By Vic Ziegel
Playboy, June 1996
Somehow I was not surprised when Oscar De La Hoya’s public relations rep called to reschedule our meeting in East Los Angeles. After all, this boxer is an important person. Some people call De La Hoya the finest fighter in the world, pound for pound. Golden Boy is one of his nicknames and, from what I had heard, the possibility was remote that anyone would dub him Kid Modesty. He won Olympic gold at Barcelona in 1992 and in less than four years as a professional has won 21 fights, 19 by knockout. He also won the title in the junior lightweight (130 pounds) and lightweight (135 pounds) divisions. Next up is the June battle (and a $9 million payday) with Julio César Chavez for the World Boxing Council superlightweight (140 pounds) championship. Serious fight fans and even large numbers of the general public have fallen in love with the rangy (5-foot-11) 23-year-old from East Los Angeles. I had heard plenty about his dazzling, often-used smile and his powerful left hook. One of his former managers, Robert Mittleman, will never forget seeing De La Hoya deliver that left hook. “I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” he recalled. “What a left hand. Excuse the expression, but my dick got hard.”
I was surprised by what the public relations person wanted to know: Would it be okay if Oscar met me just half an hour later than we had planned? Well, sure, I said, no problem. I headed for our meeting place, the Camino Real Chevrolet office of Mike Hernandez.
Hernandez, who owns the dealership, has been friends with De La Hoya for more than five years, ever since the boxer dropped by the dealership to visit a friend who worked there. “He was a young kid, maybe 16 or 17,” Hernandez recalled. “He was nice to everybody, and he had charisma.” The boxer said he was after the gold medal in Barcelona, and Hernandez gave him some added incentive. “See that Corvette convertible?” Hernandez asked him. “If you win the medal, you got it.” Oscar came back for the car and, over the years, for advice. “Oscar has rare qualities,” Hernandez said. “He’s like something out of Reader’s Digest—the most unforgettable character you ever met. He touches a lot of people.”
Not everyone in East Los Angeles agrees. For some, especially fight fans born in Mexico, De La Hoya is too pretty, too glib, too cocky. He’s too much the American hero. He left East Los Angeles in 1992, when he and his family moved into a ranch house in Montebello. In 1995 he bought a condominium in Whittier. Next he moves to a Pasadena mansion, which will be even further from his origins. The last straw for East Los Angeles fans was news that De La Hoya was playing golf.
Oscar entered the room, stuck out his hand and apologized for making me wait. Even though I was eager to talk boxing, we soon found ourselves talking golf—with no references to the old neighborhood. He said he had played nearly every day for the past two years when he wasn’t in training. He hates the way he putts, he says, but all the other clubs are his friends. I persist and bring up Sugar Ray Leonard. De La Hoya combines handsomeness and hand speed in the same way Leonard did. Veteran promoter Bob Arum predicted several years ago that De La Hoya “will be bigger than Sugar Ray.” What does Oscar think of the comparison?
De La Hoya doesn’t want people “thinking of me as the second Ray Leonard,” he declares. “I’d rather be the first Oscar De La Hoya.” But, sure, he says, he’ll talk about the former champ. Did I know that Sugar Ray Leonard also plays golf? De La Hoya, a nine handicap, can’t help telling me that Leonard is an 18.
De La Hoya sounds genuine, but then you remember he’s a boxer, a star in a game that has a great deal of trouble being genuine.
For all De La Hoya’s sweetness I can detect hints of arrogance—another reminder of Leonard’s style. De La Hoya’s smile, for example, is flashed regularly at me until it begins to suggest a hotel’s neon sign. It’s hard for me to know if the smile is meant to be a warm welcome, or if some other Oscar hides behind it. His own mother watched him box once and then told him that his eyes were red and frightening. She said she didn’t recognize him.
“You know, sometimes I’m walking down the aisle into the ring and, truthfully, I feel like running back,” he has said. “It’s a scary moment, like an earthquake. I can never get used to that feeling. But once I’m inside, something clicks.”
