Oscar celebrates his WBO middleweight title win over Felix Sturm (Hogan Photos)
By Thomas Hauser: One gauge of celebrity status is name recognition. Like Madonna Ciccone and Oprah Winfrey, Oscar De La Hoya is a first-name phenomenon.
"Oscar" has engaged in 27 world championship bouts. He has entered the ring 21 times to face men who held world titles and participated in 16 pay-per-view fights that engendered $439,300,000 in pay-per-view buys.
There are times when Oscar's life has looked easy. It hasn't been, in or out of the ring. Now his days as an active fighter are dwindling down, and it's worth taking another look at this man of contradictions.
De La Hoya is a gentle man in a violent sport. He's more complex than most people imagine, and gives the impression of bruising easily on the inside.
As an adolescent, Oscar's life was built around the sweet science. "There was a time when I was fourteen or fifteen," he acknowledges, "when I realized that someday I could make a living from boxing. At that point, I began to focus more on boxing than on school. But even then, one of my aspirations was to someday become an architect. I enjoyed architectural drafting classes in school. Now, when I go to Europe, the castles and cathedrals are still fascinating to me. I think about the people who built them and how long they took to build. When I was in the Sistine Chapel, I put myself back in time and imagined myself in Michelangelo's situation and asked myself, 'How did he do this? How many people were helping?'"
The most positive influence in Oscar's early life was his mother. "We grew up humble," he says. "We learned to amuse ourselves by being around family, and the heart of our family was my mother. My mother was very outgoing and very energetic. She always had her make-up on and cleaned the home every day. She taught me to be a gentleman and to be polite with everyone. She never sat me down and lectured me on rules for life. She taught by example. It was important to her that everybody else was happy. The last person she thought of was herself. She made sure that each of us got up in the morning and went off to school happy every day."
When Oscar was in his mid-teens, his mother contracted breast cancer. She died at age 39.
"There's one moment with my mother that sticks out in my mind," Oscar recalls. "She was battling cancer. She'd already had chemotherapy and her hair was falling out. I was walking home from high school. My mother was sitting on the front porch with the radio on. She was singing a song called 'Noah, Noah' by a Latin singer named Juan Gabriel. I started singing and dancing with her, and I could see that she was happy despite the pain. That was a very special moment for me. That's the best memory I have of my mother."
"I was seventeen when my mother passed away," De La Hoya continues. "I was heartbroken. Nothing mattered to me anymore. I thought seriously about not finishing high school, even of dropping out of boxing. Not one day passes that I don't think about my mother. And to be honest, there are still times when it's a lonely world without her. But I feel that I was blessed to have her in my life, and I believe she's still looking out for me."
Two years after his mother's death, De La Hoya won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. "That moment will stay with me forever," he says. It was my most satisfying moment ever in boxing." At that point, he toyed with the idea of retiring from the ring because, in his words, "My mother's dream for me had been fulfilled." But the siren call of professionalism was too great to ignore.
Wealth and greater glory followed. There was also a lot of pain.
"Once, I was at a party," Oscar remembers. "This was at a time when it seemed like I had everything. I was young. I was undefeated. I had money. I'd just moved into my own home. People at the party were laughing and having fun. And I missed my mother. I felt so lonely. I remember asking myself, 'Why isn't my mother here? Why are all these people around me? I don't want these people around me.' I looked out the window and started crying."
Meanwhile, De La Hoya's ring legend was growing.
"Oscar is one of the most naturally-gifted fighters I've ever seen," says trainer Emanuel Steward, who worked with De La Hoya for the David Kamau and Hector Camacho fights. "When Oscar fights on his toes, he reminds me of Sugar Ray Robinson. What they have in common is, Ray punched best from his toes, and Oscar punches best from his toes. It's the opposite of what you'd expect and I don't understand it completely, but it has to do with rhythm. When Oscar stands flat-footed, he loses his punching-power."
De La Hoya's first defeat as a pro was a loss by decision at the hands of Felix Trinidad. "That's still the loss that hurts the most," he says, "because I really feel that I did not lose that fight. Yes, there were those two rounds at the end when I just boxed. But all that means is it hurts for two reasons; because I could have done more and because of the injustice of it. After the loss to Trinidad," Oscar continues, "I was angry; I was sad. When you're undefeated, it's really really difficult to lose. Then I decided that life goes on and I just had to deal with it. But what happened in the Trinidad fight started me thinking seriously about someday changing the business of boxing."
