‘I’m the Golden Boy but I’m also Oscar’
Oscar De La Hoya was exhausted. It was 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 19, two days before the megafight between Canelo Alvarez and Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas.
Alvarez is Golden Boy’s flagship fighter. Golden Boy was co-promoting the bout with Roc Nation Sports and De La Hoya had been working non-stop for weeks. One had to go back to the glory days of Don King to find a promoter who’d been as omnipresent and worked harder to publicize a fight.
Now De La Hoya was sitting in Coral Room C at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, which was hosting the event. He’d flown to Los Angeles the previous afternoon because he’d promised his 9-year-old son, Oscar Jr., that he’d attend his son’s soccer game that day. By the time he returned to Las Vegas and went to bed, it was 3 a.m.
Bleary-eyed, wearing a charcoal-gray suit and white shirt open at the collar, his tie loosened, De La Hoya sipped from a container of coffee. He hadn’t shaved for several days. Two hours of satellite-TV interviews lay ahead. That would be followed by interviews with print publications, radio stations and boxing websites. Then he’d host a 1 o’clock press conference for the Saturday night undercard fighters. Later in the day, he’d fly back to Los Angeles for the world premiere of Sylvester Stallone’s new Rocky movie, “Creed.”
“My life has always been boxing,” De La Hoya told me between satellite interviews. “I started boxing when I was 5 years old and I didn’t like it. What 5-year-old kid likes getting hit? Then after one of my fights – I was still 5 – one of my uncles gave me a quarter and a light went on in my head. I can fight and get money.”
De La Hoya, handsome and verbally gifted, was the right man in the right place at the right time. As a 1992 Olympic gold medalist, he was an American symbol. Girls swooned at the sight of him.
And he could fight.
De La Hoya never ducked a challenge. Among the men he fought and their records when he fought them were Rafael Rueles (43-1), Genaro Hernandez (30-0-2), Miguel Angel Gonzalez (41-0), Julio Cesar Chavez (96-1-1), Pernell Whitaker (41-1-1), Ike Quartey (34-0-1), Felix Trinidad (35-0), Shane Mosley (34-0), Fernando Vargas (22-1), Bernard Hopkins (44-2-1), Floyd Mayweather (37-0) and Manny Pacquiao (47-3-2).
There were times when De La Hoya disrespected himself. But he never disrespected boxing. And he was a point of pride for the burgeoning Hispanic-American community. Top Rank and HBO built him magnificently as an attraction. That was his launching pad for the formation of Golden Boy LLC, with CEO Richard Schaefer leveraging Oscar’s star power to build a promotional empire.
“I will always need boxing,” De La Hoya said during a media teleconference call to promote his 2007 megafight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. “Boxing is what made me. Boxing is what’s always going to make me. I owe everything I have to boxing.”
Then came the fall.
In 1994, Dr. Margaret Goodman (who later became chief ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission) performed a pre-fight physical on De La Hoya, who was 21 years old at the time.
“I’m going to be different from other fighters,” Oscar told her. “Watch, you’ll see. Five years from now I’ll be rich and retired.”
De La Hoya was rich at age 26. His ring career extended until two months shy of his 36th birthday, when he was knocked out by Manny Pacquiao. His early years in retirement as a fighter were marked by a series of embarrassing personal revelations. There were stints in rehabilitation facilities in 2011 and 2013 for alcohol and cocaine abuse, and publication of the now-infamous fishnet photos.
All people are entitled to a zone of privacy in their personal life. Because of De La Hoya’s fame, that was denied him. In a 2011 interview with RingTV.com, he was asked, “Did you get to the point where you didn’t want to keep on living?”
“Yes,” Oscar acknowledged. “One of those nights when I was drunk and I was alone again, I asked myself, ‘Is it worth it to be alive?’ I was feeling like I had nothing. And what is going through your mind are your children, your wife, the people who love you. I thought about it. I’m not capable of doing something like that. But I did think about it.”
“You have to get out of boxing,” Richard Schaefer told De La Hoya as the two men jockeyed for control of Golden Boy in a battle that Oscar ultimately won. “Boxing will kill you.”
“No,” De La Hoya countered. “Boxing will save me.”
On May 8, 2014, Oscar met with reporters prior to the kick-off press conference in New York for Canelo Alvarez vs. Erislandy Lara. “I won’t say I’m back because I don’t want to be where I was before,” he said. “Let’s just say, I’m here.”
For most of De La Hoya’s life, the ring was one of the few places – perhaps the only place – where Oscar felt that he was in control. He’s in control now when giving interviews and conducting press conferences.
As a promoter, De La Hoya is prone to hyperbole. There are times when, talking about a fight, he sounds like a political candidate determined to stay on message. He’s good at giving interviewers what they need and also telling people what they want to hear. He’s articulate in two languages and media savvy.
On one occasion several years ago, De La Hoya was wearing a track suit while sitting for an interview that ESPN’s SportsCenter was scheduled to run in two segments on back-to-back days. “Let me take my jacket off,” he said after the first segment was recorded. “That way, you’ll have a different look for tomorrow.”
Oscar no longer inspires the same passion from the public that he once did. But he can still draw a crowd. When he walks into a room, people know he’s there. His personal battles have been as dramatic as any that he ever fought in the ring. They’re fought every day; some in public, others in private.
Fifteen years ago I wrote the captions for a photo essay that featured head-shots of eight fighters. Beneath a photo of De La Hoya, I noted, “Far more complex than most people imagine. … He bruises easily inside. … Looking inward to find some answers for the journeys still to come.”
Those words hold true today. But Oscar is stripping away the layers of varnish that he applied to protect himself from his emotions; a shield that kept him from knowing and accepting who he was for years.
“If you can’t handle the fame, it will destroy you,” De La Hoya told me after the TV-satellite interviews on Nov. 19 came to an end. “I know all the tricks. I can go to Disneyland and wear sun glasses and a hat and dress a certain way. A few people might look and wonder, ‘Is that Oscar De La Hoya?’ But no one approaches me. I’m left alone. And other times, I want to be recognized. I want people to crowd around me. I need that validation that day so I present myself differently. On those days, I’m The Golden Boy.”
“The most important thing is that, in rehab, I learned who I am. That was essential to my being happy because I’d forgotten who I was. Yes, I’m the Golden Boy, I was a champion. I accomplished so much. But I’m also Oscar. Oscar had some dark times. I still have dark moments but I know now that there’s no shame in that. That’s part of what makes me a real person. I like the person I see now when I look in the mirror and that wasn’t always so.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His most recent book – A Hurting Sport – was just published by the University of Arkansas Press.
Photo by Bryan Steffy / Getty Images