Oscar's final vindication

The great welterweight has never gotten the respect he deserves. After Saturday, he should.

By Allen Barra

Published September 13, 2002 7:42PM (EDT)

Seven or eight years ago when he was on the verge of international fame, Oscar De La Hoya used to pull the Stamp Act. When he talked to you about growing up poor and Mexican in L.A., it didn't take long before he'd reach into his wallet and produce a laminated food stamp. I had been warned that he was going to try it on me, but I have to admit it was still pretty darned effective, none the less so for being so calculated. It immediately separated the writer from the fighter. He was showing me there was a gulf between our backgrounds not easily bridged and how difficult it was for English-speaking, middle-class journalists to understand who he was or what he came from. It was also a clue that he understood something about you: the Stamp Act was there for your benefit, to give you something dramatic to use in profiling him.

Many years, a handful of titles, and perhaps $115 million later, an older, wiser, sadder Oscar doesn't pull out the stamp any more. He exhibits a melancholy attitude when facing the press -- part humility as if he's still astonished at his enormous success (and you can't fake it all that time without it being partly genuine) -- and part puzzlement over the surprising fact that his popularity isn't greater.

Greater than what? With Tyson having crashed and burned and Roy Jones, Jr. fighting handpicked tomato cans, there's a very good chance that Oscar De La Hoya is now what he wanted to be so dearly several years ago, the biggest draw in boxing. The controversial razor-thin losses to Felix Trinidad in 1999 and Sugar Shane Mosley a year later dented his drawing power not at all. As it turned out, Trinidad proved to be as flawed as his performance against De La Hoya suggested and got KO'ed badly by Bernard Hopkins when he tried to move up in weight. Mosley was whipped twice by a fighter, Vernon Forest, not considered in his class before they fought. When the smoke cleared, De La Hoya was standing alone, still looking very close to his prime and completely unscarred atop the boxing heap. The unscarred part is no small thing, considering that he has fought a total of 83 rounds in his career with Julio Cesar Chavez (twice), Pernell Whitaker, Hector Camacho, Ike Quartey, Oba Carr, and of course, Trinidad and Mosley. He has never been stopped and only a couple of punches stands between his current record, 35-2, and an unbeaten one.

Yet, despite his wealth, popularity and success, Oscar De La Hoya has always seemed to be boxing's halfway man. The press has never completely warmed up to him, for reasons that are difficult to pin down. It might have something to do with the cognoscenti's ambivalence towards a fighter who didn't pay his dues in the old-fashioned sense by working his way up through the club circuit. Oscar De La Hoya may be the first boxing superstar never to have appeared on network TV as a professional; he went straight from his Olympic gold medal performance in 1992 to cable TV and then, shortly after, to pay-per-view, which caused a bit of resentment in the cash-poor, boxing-crazed neighborhoods of East L.A. For much of the old guard boxing press, he was too glib, too good-looking and too good -- a mini Ali sans the political subtext.

No Latin fighter has ever approached De La Hoya's Spanish-speaking, English-speaking crossover appeal. The Latin community, or perhaps it would be more proper to say the Latin communities (as anyone who has ever attended a fight in Los Angeles can testify, loyalties don't just divide according to nationality but sometimes by neighborhood) have never entirely embraced him. His two brutal victories over Mexico's national hero, Cesar Chavez, didn't have the effect that Oscar hoped for, namely that of making him the new international sports hero of the Spanish speaking world the way victory over Sugar Ray Leonard two decades earlier had done for Roberto Duran. He won himself a lot of new fans, but he also lost himself quite a few on both sides of the border: he was too good looking, too flashy, too rich, and his English too unaccented to win over the hearts of many Latin fans. Likewise, when he fought Felix Trinidad, he was too laid back, too "West Coast" to suit many fans on the Eastern seaboard.

And he has never quite been macho enough for the majority of Latin fans anywhere. This was such a sore spot for De La Hoya that he stopped talking about it in interviews years ago, but clearly it has never been far from his mind. For black fighters, for Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard, it has never been an issue that finesse and defensive skill were perfectly legitimate weapons in a boxing ring. As the late, great trainer Eddie Futch once confided to me, "Only with Latin fans do you hear complaints about some fighter 'running.' I mean, you can't run in a boxing ring. They put ropes around it, and a smart fighter knows that he needs to use all of it. If a fighter is moving backwards too much to suit his opponent, it's up to his opponent to do something about it by cutting the ring off. But with Latin fans, you sometimes get the feeling that they think two fighters should be put in a phone booth where neither of them can move."