Hence, Golden Boy Promotions. De La Hoya has extensive business interests that include endorsement contracts, real estate holdings, and media-entertainment ventures. But his most visible financial undertaking to date has been his boxing promotional company.
Much of the success of Golden Boy Promotions is based on De La Hoya the fighter. But the company has a good infrastructure. Unlike Roy Jones and Lennox Lewis (two other elite fighters who established promotional entities), Oscar devotes an enormous amount of time to promoting fights. And Golden Boy is about more than Oscar. Bernard Hopkins, Marco Antonio Barrera, Shane Mosley, Oscar Larios, and myriad other fighters are under contract.
De La Hoya has also funded numerous charitable initiatives. The Cecilia Gonzalez De la Hoya Cancer Center in East Los Angeles offers free mammograms for low-income women and community programs on health awareness. The Oscar De La Hoya Youth Center provides free boxing instruction for local youths, but a requirement of membership is that participants stay in school and maintain their grades. Another foundation funded by De la Hoya hands out college scholarships in amounts as high as $20,000. And recently, De La Hoya donated the land for what will be the first public high school to be built in East Los Angeles in several decades.
"I've said for years," De La Hoya notes, "that my biggest heroes are school teachers. A good school teacher is like another parent."
"Talking is one thing," adds Richard Schaefer (chief executive officer of De La Hoya's business empire). "Action is another. Oscar has made a substantial seven-figure charitable commitment and helped literally thousands of people in a hands-on way."
"The community work is central to who I am," says De La Hoya. "I want to get across the idea in the community that all children have some golden boy or golden girl in them."
Golden Boy. The moniker has been affixed to Oscar for as long as the public has known him. Good looks, charisma, and skill don't necessarily go together. But De La Hoya is the whole package. He's clean-cut with no body-piercings or tattoos. Men admire him; teenage girls adore him. He has always had an understanding of what the public wants. He's conscious of the image he projects. And he delivers.
De La Hoya is a superb ambassador for boxing. He is important to the sweet science precisely because he matters to people who don't care about the sport. He is their window onto boxing and, when they look at him, the view is good.
De La Hoya works a room as well as anyone. Many high-profile athletes arrive late for functions, sit at a table surrounded by bodyguards, and talk only with people they already know and feel comfortable with. Oscar is almost always on time. Once he arrives, he moves from person to person, saying hello to everyone.
In public, De La Hoya talks with fans, poses for pictures, and signs autographs. "It's tiring sometimes," he admits. "I'll be out on the street with my wife. We'll just want to be alone, and people will come over to me constantly. But when it doesn't happen, if I go somewhere and no one comes up to me, I miss it. So I guess you can say that I love it, I hate it, and I can't live without it."
"I would have loved to have met Elvis Presley," Oscar adds, offering a bit more insight into his psyche. "He was the King. It's very interesting to me; the way he grew up, the demons he battled, how he handled the pressure and how, after a while, it became a burden he couldn't carry."
It's hard to make the transition from a golden boyhood to adulthood, but De La Hoya has done it well. He has matured from boxing's version of a child star into a man. And he has done it in the glare of the spotlight with the public watching every move.
"I've grown up," says Oscar. "I'm less naive than before. I stopped the party scene a long time ago and started spending more time with family and real friends. I'm not perfect. Sometimes, I think about what I would say if I could talk to my mother again. First, I'd get off my chest the mistakes and bad decisions I've made. I'm married now with a wonderful wife. We're expecting a baby boy in December. I'm doing LaMaze classes and experiencing morning sickness with her. As a father, I'm going to be there every day I possibly can. But I had two children out-of-wedlock, not with my wife, before I was married. They're beautiful children; I adore them. But I grew up with a solid family, and Jacob and Atiana [ages 7 and 6] are entitled to that too. I try to be a good father to them, but it's not the same and there were other times when my head was turned by fame and fortune. Maybe the best way to say it is that I've made mistakes in my life, but they were innocent mistakes and I've grown from them."
Critics say that De La Hoya is too carefully programmed; that he's too perfect. "There's Oscar the person, Oscar the fighter, Oscar the image, and Oscar the product," they snipe. "Oscar smiles whether he wants to or not."
