On Saturday night, Oscar De La Hoya will fight professionally for what is probably the final time. He very likely will not win, and it may not even be competitive. That’s because in his accustomed fashion, De La Hoya has not elected for the traditional victory lap send-off, but instead will step into the ring with the consensus choice for the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Mayweather is an almost ludicrously talented fighter, unbeaten in 37 previous bouts and rarely even challenged. He is fast and brash and violent and generally drubs everything in sight, often with the sort of studied carelessness that always felt more like labored theatrics in the hands of Roy Jones Jr. During his run as the world’s best fighter, Jones often competed against lesser competition and seemed burdened by the need to enhance the entertainment value of these events by employing reckless tactics: clowning, holding his hands low, and playing to the crowd. Dominant as he was during his prime, it always seemed like sooner or later someone was going to make Jones pay for all the bad habits he was developing and take his head off. That eventually happened of course — Antonio Tarver knocked him unconscious with a single left hook so vicious that it sent chills up the spine of even those who had waited years to see it happen.
Mayweather does some of the same things as Jones used to do, but I have never had the impression for one second that anyone is going to end up making him pay for it. There is a certain malevolence in the underpinnings of "Pretty Boy" Floyd’s imperious disdain that was never really in evidence with Jones. I always felt, at the end of the day, that Jones was somehow trying too hard, wanted too badly to be a crossover star, and was in some ways even fundamentally torn about the visceral violence of his chosen occupation. Not so with Mayweather: he just seems to like beating people up. Mayweather started his professional career as a 130-pound Super Featherweight and will be campaigning for the first time as a 154-pound Junior Middleweight against De La Hoya. This represents a quantum leap with respect to an escalation in weight classes, and as Mayweather has gone up in divisions has punching power has somewhat diminished, but his whirlwind hand and foot speed has not. In boxing, the combination of a relatively light-hitting speed demon with a mean streak can make for some of the most terrible beatings imaginable: 12-rounds of slow demolition with no merciful ending to be had. Ali dished out a couple of these in his prime — angry, brutal, one-sided paint jobs against Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson, both of whom had made the terrible mistake of refusing to cease calling him Cassius Clay. Such affairs are by far more cruel and devastating than a one-punch knockout, or even a three-round cake walk. These are the kind of bouts that get men permanently hurt or worse — and these are just the sort of assault Floyd Mayweather specializes in.
I am hoping like hell he doesn’t do this to Oscar De La Hoya, but I am concerned. In an era when the sheer
low-brow, double-dealing crookery of what passes for boxing’s infrastructure has veritably brought the
sport to its knees, De La Hoya has been a boon. A brave, gifted and congenitally underappreciated fighter, De La Hoya has remained one of boxing’s few likeable quasi-mainstream faces, and has gone way out of his way to engage with every good and great fighter he could get in the ring with him along the way, often having to jump through the torturous logistical tangle of competing promotional and sanctioning body interests in order to make this happen. His astonishing resume bridges eras and weight classes and includes a staggering array of great and near-great opponents. Future Hall Of Famers Pernell Whitaker, Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley and Bernard Hopkins are just the cream of the crop. He didn’t beat all of these fighters, but he acquitted himself courageously and competitively against each, and won as much as he lost. Factor in tune-ups and stop-gap wins over Genaro Hernandez, Miguel Gonzalez, Ike Quartey, Arturo Gatti, Fernando Vargas and Ricardo Mayorga and you begin to get a sense for the fighter’s yearning for fraught challenges. There was not much reason for him to take a lot of these fights: the ones against second tier names, many of whom possessed frightening skill and power. He didn’t need the money, and a loss to any one of these men would have significantly damaged his own earning power and reputation. That he has repeatedly chosen the more difficult path over the easy cash-in accrues infinitely to his credit. De La Hoya is not the greatest fighter of his generation, but a very strong case could be made that he is its greatest warrior.
