I’ve never had the conflicted feelings toward De La Hoya endemic to so many hardcore boxing fans. Certainly, I understood some of the animosity toward him for his wishy-washy act, both in the ring and out of it. But what I saw was a very good fighter — a Hall of Famer, for sure, but not as good as he could have or should have been — who had helped keep the sport afloat by repeatedly challenging the best competition he could and usually putting on a nice show in the process, win or lose. He’s the “most lucrative boxer ever,” giving lie to the repeated claims that boxing is a dead sport. And it’s not as if other beloved athletes didn’t put up glossy fronts the way De La Hoya did. You think the Michael Jordan in television interviews was the real Michael Jordan? If you do, then Jordan’s act was only more convincing somehow, but no less of an act.
As De La Hoya leaves boxing — and this being boxing, you can’t ever guarantee he’s gone forever — I’ve got nothing but thanks for what he’s done for the sport. And based on recent offerings, there’s every sign that he, through his promotional company, Golden Boy, is going to keep doing good work for the sport.
I do, without question, support this retirement decision. De La Hoya was awful in his last outing, a welterweight fight with a lifelong smaller fighter, Manny Pacquiao. He took a severe beating and essentially quit. It was going to be hard to take him seriously as an elite fighter after that, even if you give him the benefit of the doubt that it was weight drain, not deterioration of skills, that was to blame. I can’t think of one last potential mega-fight I’d pick him to win — a fight against Miguel Cotto, a rematch with Floyd Mayweather, even a bout against a blown-up Ricky Hatton — other than a match against Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr., and he didn’t want that. De La Hoya has always had a conflicted relationship with Mexican fans, and they would have almost surely backed Chavez the younger in that fight. That would have hurt De La Hoya to the core of his being. With his wits about him and a bright future as a businessman, there was no reason to fight on and either A. take more beatings or B. waste everyone’s time fighting unknown or unproven contenders.
Given the way his career has winded down, and given some missteps he made along the way, it’s hard to remember the time when De La Hoya was almost universally well-regarded by casual and hardcore fans. He won a gold medal in the Olympics in 1992. He was the Ring magazine “Fighter of the Year” in 1995. At the end of 1997, he was regarded in a Ring magazine poll of boxing writers as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. Sure, he made some un-fans along the way. Some of it was that with his good looks, he was the choice of female fans. I do think that’s a factor in some of the hostility toward him. His poundings of Chavez Sr., meant (in his mind) to win over skeptical Mexican fans, deepened the hostilities for some Mexican fans instead, and the disputed decision he got over Pernell Whitaker fostered a sense that he was getting “star” treatment. But not long after 1997, he began to fight other prime welterweights. I think his defeat of Ike Quartey is one of his shining moments — he had to dig deep in the final round to pull out that win.
He lost some good will again by fighting cautiously in the last few rounds of his bout with Felix Trinidad in 1999 when he was winning, and the judges punished him for it. De La Hoya said he was doing what his corner told him to, and he was. But it was a mistake. He fought his next fight with passion from start to finish, a 2000 bout against Shane Mosley, but lost. Another shining moment was his knockout of Fernando Vargas, per the picture above; entertainment-wise, I’d say the Vargas fight, Quartey fight and first Mosley fight were his finest efforts. But the rest of his career has been mostly downhill. There was the gift win over Felix Sturm at middleweight, which gave him a belt in an unprecedented sixth division but impressed no one. There was the knockout loss to Bernard Hopkins, which, unlike some, I don’t question in the slightest. He’d been competitive with Hopkins to that point and wasn’t taking a fearsome thrashing, so I don’t think he was looking for a way out, and the shot Hopkins landed definitely was of the “paralyze your body for a little bit” variety. The knockout of Ricardo Mayorga was a beauty, and he gave Mayweather his biggest scare on the scorecards, but in that fight, as was often the case, he faded down the stretch.
As a fighter, he had a nasty left hook — one of boxing’s best, historically — excellent boxing ability, speed and power especially in the lower weight divisions, good defense and a great chin. The rest of what he offered was less dependable. His stamina was frequently a problem. When he worked his jab, which he sometimes forgot to do, he was very hard to beat. He showed mental toughness more often than not, but it abandoned him at key moments, such as over the last half of the Mayweather fight. I think some of his mental issues were related to a constant switching of trainers, which made him seem uncertain at times. I also maintain that difficulty pleasing a stern father inhibited him; he wanted to please fans, but often seemed unsure how to do so.