De La Hoya sounds genuine, but then you remember he’s a boxer, a star in a game that has a great deal of trouble being genuine. Not long after the Olympics, the boxer went to the White House. He later appeared on the Jay Leno show, where, for all those potential pay-per-view customers, he was the gee-whiz Oscar and not the punching machine. He had gone to the bathroom in the White House, he told Leno, and thought to himself, Wow, to sit where George Bush sits is a real honor.
Eventually our conversation drifts to his next opponent, the formidable, 34-year-old Chavez. “He has all the experience in the world, 100 fights,” De La Hoya said. “That’s going to be to his advantage. He’s very dangerous because he hits so hard. But there’s his age. And his speed is slow. You have to have speed and intelligence to be a great champion, and those are going to be my advantages.”
De La Hoya is good and he knows it. He’s as fast as anyone out there. He’s the thinking man’s fighter. Right-handed only when he’s in the ring, he has a potent left hand. He also has height and reach and knows how to use both.
“Win or lose,” De La Hoya said, “it’s still going to help me out. If I lose, I lose to a great champion. I’m 23 years old. Maybe I can have a rematch.”
The smile blinks on. It’s too automatic. When I suggest that losing may shock him, this brings another smile and the painful memory of his last defeat. It was in Sydney, Australia in 1991, when he was going for the world amateur championship. A German named Marco Rudolph outboxed him in a three-round decision. It was the first day of the tournament and De La Hoya had to stay around for two weeks while the rest of the American team competed. He remained in his hotel the whole time.
“It felt terrible,” he said. “It felt ugly. I don’t want to feel that again. I was so depressed, I was thinking about quitting.”
“American kids play Little League,” Mike Hernandez, the dealership owner, explains. “Mexican American kids, five or six years old, are already in boxing tournaments.”
Quitting was out of the question. His father, Joel, was a professional fighter, a lightweight who put together a 9-3-1 record in Los Angeles and Durango 30 years ago. Joel’s father, Vicente, had been an amateur featherweight in the 40s. “I was a little kid who used to fight a lot in the street and get beat up,” Oscar says. “But I liked it. So my dad took me to the gym.”
He told me he was five when that happened. “I loved it. The first day I put on gloves, being up there, running around the ring, it was fun for me,” he said.
Oscar went to the gym every day, “even Sundays.” He waited a year for his first fight, at the Pico Rivera Boys Club, when he was six years old. “I stopped the kid in the first round. I hit him and he started crying, started bleeding. It was like a fountain. It wouldn’t stop. I didn’t feel bad for him. Inside, I felt good, very good. It was natural for me. They gave me a trophy that was bigger than I was. Old men gave me dollar bills. A dollar here, 50 cents there. I loved all the gifts, the payoffs,” he said.
“American kids play Little League,” Mike Hernandez, the dealership owner, explains. “Mexican American kids, five or six years old, are already in boxing tournaments.”
Oscar was a natural. At 15, he was the national Junior Olympic champion at 125 pounds. He missed classes his senior year at Garfield High School, but he didn’t miss many punches. “I was fighting the night my high school prom was going on. A dual meet against a Cuban team at Fort Bragg. After I beat the Cuban, I called my girlfriend, my high school sweetheart. She went to the prom with her brother. I was asking her”—he lowers his voice, makes himself sound shy—“‘How’s it going? Did you have fun? I miss it.’ I told myself I would make my own prom. I’ll dedicate my life to boxing. Then I can do whatever I want later on.”
In the summer of 1990 he took part in the Goodwill Games in Seattle, close enough to home for his family to be on hand. He didn’t know, however, that his mother, Cecilia, was ill with cancer. She had delayed radiation treatments to watch him win the championship. Afterward, when she told him about the disease, she made him promise to win the Olympic gold medal. She died in October 1990 at the age of 38.
