gold medal guarantees a healthy signing bonus and momentum entering a pro career.
Only De La Hoya had the touching story of his mother, though. And network television, which still considered boxing a priority at the time, told it beautifully to everyone in the nation. That made the young man, only 19 at the time, a sympathetic favorite.
“I knew the story,” said Gomez, who couldn’t afford to attend the Games in Spain. “I lived it; I was there. But even I got choked up when I saw it on TV. I think people related to him because of that; they were attracted to him and his story.
“I think they were really pulling for him to win so he could keep his promise to his mom.”
Arum, who split with De La Hoya years ago, was asked what made De La Hoya so big and his first response was the fighter’s looks. He looked and carried himself like a movie star, which played a central role in Arum’s marketing strategy early in his career.
At public events or his arrival at airports, Arum would have someone pass out signs that read “OSCAR, MARRY ME” or something similar and he would encourage young women to scream at the sight of him, much as girls did for Frank Sinatra and the Beatles in earlier generations.
Ali and Leonard also were good-looking men but De La Hoya might be unique among boxers in stirring the imagination of females. At many public events, women far outnumbered men.
“We definitely played up his good looks,” Arum said. “We started a frenzy among young women that really caught on. You have to do it at the beginning. Then you let the wave you build take over; then it becomes natural for the girls to crazy.
“And, believe me, that paid dividends. It helped pay-per-view sales because it increased the audience.”
Many of the women attracted to De La Hoya were Mexican or Mexican-American, as he is. That’s something Arum also played up.
Mexican-Americans hadn’t produced many celebrities, particularly one as glamorous as De La Hoya. And boxing is a much more integral part of the Mexican culture than it is in other cultures in this country.
As a result, many of his people became excited when a great-looking, gold medal-winning boxer from one of their own neighborhoods began to emerge as a star. The love affair lingers today, as Mexican-Americans clamor for him whenever he makes public appearances.
And there was the Spanish language.
“The fact he was articulate in two languages was very important,” Arum said. “In the past, that might’ve been downplayed. With Oscar, though, we played that up. He always spoke in both languages (at news conferences or public events) even when we thought everyone in the audience understood English.
“He had a big, big Hispanic, Mexican following at a time when it was really emerging in society.”
Arum, who also promoted Ali and Leonard, said De La Hoya wasn't his biggest star. That distinction would go to Ali, one of the best-known figures in the modern world. However, he did describe De La Hoya as the biggest boxing attraction of his time.
And timing had a lot to do with his success.
One, Tyson was in prison when De La Hoya was emerging as a star and was finished as a major attraction in 2002. In other words, as Leonard said, there was an opening for someone like De La Hoya to step in and rule the sport. He was next in a very exclusive line.
And, two, pay-per-view television took hold in this and other countries, which earned De La Hoya much of his hundreds of millions of dollars.
That’s a huge advantage he had over his predecessors. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean his popularity rivaled that of Ali and Leonard, who made their names to vast audiences on network television.
Arum thought it was important to put it in perspective.
“To say Oscar is the biggest box office star in history is misleading,” Arum said. “When Ali was fighting, the only way you could watch it was on closed circuit using telephone-company lines. You were limited to 350 locations. By the time Oscar came around, you had satellite technology that wasn’t limited at all. With Ali, Leonard most of his career, there was no pay per view. You can’t compare it. Oscar was never on the cover of Newsweek, like Leonard was. No fight of Oscar’s was near as big at Ali and (Joe) Frazier at Madison Square Garden.
“Oscar can’t compare with Ali as far as popularity goes. For his era, he was the most popular. To say anything different is ludicrous.”
And, finally, there was Arum himself. The promoter had enjoyed plenty of success before De La Hoya, guiding the careers of the aforementioned stars and many others. He never did a better job than he did with “The Golden Boy” boy, though.
They dominated the sport together for years and still do as rival promoters. Arum won’t call the building of De La Hoya into a star his masterpiece, as some have called it. He said the road was much tougher with another elite fighter, Marvin Hagler. And he gets more gratification from his relationship with Ali because of “The Greatest’s” historical significance.
However, Arum does acknowledge that he and De La Hoya accomplished something special.
“I think we did a really good job with him,” he said. “We’re proud of what we did. And we definitely couldn’t have done it with just any fighter. No matter how good a fighter is, you have to bring something special to the table. Oscar brought a lot of attributes to us.
“He was that articulate, good-looking Mexican-American kid from Los Angeles who won a gold medal. That explains to a large extent his success.”
Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]