This is a somewhat ironic outcome, given De La Hoya’s longstanding difficulty in shaking his reputation as a
pampered pretty boy, which dogged him all the way through his celebrated amateur career, through his
gold medal-winning effort at the Barcelona Olympic games in 1992, and the early years of his professional
career when he immediately earned huge paydays where others were forced to struggle. In particular he was
resented by many hard-core Mexican fight fans, amongst whom boxing remains an attraction on par with other
major sport. Many Mexican fans found De La Hoya’s matinee idol appearance and polished boxer/puncher technique to be an affront. In some ways — with his home-spun good-naturedness and ridiculous, Seacrest-like handsomeness — De La Hoya emerged like a ready-made marketing ploy gone wrong. There was no way that a plurality of Mexican fight fans were ever going to embrace this polished, bilingual, game show host-looking guy as there own. Their hero was Julio Cesar Chavez, the legendary body-punching destroyer of American fighters who emerged from the barrios of Caulican and worked his way through the tough clubs and small arenas of Mexico and Los Angeles while building a legendary career and following. De La Hoya was proud of his Mexican heritage and openly courted the fan base, although endorsement deals and HBO contracts meant that from a professional perspective it wasn’t really necessary for him to do so. When he was not embraced he seemed deeply wounded by the slight and an early in his career twice beat up and punished an aging Chavez — fighting both bouts in an uncharacteristically aggressive style, anxious to make a point of displaying his own toughness. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, this largely had the opposite effect on his popularity from the one he was hoping to achieve.
No rational fight fan would think to doubt De La Hoya’s toughness anymore, although his tactical decision to dance away the final two rounds against Felix Trinidad cost him an (unjust) decision defeat in 1999, and he never has become the kind of hero to Latin boxing fans that would seem to be his deserved mantle. Now with nothing left to prove as a professional, he has nevertheless elected to take one last, probably fruitless stab at it: fighting on Cinco De Mayo against the finest American fighter of his generation.
In a recent interview for the website Doghouse Boxing, De La Hoya’s confusion over the dual nature of his
national identity and desire to be loved by all involved sounds poignantly unresolved: "I just – it just feels – I feel proud, you know, of fighting on such important Mexican holidays, you know, especially here in the United States of America. I mean obviously, I’m a proud American and always will be. But fighting on those days which is Cinco De Mayo which is the War of Pueblo and the Mexican Independence Day on September 16, you know, those are special days for the Mexican National and obviously we know that a lot of Mexicans here in the United States and to me, it’s just – it’s a representation of me supporting and being there for my family who are obviously Mexican and for families that are here in the States."
De La Hoya is bright and enterprising, and with his Golden Boy Promotions has already made significant
headway in his stated goal of helping to clean up boxing and reimagine it as a business which does not so savagely exploit and cannibalize the very fighters which are its life’s blood. He has a special charisma and at 34 might well do some important things with his post-boxing life — a statement made only too rarely about fighters, from the great to the anonymous. I hope he knows what he’s doing by getting in the ring with Mayweather, but I kind of doubt he does. One thing that you learn watching boxing is that for some reason — almost without exception — no matter how smart these guys are, they have to get beat up a bunch of times before they realize it’s over. I mean, not just once. Like they have to talk three or four severe beatings: Evander Holyfield, Ray Leonard, Ali. (God damn Ali. God damn his handlers. The major arc of the great man’s career was essentially over after Zaire — certainly it was over after Manila. How were they putting this commodity in the ring any longer?! How was he subjecting himself to this? And not just against scrubs: Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Larry Holmes?! Killers! Now look at the man. Christ, and we need him now.)
De La Hoya has already subjected himself to one such beating, biting off more than he could chew against
the bigger, stronger, all-time great Middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who knocked him out in nine
three years ago. But now De La Hoya is three years older, and will not doubt demonstrate the slower reflexes which always accompany the encroaching years and accumulation of rounds. He is still a good, if diminished fighter, and would be a fair bet to take out most of the major contenders between 140 and 160 pounds. If he wanted to fight just to fight, he could make any number of matches which would in no way harm his legacy or short-change his fan base. Instead he decided he wanted Mayweather, right in the thick of his prime. Evidently De La Hoya is totally fearless. The thing you like about the guy is the thing that scares you for him as well.
It is not theoretically implausible that De La Hoya could find a way to win on Saturday. Maybe the one additional step up in weight class finally slows Mayweather down from an unhittable blur to a manageable target (this will be his first contest at 154), or maybe Pretty Boy breaks his hands — fragile fists being his one consistent vulnerability. I don’t think that’s very likely, but I wouldn’t rule it out completely. What is more apt to occur, I think, is that Mayweather scores largely at will, wins 9 rounds to 3 and exalts in his typically arrogant way while De La Hoya ponders retirement. I won’t be rooting for that, but I think it’s must likely and I’d certainly
accept the outcome. By far, it’s not the worse thing that could happen.