After each victory in Barcelona, he dropped to his knees and blew a kiss toward the sky. He wanted to let his mother know he was working on the promise. He hurt his right thumb in the semifinals but won. And he used his left hand almost exclusively to win the finals against the same German who had beaten him in Australia. “When I was on the medal stand,” he told Sports Illustrated, “I was so happy. I saw my father and the rest of my family crying. I didn’t, because I know my mom would have said, ‘Don’t cry, you won the gold medal, be happy.’ She’s looking down from the sky now and she’s happy, but she ain’t here to hug me.”
His Olympic victory marked the end of his amateur career, during which he won 223 bouts and lost only five. De La Hoya knocked out 153 of his opponents, an extraordinary achievement, because amateurs wear headgear and 10-ounce gloves.
Boxers don’t have a draft to make the transition from amateur to professional. Instead, there are people waving checkbooks and making extravagant promises. De La Hoya’s business dealings have been a full family affair. His father takes the lead in most negotiations.
Two years before the Olympics, Shelly Finkel and Dan Duva began their pitch. Before he managed fighters such as Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, and Evander Holyfield, Finkel was a rock music promoter. Duva, now deceased, was a veteran fight promoter.
Finkel is well regarded in the ungenerous boxing world. He will, in this nastiest of sports, say things like, “I don’t believe in signing a contract with an amateur. If it had come out, it would have cost him his amateur standing.” And he means it.
Finkel paid close attention to the De La Hoya family. Finkel recalled that on October 25, 1990 (the night Holyfield won the heavyweight title from Buster Douglas), “Oscar’s father said to me, ‘My wife is dying. Will you take care of any medical things I need?’” That same night, according to Finkel, the boxer’s father was equally clear when he said, “You know Oscar is with you.” Finkel said he paid the hospital bills and then paid for the funeral. There were other expenses as well. Finkel flew several members of the De La Hoya family to Barcelona and “threw a big party” to celebrate the gold medal. All in all, Finkel said he invested about $100,000 in his efforts to woo the De La Hoyas.
Meanwhile, there were other manager wannabes in the field, most notably the team of Steve Nelson and Robert Mittleman, who managed James “Bonecrusher” Smith. The partners went looking for prospects at the Olympic trials, Nelson said, and “we came across Oscar. He was good-looking and bilingual, and he could hit as hard as anyone. We felt that he’d be a marketable commodity. His father and trainer kept saying, ‘Why don’t you make an offer?’ I told them, ‘Everybody knows you’re committed to Finkel and Duva’ and they said, ‘Absolutely not.’ They didn’t want to be taken for granted.”
At the Olympic trials Joel De La Hoya “wanted a dollar commitment,” Finkel said. “I told him, ‘How do you know what the future will be?’” Finkel pointed out that “the negotiations were similar” when he had signed Whitaker and Breland. They had not demanded such specifics and “the contract wasn’t a matter of urgency.” Mittleman and Nelson said Joel put the same question to them during the Olympic trials, and everyone kept talking.
Finkel said he heard rumors after the Olympics that De La Hoya would not sign with him. “But you hope the person you’re working with has the character and strength to live up to the agreement,” Finkel said. Clearly, he believed he had a strong oral agreement with the boxer. “I supported Oscar through a lot of tough times. I believe if Oscar had been left on his own he would have gone with me. I feel bad he didn’t have the strength to do that. But he was still under his father’s thumb and his father BSed me. Maybe it worked out for the best.” Finkel later sued and recovered most of his $100,000 investment.
With Finkel and Duva out of the picture, Mittleman and Nelson became the most serious players. In the late summer of 1992 they spent a great deal of time with the De La Hoyas. “We started making proposals and found ourselves in a bidding war with people making quiet offers, Mexican American businessmen,” Nelson said. “The De La Hoyas would say, ‘We have this offer, can you better it?’”