If it sounds like I’m being negative about De La Hoya’s career, I’m not. He beat a lot of excellent fighters — Quartey, Vargas, Whitaker, Chavez, and on and on and on. Like with any fighter, you can diminish those wins by pointing out things like the that Vargas had been softened up by Trinidad, Chavez was over the hill, etc., but all of those fighters were still excellent fighters when he fought them. Although he came up short against the best of the best fighters he fought — Mayweather, Hopkins, Mosley, Trinidad — he was competitive with all of them except Pacquiao. When you fight the best, you’re going to lose some. De La Hoya lost more than he won against the ultra-elite, but I’m glad he fought them rather than the alternative, and he has nothing to be embarrassed about in the way he fought in most of those fights.
The alternative would be a De La Hoya who only fought fighters who he knew he would beat. And would many people have paid to watch that? Some, for sure, but he wouldn’t have done the gigantic numbers he did. Less gigantic numbers translates to fewer eyeballs on boxing. Fewer eyeballs on boxing means the sport is less relevant than it is today. It’s possible that someone might have filled De La Hoya’s void had he charted a safer course, but I doubt it. Let’s not forget that no one — no one — did the kind of business for boxing De La Hoya did. Not Mike Tyson, the fighter often evoked as the last big superstar of the sport by people upon whom Tyson made a more distinct impression. Tyson was a big superstar in ways De La Hoya was not, but the reverse is also true. It is De La Hoya who owns the all-time pay-per-view sales record for a fight, against Mayweather. And De La Hoya did it, as most superstars do, with more than mere ability. He had a kind of composure, a kind of charisma, a kind of gloss that included his good looks, that people liked. Some Mexican fans didn’t like him, but he surely appealed to the growing Mexican-American fan base that identified with him without alienating any other ethnic groups. Again, Mexican fans can diss that if they want, but Jordan didn’t exactly play the rebel African-American role, and black basketball fans didn’t — with a few exceptions — jump on him for “not being black enough.” De La Hoya kept enough of both fan bases, the one of Mexican descent and otherwise.
It was only when De La Hoya took a course that seemed designed to engineer an easy win with only a modicum of substance, the Pacquiao fight, that De La Hoya really bothered me. I could look past his failings a fighter, I could shrug off some of his “fake” tendencies, but one of the things that redeemed De La Hoya for me when others attacked him is that he always fought the toughest fights, almost without fail. It’s as plain as the eye can see that De La Hoya thought Pacquiao, because of his size, would be easy pickings. Because Pacquiao was the best fighter in the world at the time, De La Hoya could sell the fight with or without any suspicion that his motives were less than pure. He was quite evidently wrong on that former score, to say the least. The Pacquiao fight sold well, but Pacquiao wasn’t easy pickings at all. Pacquiao stomped him in a way that was hard to watch. Some of that had to do with Pacquiao’s awesomeness. Some of it had to do with De La Hoya’s faults as a 35-year-old, part-time boxer, and that’s why it’s time for him to go.
I have avoided reading the other retrospectives out there yet, but I’m sure that we’ll be hearing someone say that De La Hoya’s departure equates to the final nail on the coffin of the sport. I’m sure of that because people have been saying that De La Hoya’s mere decline is one of those nails. But people have been saying that about boxing since time began — that so-and-so’s retirement means the sport is doomed. In the short-term, I don’t see anyone who can by himself replace De La Hoya, at least not yet. There’s a platoon of fighters out there, like Pacquiao and Mayweather, who will do an admirable job, I’m betting. But there are no fair comparisons to the kind of force De La Hoya has been in the sport. It’s unmatched.
And while his in-ring boxing life is over, his outside-the-ring boxing life has really just begun. Even the most hardened boxing scribes have had nothing but nice things to say about the recent string of excellent boxing shows Golden Boy Promotions has put together. GBP is still finding its way, no doubt, as their choice of Las Vegas for the middleweight Paul Williams-Winky Wright event this past weekend shows, because the place was filled mainly with police and firefighters who got free tickets, not paying customers who might have been more inclined to watch one fighter from Georgia and another fighter from Florida in, say, the Southeast. But GBP has promise, promise I hope it fulfills, because there are indicators that its alliance with HBO could turn it into a monopoly that resembles old-school boxing promotion, not boxing promotion by a fighter, for the fighters and fans.
If I were to say anything to De La Hoya directly, I’d probably skip over all the caveats about how much better a fighter he could have been with one trainer as opposed to a dozen, etc., and say this:
Thanks for the memories, Oscar. You were an excellent fighter who often gave us great fights, and what you’ve done for the sport’s profile is just as deserving of my our appreciation.
Now, go be a positive force in and for the sport with Golden Boy Promotions.