Sunday, May 11, 2008

Oscar De La Hoya Proves You Can Go Home Again

Oscar signs a baseball for a happy fan at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles.

They say you can never go home again, but don't tell that to Oscar De La Hoya.

His fight against Stevie Forbes is simply called "Homecoming" and depending on who is supplying the numbers, by the time Oscar De La Hoya steps into the ring on Saturday night around seven-thirty at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California he will do so to the loving cheers of a partisan crowd that will be in the vicinity of 30,000 strong.

As the crow flies, the outdoor ring where Oscar will strut his stuff is only about 15 miles from the hopeless and dusty streets of the East Los Angeles barrio where he grew up as the son of Mexican immigrants, his father a warehouse clerk and his mother a seamstress. But Oscar De La Hoya is now a lifetime away from those times of despair.

"And a homecoming it will be," boomed Golden Boy Promotions' Chief Executive Officer Richard Schaefer on Friday afternoon at the official pre-fight weigh-in for the De La Hoya - Forbes fight. A former Swiss banker who speaks with a heavy Swiss accent that makes every fight sound like the grand opening of a new bank, or the coronation of a new King, Schaefer is relatively new to the fight game.

"Oscar hasn't fought in Los Angeles since the year 2000 and it's the first time that Oscar's going to be fighting on HBO World Championship Boxing since 2001. It's the first time that a fight is going to take place at The Home Depot Center soccer stadium where usually the Galaxy with David Beckham play. A capacity crowd there for a boxing match is 30,000 people and we expect a sell-out. There are a few thousand tickets left. We are right now at 26,000 sold seats, so it will be a sell-out crowd witnessing the great showdown between Oscar and Stevie Forbes."

And like any returning hometown hero, Oscar De La Hoya has been making the rounds since his private jet touched down in Los Angeles last Friday. De La Hoya had spent several weeks training at his current home in Puerto Rico, honing his skills to a fine point under the watchful eye of trainer Floyd Mayweather, Sr.

Last Saturday, De La Hoya was seen back in his old stomping grounds, adorned in Dodger blue, where he tossed the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium in a game between the L.A. Dodgers and the Colorado Rockies. It was a left-handed throw, as he's a converted southpaw, and the ball zoomed across home plate - a perfect strike.

While at the ballpark, De La Hoya made small talk with long lost acquaintances and autographed, of all things, baseballs. Among the well wishers was ex-Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda, who makes it to most of Oscar's fights and has long been a supporter of the 'Golden Boy'. "He's a great kid," said LaSorda. "A true ambassador and role-model for the entire city of Los Angeles."

After the game concluded, De La Hoya was off to the Fiesta Broadway, which is a large Hispanic festival in the Los Angeles area where he signed more autographs and shook more hands. It was all part of a week long, multi-pronged, marketing blitz to raise awareness about the return of one of Los Angeles' favorite sons.

When he was asked what fighting in Los Angeles again after all of these years means to him, Oscar, who is now a 35 year-old father and husband far removed from his gold medal winning year of 1992 answered; "Well, I mean, L.A. in general, I mean, it's my home. I grew up in L.A. all my life and you know, it's going to be incredible."

De La Hoya is nothing if not amiable. With inky black hair and a boyish charm he is the type of athlete that advertising agency executives dream about.

"I can't wait to be in front of more than 30,000 people there at The Home Depot Center knowing that they're there to support, you know, this fight," continued De La Hoya, being sure to cover his talking points. "Knowing that they're going to get a great performance. I'm in tremendous shape and ready to give the hometown fans a spectacular, spectacular show."

So how does one man, who hasn't fought much more than once a year for the past several years, and hasn't fought in the City of Los Angeles for nearly eight years, draw a crowd that will likely see every seat filled in an outdoor stadium usually reserved for rock stars and soccer matches?

Well, it doesn't hurt that De La Hoya is movie-star handsome. So much so, that the elder statesman of the game, HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant, once described him as, "George Clooney with fists."

Come Saturday night there will surely be as many ladies in the audience holding up homemade paper and cardboard signs that read, "Marry Me Oscar!" or other such proclamations of love.