By the fall of 1992 Mittleman and Nelson had won. Their winning offer was $1 million, Nelson said (“Not all of it in cash, and not all of it at one time”). They bought the Montebello house for $400,000, an Acura for De La Hoya, and a van for trainer Robert Alcazar. More would have come over the five years of the contract. “It would have been a million when all was said and done,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately, it was never said and done.”
Mittleman and Nelson turned to Bob Arum to promote their fights and help with their cash flow. “They wanted me to advance them some money, which I was glad to do,” Arum said. “But the chemistry was terrible with those guys,” he recalled. “They were doing it hand to mouth and were petty. The kid couldn’t tolerate it.”
Nevertheless, De La Hoya was beating every opponent Mittleman found. “One loss in his first 10 fights and he would have been history,” Mittleman recalled. “He would have gone down the toilet. I was letting him fight guys who were tougher than Arum thought they were. But he was a thing of beauty.”
In October 1993, in De La Hoya’s 11th fight, the obscure Mexican lightweight Narciso Valenzuela knocked him down in the first round. The flash knockdown was the first time he had been dropped as a pro. De La Hoya was back on his feet instantly and knocked out Valenzuela in the same round. But De La Hoya had been overconfident and probably too eager. “He got clipped and went down,” said Bruce Trampler, Arum’s West Coast matchmaker, “and I had to change my underwear.”
An unhappy Joel De La Hoya urged the managers to find a second trainer for his son. Mittleman agreed but later decided that had been a mistake. “Alcazar wasn’t doing a bad job,” Mittleman recalled. “But the father got nervous. He wanted a new trainer. I should have said no. ‘Don’t do this,’ I said to myself, but I didn’t listen. I should have been a stand-up guy and said, ‘I don’t want this other trainer.’ I brought in the wrong guy. That was the beginning of the end.”
In November 1993 former lightweight champ Carlos Ortiz became the second trainer. De La Hoya’s next fight was scheduled for December 9, 1993 in New York. As soon as Ortiz arrived, Alcazar, who was unhappy, went looking for investors to replace Mittleman and Nelson.
Shortly before the day of the fight, Oscar told Mittleman and Nelson they were fired. “The night before Oscar broke his contract I was with him. The next day, he disappeared,” Nelson recalled. De La Hoya complained of mental exhaustion. A few days later he called a press conference and showed up with a cast on his left hand, claiming ligament damage. “Essentially,” Nelson said, “he went on strike. He wouldn’t fight unless the contract with us disappeared. He was 21 and he could wait. He could have waited two years and we wouldn’t have had anything. We wanted to recoup our investment, get paid something for our time. It seemed like the prudent thing to do.”
Litigation is still going on, even though an initial settlement paid back Mittleman and Nelson what they had spent, as well as a few extra dollars. “Oscar could have shown a better sense of appreciation,” Nelson said. Nelson, like Finkel, tries not to blame the fighter. “He was immature and didn’t recognize the consequences of his action,” said Nelson.
Mittleman refused to discuss the episode, except to say that he recalled a remark Oscar had once made to him: “‘I like you and Steve Nelson, but I’m so easy to brainwash.’”
Once De La Hoya began to manage himself, a new controversy began. Did he have a glass chin? In his second fight after he fired his managers, the lightly regarded Giorgio Campanella knocked him down in the first round. De La Hoya knocked him out in the third. “What concerned me more,” said Arum’s aide Trampler, “was when Johnny Avila, a nonpunching guy, shook him up” three fights later, “and it happened in the middle round, the seventh. In his eagerness to get rid of opponents, he was running into punches he shouldn’t have. The result is, he possibly doesn’t have a major-league chin.”
Another new trainer was brought in. But this time, Alcazar had no objections. Jose Rivero, a legendary Mexican trainer known as the Professor, continues to have long talks with Oscar. He trains the mind and concentrates on defense. So far, the lessons have done wonders for Oscar’s chin.
“All this hate from my own people, it hurts,” Oscar said.