But it's more complicated than that. De La Hoya takes his craft seriously, whether he's fighting or promoting. And unlike many of today's superstar athletes, he believes that fame brings added responsibilities. He feels that he has a responsibility to boxing, a responsibility to society, and a responsibility to himself to act and project himself in a positive manner. "I understand that I'm a role model," he says. "I accepted that a long time ago and I've embraced it as part of my obligation to the community."
"I've learned to not take media criticism personally," Oscar continues. "Seven or eight years ago, I would have said 'I hate the media; there are people in it who are always bashing me.' Now I understand that, when someone writes something negative about me, it's part of the game. Media criticism will destroy you if you take it personally, so now I play with it. I stay away from politics. Some people criticize me for that, but it's a choice I've made. I have my views, but politics can be very sensitive. I've struggled so hard to get fans and people behind me for what I want to accomplish that it would be a mistake to support one party publicly and have the other party against me."
Still, when a fighter gets in the ring, glitz and glory don't lessen the impact of punches. The key to it all is that the Golden Boy can fight.
"One of the things that bothers me most," Oscar says, "is that very few people really understand what it means to be a fighter. I hate it when I hear someone say, 'That fighter doesn't have guts.' I hate that; it really ticks me off. I don't care if you're a world champion six times over or a four-round fighter who just got knocked out in thirty seconds of your first professional fight. To step inside that ring, you have to have guts."
"But people get these crazy ideas," De La Hoya continues. "I went on my own roller-coaster ride to gain acceptance from Mexican-American fight fans. It was very difficult and frustrating. There were times when I felt like shouting, 'I can be your hero too.' And there were times, like my fights against Ike Quartey and even against Fernando Vargas, when I fought more aggressively and took more risks than I should have to please those fans."
At present, De La Hoya doesn't appear to be living the lifestyle of a man who plans to fight again. He weighs more and exercises less than in the past. He has homes in California and Puerto Rico (his wife's native land), although he complains that, at times, it feels like he lives on a plane. That, of course, leads to the question of whether his fighting days are done.
"I don't know if I'm going to fight again or not," Oscar acknowledges "I have an odd relationship with boxing. Boxing took me to a better life, and I love being in the ring. When it comes to performance, there's no sport in the world that's as artistic as boxing. It takes genius to win a championship fight at the highest level. Boxing is a love I have that will never go away. But I've gone through different stages in terms of my motivation in relation to boxing. At first, I was fighting to please my father. Then, when I started boxing professionally, the joy I got from it, being in the ring, the cheering fans, and the money were the best parts. After that, there was a time when I did it for the belts. Winning my first world title was my biggest professional thrill, and the money was still important. Now I'm doing it for history. The money doesn't matter anymore."
"The only reason I would fight again," De La Hoya continues, "is to erase the memory of losing my last fight. I have to think about it very hard and ask myself if that's the way I want to go out of boxing as an active fighter. My last two fights were at 160 pounds, and I'm not happy with either of them. Fighters are like cars. At some point, the gas tank is empty. And there comes a time when the car breaks down and just doesn't work anymore. I can't be a boxer for my entire life. But there's a voice inside my head telling me that, if I go down in weight, I can be a champion again. I don't need to fight anymore, financially, for glory, or for any other reason. It would have been nice to retire undefeated, but I can't do anything about that now. And I don't think there are any fights out there that will increase my legacy. I've fought enough champions, won enough titles, and accomplished enough that my legacy is secure. And I hate getting hit. Getting hit hurts; it damages you. I have no fear of boxing. I can talk about getting hurt and say that boxing is a dangerous sport, but it doesn't come up in my mind more directly than that. When a fighter trains his body and mind to fight, there's no room for fear. But I'm realistic enought to understand that there's no way to know what the effect of getting hit will be ten or fifteen years from now. I've been asking myself for years, 'How much longer will I box?' And the answer is, I don't know."
Oscar De La Hoya came along at a time when he was desperately needed by boxing. He kept the sport afloat with his skill and charisma, but was unable to bring it to safe harbor. "Still, as he himself says, "Boxing is a never-ending story. New fighters keep coming along. Opponents keep popping up. The next superstar is always on the way."
Then Oscar adds in closing, "Whatever comes next for me, as far as boxing is concerned, I have no regrets. I would never change what I've accomplished and the history I've made."
There are journeys still to come.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser @rcn.com.