De La Hoya's attraction is that he appeals to a wide cross section of the public that includes boxing fans, mainstream sports fans, housewives and those in the Hispanic community that identify with a boy turned man who fought his way from relying on Food Stamps in order to eat to owning his own 15-story office building in downtown Los Angeles that serves as the headquarters of his burgeoning business empire.

De La Hoya is looked at as a hero and role model by many of the residents in his old neighborhood in East Los Angeles. He's a tireless contributor to local charities through his 'Oscar De La Hoya Foundation'. He has donated millions of dollars to local causes and every Christmas, for the past several years, he has financed a massive toy giveaway in his old hometown. De La Hoya plays the role of Santa Claus and he even brings the snow and ice with him - transforming a California parking lot into a joyous winter wonderland.

"After my fight, I will be making a huge announcement on a big donation to the White Memorial Hospital in East L.A.," he said earlier this week. De La Hoya's mother, Cecilia, passed away from breast cancer in 1990, and two years later he won the boxing gold medal in Barcelona, Spain. De La Hoya has already donated so much money to the White Memorial that a wing of the hospital is named in her memory.

De La Hoya also uses his celebrity to aid him with his charitable work. Each year in Beverly Hills he is the main event at a charitable dinner that is a black-tie only affair. The night is a star-studded event that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars from business tycoons and celebrities.

De La Hoya also draws on his Mexican heritage to strengthen his brand. Mexican people are as passionate about soccer as they are boxing and De La Hoya recently became part owner of a Major League Soccer team, the Houston Dynamo. He will wear the colors of that team on his trunks and robe when he enters the ring on Saturday night. His Golden Boy Promotions is the most monetarily successful boxing promotional company in the United States and he has his hand in numerous and diverse ventures that include everything from large real estate development projects to being the owner of The Ring Magazine.

De La Hoya has made the best of his talent and his "Golden Boy" image and he has signed lucrative deals with HBO to televise his fights. He's also cashed in on his success outside of the ring and has served as a spokesman for DIRECTV, Puma, Levi's, McDonald's and the 'Got Milk?' campaign to mention just a few. If a troubled youngster needs a role model to look up to, many families in his old neighborhood point to Oscar. You are as likely to read a story about him in the pages of Business Week or The Wall Street Journal as you are in a boxing magazine.

But aside from all of the things that make him a fan favorite, and perhaps most importantly of all, Oscar is still Oscar.

He's still the same young man that I was caught up with one day in a mob scene at the Marriott Hotel in Denver, Colorado when we were on a press tour to promote his 1997 fight versus Hector "Macho" Camacho.

A few thousand of what seemed mostly teen aged girls nearly crushed him (and the rest of us) in order to get their moment in the sun with the "Golden Boy". They shoved pictures in front of his face to autograph, shrieked "we love you" and before it was over his white shirt and grey slacks were covered with Sharpie marks and his jet black hair was messed up from the young ladies who reached through the crowd to run their hands through it. An older woman in the crowd, who noticed that I was with the boxing press, tapped on my shoulder and asked me where she might be able to buy a boxing magazine so she could have some pictures of him.

Back in 1997, De La Hoya fought Hector "Macho" Camacho in Las Vegas.

In order to be saved from the crowd on that day, we were all ushered into the hotel kitchen via the back door until the situation could be quelled. Bob Arum, Oscar's promoter at the time, was positively gleeful as he talked to someone on his cell phone. "Those people are buyers!" a jubilant Arum barked into the phone.

Miss Colorado was there for the occasion and her eyes darted in Oscar's direction whenever she thought she could sneak a peek at him. All the while a mariachi band played music in the ballroom while the hotel staff worked frantically to salvage the press conference. Camacho, a veteran of the fight racket, who had been around the game since the 1980's and thought he had seen it all, seemed shell-shocked at the outpouring of support for De La Hoya. But Oscar was just Oscar. He patiently waited for the commotion to subside and nonchalantly shrugged off the attention as simply another day in what had become his life.

I asked Arum if all of the pressure and all of the attention ever got to his then, young 24 year-old charge. Arum chuckled confidently and threw his head back before replying, "Never!" as he kept right on with the business of selling another fight.