De La Hoya so clearly outclasses most fighters of his generation in a combination of speed, power and skill that it's amazing in retrospect that he hasn't been more dominant. Amazing, that is, to non-Latin fans. But in the ring, at odd times, De La Hoya has seemed compelled not to fight a fight his way but to challenge an opponent's strengths rather than his weaknesses. In other words, instead of following the classic formula for success -- box punchers and punch boxers -- he has often preferred to trade punches with sluggers when he ought to move and vice versa, trying alternately to satisfy his constituency one moment and himself the next.

His height, reach and hand speed should have been enough to let him coast to an easy decision over Shane Mosley, but he stood flat-footed in the last four rounds when he should have been moving. He said it himself later, "I fought as if I was out to prove something to the fans and not to myself." What he was out to prove was that the Trinidad fight had been a fluke: after thoroughly dominating the favored Trinidad for eight rounds, he stuck-and-ran for the last four rounds and a couple of judges who didn't know how to add up points in a boxing match gave Trinidad the decision. "It was the one time in my career that I decided to be the boxer I knew I could be," he said, "and they punished me for it." Well, not completely. Had he stopped and mixed a few punches with Trinidad at the tail end of each of the final four rounds, he probably would have won the decision easily.

De La Hoya says he wants to avenge his two losses before he retires, but, really, what's the point now? Trinidad has retired, and Mosley has been exposed. If De La Hoya defeats Fernando Vargas impressively this Saturday when they meet for the super-welterweight (or what used to be called the junior middleweight) title, he can clean all slates. Vargas, a stumpy little roughneck who almost took out Felix Trinidad in their fight two years ago, comes from nearly the same 'hood as De La Hoya and is the very model of what most Latin fans want a Latin fighter to be, a relentless, hard-hitting bull of a man who is always in front of his opponent. If De La Hoya KO's him or even wins an impressive decision without taking too many backwards steps, he'll have beaten the other best Latin boxer around and the folks back in the barrios will finally have to acknowledge that Oscar is one of them.

They'll have to. There's no one else around to bring sublime moments to this once great and now dreary sport.

Quick prediction: As strong as Vargas is, De La Hoya can take his punch better than Vargas can take De La Hoya's, and Oscar's hand and foot speed will also make it easier for him to pick and choose his moments. De La Hoya will neither pursue nor run from Vargas; rather, he will play a game of in-and-out, setting up big right hands with his jab, piling up points and forcing Vargas to come at De La Hoya. Sometime in the 11th or 12th round Vargas, in one of his patent rushes, will walk right into a De La Hoya left hook and the fight will be over.

I got such a big response from a brief Q&A with Bert Randolph Sugar a few months back that I thought another one was in order. I caught Bert at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas as he was getting ready for the De La Hoya-Vargas fight and popped these questions:

When I was a kid, Madison Square Garden in New York was the Mecca of boxing. It's still hard for me to accept Las Vegas as the last bastion of big fights.

You know what a baby's first words are out here? "But it's DRY heat."

Well, that's it, it's spring weather all year round and there's always people who want to vacation.

The big casinos can easily afford to hold these things because of all the customers they bring to the gambling tables. It's as simple as that. Mandalay Bay has become the leader, largely because of their beautiful indoor arena.

But it's still a strange atmosphere for me because there are so many people who come to fights like this that aren't real boxing fans. That is, most of the people here haven't really followed the careers of either De La Hoya or Vargas, they're just here because it's a big event.

But don't slam boxing for that. Is boxing that much different in that respect than football or basketball? How many fans of a particular football or basketball team do you know have ever seen their favorite team play in person? Most of them just know the team through television. Well, that's what it's become in boxing. You have champions now whose only relation to their fans is an occasional appearance on pay-per-view.

It makes them more like rock stars, I suppose, but it also takes away a lot of the old intimacy. Anyway, you have been supporting a new boxing bill ...

