Sunday, January 20, 2008

De La Hoya is the Architect of His Own Destiny

He always wanted to be an architect, so it’s fitting that Oscar De La Hoya is now carefully drafting the final blueprints that will lead to the end of his long career as a prizefighter. With precise measurements and a keen eye to all of the angles, Oscar says that 2008 will be it for him - and that he’ll punch and then get punched no more.

Some wonder why De La Hoya still continues on in what the great fight writer, Hugh McIlvanney, calls "the hardest game" - yet the answer to that question rests solely in the mind of Oscar himself. He literally fought his way out of the barrio of East Los Angeles. Hailing from the little triangle of a city called Montebello that’s wedged in between the Santa Monica, San Gabriel and Santa Ana freeways he has become one of the most well known and wealthiest figures in sports.

He has done it all, won it all and it would seem that, indeed, he has it all. He became the personification of the "Golden Boy" when he won an Olympic gold medal in 1992 and later garnered pieces of professional championships in six different weight classes. Along the way he faced the biggest names the sport of boxing had to offer him. From the left hooking Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez to the former Philly convict Bernard Hopkins, De La Hoya has fought the best of a generation.

And don’t forget that he was once nominated for a Latin Grammy Award for his compilation of love songs on a CD that was aptly titled "Oscar De La Hoya." Also remember that he’s currently the captain of Golden Boy Promotions, the world’s most lucrative boxing promotional company. Aside from all of those achievements, he recently eclipsed Mike Tyson as the most watched pay-per view boxer in history when his fight with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. smashed all previous benchmarks.

He’s movie star handsome, too. With dark features, soft brown eyes, a boyishly white smile and a head full of inky black hair, he easily makes you forget that he’s spent nearly his entire life exchanging punches with hard men trying to mar his good looks. The elder statesman of this racket they call the fight game, HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant, once described De La Hoya as, "George Clooney with fists."

But like the other pugs that have come before him, the lure of the ring has a hold on him and the call to test his luck one more time on the roulette wheel called boxing is simply too much for him to turn his back on. He once said, "I’m going to retire by the time I’m 30 years old." He will be 35 when he fights again.

Despite the fact that he added over $50 million to his already morbidly obese bank account for his fight against Floyd Mayweather, Jr. last May, and despite the fact that his wife, the beautifully demure Puerto Rican songstress Millie Corretjer recently gave birth to their second child, Oscar says he’s going to climb through the ropes three times in 2008.

Certainly he has no more to prove to the public. He’s likely a first ballot hall of fame inductee and he will go into the books as the most financially successful boxer in the history of the sport. His celebrity status and crossover appeal put him on par with fighters such as Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Mention the name "Oscar De La Hoya" on street corners from Bangor, Maine to London, England to Beijing, China and the people will immediately know who you are talking about.

Just before stepping into the ring against Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in May 2007, husband and wife share an intimate moment together.

He comes from two generations of fighters and maybe that helps to explain why, despite the enormous wealth he has amassed and the notoriety that will forever be a part of him, that he just can’t walk away. His grandfather, Vicente was an amateur fighter in Mexico and his father Joel, who dragged Oscar off a dusty baseball field and into a boxing ring, was once a pro lightweight.

And it’s Joel, it sometimes seems, who still has the same grasp on the nape of Oscar’s neck that he once used to drag him into the ring. It was Joel who transformed the shy, meek, little boy, who never once fought in the street – into a fighter. It’s always been Joel who has not necessarily watched over his son, but has watched him.

Even now, nearly 30 years after Oscar first laced on a pair of gloves, Joel can be seen sitting at ringside with a judgmental and stoic look on his face. Peering down his nose at his son, he watches every move, every punch, every action and reaction as though none of it is good enough. Or at least it could be better. It’s Joel who can be seen standing silently like an omnipresent sentinel at the back of the room while Oscar is at the dais speaking at various press conferences.

In fact it wasn’t until after he lost a razor thin decision to Felix Trinidad in 1999 in a fight that many figured Oscar had won, did his father tell him for the first time that, "You did a good job."

In his last victory against Ricardo Mayorga in May 2006, De La Hoya was at his destructive best and won via a sixth round stoppage.

So it’s anyone’s guess really as to why De La Hoya has decided to forge on with his career. He’s laid out plans that will see him fight in May in an open air stadium in either the United States or Mexico. He’ll fight again in September in a rematch with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. that will likely be held in Las Vegas, and one final fight in December as a going away present and a tribute to his fans.

But the answer as to why Oscar De La Hoya still fights may lie in the fact that at his core he is simply a fighter. Forget about the bloodlines and the domineering father. Were you to strip away the veneers of good looks, wealth and near legendary ring accomplishments you would likely find a fighter no different than the ones who tread across the Rio Grande in the middle of the night to make a few bucks in a Texas club show.

He's on record as saying that, "I want to fight good fights, exciting fights, that make the fans jump to their feet." He has shown great admiration for fighters that are warriors and that give their all in the ring to win at all costs, but he typically doesn't fight in that manner.

As in his life outside the ring, De La Hoya has rarely shown all of himself. He's guarded and as a result the native Mexican fans to whom he has a strong affinity, have never clung to him like they did to Chavez or even Erik Morales or Marco Antonio Barrera. He is not held in the same high regard as those warriors that were willing to leave themselves in the ring if need be.

Against Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Oscar came up short. He'll get a second chance to beat Mayweather in September 2008.

De La Hoya has always been a tad too cautious to just let himself fight with that type of same reckless abandon - to show himself. He fights like he's keeping a secret and he doesn't always march ahead with a clear and confident plan of attack. Perhaps because of the numerous trainers he has employed over the years he seems stuck in between the different styles that each of those trainers has preached him to employ.

Many of his fights have often meandered along with a blandness and lack of drama. Most criticized his performance in the Mayweather fight for just this reason as he seemed unable or unwilling to step up his game to the next level and he lost a close split decision after holding an early lead before fading down the stretch. On the few occasions over the 15 years that he has let himself forget that he’s the Golden Boy, a primal ferocity has reared its head and he has been electrifyingly vicious.

He has alluded to the fact that there is a void in his boxing career where he has never truly been tested in a war of attrition nor, except for the Ike Quartey fight, has he been in a good, old-fashioned, knock down, drag out brawl. There have been no Arturo Gatti-like comebacks in his fights. No battles with sustained ferocity where he has had to peer through blood to snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat. When he was felled by a Bernard Hopkins bodyshot in 2005, he stayed down, which led many to question his internal fortitude. And he has never engaged in a "fight of the year" bout.

In conversations, De La Hoya has said that he would like for those types of fights to happen. 2008 will give him the final chances to make them happen.

The Golden Boy, the would be architect, has drawn up the plans. Now it's time to cement the final blocks into place.

January 2008

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