Fans still love De La Hoya -- for now, at least

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But they will ... if he loses to Manny Pacquiao.

Over the last few weeks, much has been written about De La Hoya taking a fight he (at least figuratively) can't win. And much of what has been written has been true.

If De La Hoya wins by knockout on Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET), the "Golden Boy" will have bullied an undersized man who jumped two weight classes (three if you consider Pacquiao has one career fight as a lightweight) to face him. If De La Hoya wins by decision, he'll be the Goliath that needed to pitty-pat David before the judges bailed him out.

But there is the unthinkable: What if De La Hoya loses?

Disregard all the rhetoric you have read in every newspaper or Web site and all you may have heard from TV talking heads. Yes, Pacquiao is a great fighter. His presence at the top of every reputable pound-for-pound list validates that. And yes, Pacquiao does have an advantage with Freddie Roach in his corner. (Roach, who trained De La Hoya for his 2007 fight with Mayweather, has had a few choice words for his former trainee. For more information on the squabble, type "Freddie Roach" and "pull the trigger" on Google and see how long it takes for your computer to explode.)

But none of that matters because, quite frankly, Pacquiao has no business being in this fight. He is no Mayweather, a slick defensive fighter whose brilliant counterpunching befuddled De La Hoya in the later rounds. This is Pacquiao, a straight-ahead, bull-rushing pugilist who leads with his chin and frequently takes a beating on it. That chin is already considered suspect: Pacquiao has been KO'd twice in his career and last March was battered by Juan Manuel Marquez, a fighter known more for technical proficiency than heavy hands. And now Pacquiao is expected to stand toe-to-toe with De La Hoya, a once-upon-a-time middleweight champion with a 77-percent knockout rate? Please.

"You don't put somebody in a fight that you believe he can't win and your matchmakers believe he can't win just for money," said Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum.

If Arum's argument holds any truth, if Pacquiao outworks De La Hoya for 12 rounds, if Oscar can't land the knockout punch and if melting down to 147-pounds -- a weight De La Hoya has not fought at since 2001 -- has a more profound impact on him than we think, then the Golden Boy can kiss the rest of his career goodbye.

With a loss on Saturday, De La Hoya would fall to a lackluster 3-4 in his past seven fights. His wins will have come against Felix Sturm, who many thought beat De La Hoya in their middleweight clash in 2006; Ricardo Mayorga, who probably chain-smoked two packs of cigarettes the night before the fight; and Steve Forbes, a graduate of The Contender.

De La Hoya can flash that 1,000-watt smile all day and build himself up on HBO reality shows all night, but no serious boxing fan will ever take him seriously if he loses to Pacquiao.

Why should they? If a defeated De La Hoya continues to fight, who would he challenge? Welterweights Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto are the most logical opponents in 2009, but if De La Hoya doesn't have enough left in the tank to beat Pacquiao he would be at the mercy of the likes of Margarito, who would brutalize him into submission, and Cotto, who would carve up his face with pinpoint jabs.

Would you pay $54.95 to see that?

It would be like ponying up to see Mike Tyson after he had lost his luster. When referee Eddie Cotton counted out a battered and bloodied Tyson against Lennox Lewis in 2006, it was like watching an intimidator morph into an idiot, a box-office draw instantly become a box-office bomb.

The Lewis fight was followed by an uninspired win over Clifford Etienne and then, sadly, two devastating losses to journeymen Danny Williams and Kevin McBride.

Williams' knock-out of Iron Mike turned in approximately 150,000 pay-per-view buys, while the fight with McBride drew an estimated 280,000 buys, at most. Pre-Lewis -- when he had no trouble topping 1 million buys in the late 1990s -- Tyson was Batman. Post-Lewis, he was Gigli.

De La Hoya's future could easily follow that path. A loss, especially a bad one, will turn away even some of the most ardent De La Hoya supporters.

Including this one.