A Boxer's Rights Bill, written by Senator John McCain.

I heard you say on TV that this is different from all previous boxing bills. Why?

Because of the pension plan and the comprehensive health and safety provisions, but the big thing is that it wouldn't allow for options on contracts.

Why is that such a big item?

It's the way that manipulative promoters control fighters. You give a guy a title shot and it seems like a great deal, but then he's bound to you for the next six fights or whatever. He's not only under your control, he doesn't have a chance to find the promoter who'd give him the best deal. It's a way for powerful promoters to tie up both fighters in a big bout; it's a no-lose situation for them.

It seems to me that a bill like this would be almost impossible to enforce. I mean, if you didn't get the deal you wanted from the Las Vegas or New Jersey or Illinois boxing commission, you could just go the South Dakota Boxing Commission or wherever ...

Well, that's the point. Most of these other states don't even have a boxing commission. But it's amazing how quickly they'll throw one together for you if you're planning on coming to their state and spending several million dollars. Yes, it's very difficult to enforce something like this. But you can't start enforcing it until the bill is passed. Then you find ways to enforce it. After a while, when it gets respectability through widespread acceptance, it will get some teeth, and then it'll become much easier to enforce.

Tell me something. I'm happy to see Oscar De La Hoya fight Fernando Vargas, only I don't see why we can't have five or six fights a year like this one instead of one. I think the biggest problem with boxing in my lifetime is that we never got to see the fights we really wanted to see. After Ali and Frazier fought for the third time, it seemed like we stopped getting the rematches we wanted and then stopped getting the big matches altogether, unless it was after the fighters were too old to give us their best.

Do you mean like Hagler and Hearns or Leonard and Hearns or Leonard and Duran? You did have rematches in two of those three.

Yes, but the second Duran and Leonard fight, the "no mas" fight, was really a farce, and if they were going to fight again, it should have been within a couple of years, not when they were both about to collect Social Security. And Leonard and Hearns were also past their best when they fought again.

This is a direct result of the alphabet-soup boxing syndrome.

That's a term you invented, isn't it, "alphabet soup" boxing?

Yes, probably. I steal for myself almost as often as everyone else does, so I'm not sure, but I think it was me. You've got the WBA, WBC, WBO, and now you've got 17 possible weight divisions, so you've got, theoretically at least, 68 possible champions in a sport where there used to be eight.

It's impossible for me to keep track. When I was in high school I could tell you the lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight champions, but now I can't even remember whether the fighters I know are lightweight, welterweight or middleweight.

It depends on how you train. There was one guy who trained for the super-lightweight title on tuna fish packed in water, then fought a month later for the junior-welterweight title while training on tuna fish packed in oil.

That's not true, is it? You made that up, right?

There was another guy who went to dinner and ordered two toppings on his pizza and went up four weight classes. Seriously, though, I think it's a great idea to have all these different divisions. Think of all the guys who can't get jobs as jockeys -- they can always get jobs as fighters.

Whose fault its it that we don't get to see so many of the matches that we want?

One of the main reasons you don't get to see the fights you want to see is, of course, the promoters, who are squabbling over everything from percentages on this fight to promotional rights on rematches. But it also has to do with the fighters. You can maintain your bargaining position simply by holding onto a title, any title, and if you fight and lose, it can cost you a lot of money in negotiating future fights. Someone said to Evander Holyfield, "Why do you want to fight for the title of some second-rate organization," and he said, "I'm not fighting for a title, I'm fighting for money, and the network demands a title."

In other words, the networks have a vested interest in keeping the alphabet soup syndrome going. So at this point is television part of the problem or part of the solution?

No, I defiantly think that TV is part of the solution, and I think some of the real integrity in boxing reporting is coming from the broadcasters who have become journalists that TV announcers in the past never were.

I have to say that I agree with you. I've been very hard in the past on Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley, but I think they've gotten better and better on boxing issues and have had the guts to make quite a few controversial calls.

Yes, and some of those involving HBO. I think it took a lot of guts for Lampley to point out that Roy Jones Jr.'s contract that allowed him to select his own opponents was with HBO. I do see a resurgence in knowledgeable boxing fans, and I attribute it directly to fans that follow boxing on cable TV.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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