Sure, De La Hoya has changed somewhat over the years. He is a little more difficult to get close to now and it's more challenging to pin him down for a one-on-one conversation. But when you do get a chance to sit next to him and bend his ear he's the same young fellow that I sat next to in 1999 at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. He showed up that day in a white, super-stretch limousine in the company of Bob Arum and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. when they were all one big happy Top Rank, Inc. family who had gathered together to usher Arum into the Hall. Oscar spent most of that particular weekend patiently signing every autograph, posing for every picture and shaking every hand while simultaneously trying to keep the clothes from being torn off his back.

Over the years his personal life has generated some negative press. He's been engaged a few times, he's fathered two children out of wedlock, and he faced a palimony suit by his ex-fiancee and former Miss USA Shanna Moakler. Recently, a multitude of pictures of he and a New York stripper made the rounds on the Internet and they still threaten to destroy his squeaky clean image. De La Hoya says the images were "Photoshopped" and are "fakes" and now, predictably, that case is making its way through the court system. The incident caused such a rift in his marriage to Puerto Rican songstress Millie Corretjer, the mother of two of his children, that De La Hoya claimed he sought counseling to help get his life back on track.

But despite all of that and despite the enormous pull on his time from different directions, he makes it a point to look fans in the eye when he signs an autograph. He will often thank the requester and smile as he signs 'Oscar' with a big-O as he draws a happy face inside the O.

Earlier this week, a young student named Luis from Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles had the chance to ask Oscar a question. He said, "Congratulations on being one of the most respected and successful Hispanic role models from the East L.A. Community." And then he asked, "Have you considered running for some type of political office once your boxing days have passed?"

Oscar, a graduate of rival Garfield High replied, "Well, I would never count it out. I'll do anything to help the community where I grew up." And then he smiled.

Some scoff at what seems De La Hoya's canned responses to questions from reporters. Many in the boxing press complain that Oscar is "hard to get to know" and that he "doesn't really seem to have a personality."

But the more time you spend with Oscar the more you realize that he is just an unassuming person. He's amiable and soft-spoken even when upset. He is reserved, seems almost shy in some respects and he dislikes confrontation.

I saw him blush on that same day in Denver when Hector Camacho positioned his face inches from Oscar's during a moment away from the crowd and called him "a pretty boy" and said "I'm gonna' kick your ass." De La Hoya didn't say anything in return and Oscar's younger sister, Ceci, who was there with him that day, whispered to him "not to let it bother you." A few months later, it would be Camacho that got his rear end handed to him and who was humiliated on his way to a one-sided beat down.

It's been 16 long years since De La Hoya won the Olympic gold medal in Barcelona, Spain and thus his nickname - The Golden Boy.

De La Hoya has always seemed more of an introvert to me than perhaps any fighter I have known. He’s guarded, passively defensive, a bit measured with his comments and as calculating with the press as he can sometimes be in the ring. He rarely shows all of his cards and plays a conservative game with how much information he lets people know about his life away from boxing.

It's well known that his mother, Cecilia, passed away from breast cancer before he won the gold medal and it's a burden that he seems to carry with him - an emptiness that only one who has lost a loved one would know. His mother made him promise that he would win the gold medal for her and the first place he went after returning from the Olympic Games was her gravesite, to show her that he had won. During the referee's ring instructions before many of his fights, a time that most fighters use as one last moment to look into the eyes of their opponent to psyche them out, De La Hoya looks skyward. He says at that moment that he is thinking of his mother - in heaven.

But having had the opportunity to spend some time around De La Hoya in Las Vegas when he fought Ricardo Mayorga in 2006 and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in 2007, I saw the very same person that I had met for the first time nearly a decade earlier. When I speak to him on the telephone these days he talks the same way as he always has and he’s pretty much the same Oscar he’s always been. As his career in boxing slowly winds down, he speaks more of the future and the time that he will spend with his wife and children.

So as Oscar De La Hoya makes a hero's return to Los Angeles, there is a celebratory mood in the City of Angels. Perhaps it's for the simple reason that not many get the chance, in their lifetimes, to go home again.

May 2008

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