“I’ve explained to the media, to all the people involved in boxing,” Oscar says, “that it’s not that I have a weak chin. Or that if I get hit, I’ll go down. Anybody will go down. Tyson, Leonard, Ali, they all went down.” No excuses, he says, and then trots out excuses. “It’s just that when I was fighting at 130 pounds I was weak. I wasn’t eating good. I wasn’t in shape.”
That’s manager talk, and managers hate to tell the truth. Or would you rather hear his balance excuse? Back before the Professor came around, Oscar would throw a right hand and lift his right leg at the same time. If an opponent picked that instant—Oscar doing his Rockette imitation, one leg in the air—to punch back, a knockdown was almost inevitable. “It’s not about having no chin,” Oscar says. “Nobody has a chin. If somebody gets hit right, they’re going down. Unless you’re in great shape. I’ve gotten hit lately, right on the chin, and nothing’s happened.”
Gil Clancy is a respected manager and trainer who now broadcasts fights. Oscar is successful, he says, “because he’s too quick, too big, too strong, too everything” against opponents 140 pounds or less. “When he moves up to welterweight, which is 147 pounds, he’ll be going against punchers who get your attention. Oscar has shown a little bit of china in his chin. That’s the reason he went down.” There’s more to worry about, Clancy says. “He stands up too straight. He still hasn’t learned to bob and weave. He’s improved, but it isn’t all there.”
Clancy is too hard a marker. De La Hoya has come close to pitching shutouts in his past four fights. In May 1995 he starched the IBF lightweight champion, Rafael Ruelas, in two rounds. In September, the opponent was the undefeated Gennaro Hernandez. That was the battle East Los Angeles had been waiting for, where the born-in-Mexico fight fans could finally tell De La Hoya that he had abandoned them. They rooted for Hernandez.
“I get that all the time, especially from my old neighborhood,” Oscar says. “They think I’m cocky, that I forgot about my neighborhood, that I’m trying to take away their girlfriends.” The look on his face says that kind of thinking is ridiculous. The look is a smile. “I grew up here and now that I am successful they don’t like that. The criticism is the worst here. They think I’ve forgotten about them, but I haven’t.”
It didn’t help that he overpowered Hernandez in six rounds. And there is another reason De La Hoya isn’t popular with that crowd. He isn’t the stereotypical Mexican boxer who fights with his face. “The tradition is that you’re going to see a brutal fight and you have to go in there and bleed,” he says. “I’m not going to give them that. I’m going to go out there, be careful and not get hit. I’ll get it over with and that’s it. If fans don’t like that, I’m sorry. I’m not just any fighter. I want to make my money and I want to live well, but I’m not going out there to put on a brutal show. If I looked like a fighter, if I had scars,” he says, East Los Angeles “would accept me more.”
In December 1995 he found genuine acceptance 3,000 miles away from the old neighborhood. Madison Square Garden, once the mecca for boxing, brought its ring out of mothballs. Oscar was the headliner against Jesse James Leija. The Garden was hoping for 11,000 customers and Oscar pulled in 16,000. “The American fans are always with me,” he said.
Leija went back to his corner after the first round and told his trainer, “He hits hard, man. I didn’t know how much power he has.” The end for Leija came in the next round. In February 1996, in his final tune-up before Chavez, Oscar also needed only two rounds to knock out Darryl Tyson.
De La Hoya is the betting favorite against Chavez, but the older fighter is the sentimental choice. Nobody gets sentimental, yet, about Oscar.
“All this hate from my own people, it hurts,” Oscar said. “I feel it’s jealousy. I get a lot of people telling me, ‘Why don’t you come down to our neighborhood? You don’t show your face anymore.’ What’s that going to do for them? I donate to charities. I go to different functions. I present myself in that way. But being there for a few hours, talking with somebody, isn’t going to change anything for them. There’s only one of me and I can’t please everyone. It’s going to take winning fights, and time, for the fans to be on my side.”
[Featured Illustration: Sam Woolley/GMG]