For the 6,185 fans at the great Western Forum in Los Angeles on Nov. 23, the evening was an unqualified success. The pride of East L.A., 19-year-old lightweight Oscar De La Hoya, the only U.S. boxer to win a gold medal in Barcelona, had come home to make his pro debut. After entering the ring with a sombrero perched on his head, and waving an American flag in one fist and a Mexican flag in the other, De La Hoya pounded his opponent, Lamar Williams, into submission at 1:42 of the first round.
For De La Hoya, however, something was missing. Back in the dressing room, his young face clear and unmarked, he said quietly, "It was all over so fast. I feel like I waited for this moment all my life. I tried to make it last...." He needn't have felt so blue. For De La Hoya, who made $200,000 for 102 seconds of work, there should be many more memorable nights in the ring.
Since winning a gold medal at the Goodwill Games at age 17, De La Hoya has been heralded as one of the most promising young fighters in the world. As an amateur he ran up a 223-5 record with 153 knockouts—a startling KO percentage in the world of headgear and 10-ounce gloves. Along the way he became something of a media star as well. During the Olympics, television audiences were moved by the story of the young man from the barrio who had resisted the lure of the gangs to become a champion, fulfilling a promise he had made to his mother, Cecilia, before her death from breast cancer in 1990.
"I won the gold for my mom," said De La Hoya after laying his medal on his mother's grave. "Now the championship will be for me."
Of course, others will be along for the ride. Before the Olympics most boxing observers assumed that when Dc La Hoya turned pro, he would sign with the management-promotional team of Shelly Finkel and Dan Duva, who have guided the pro careers of heavyweight Evander Holyfield and junior welterweight Pern ell Whitaker. Finkel had been courting De La Hoya and his family since 1990. Along the way Finkel had bought De La Hoya a car and paid for part of Cecilia's funeral. Finkel says that he invested $100,000 in De La Hoya's career.
Apparently it wasn't enough. On Sept. 4, De La Hoya announced that he had signed with the unknown team of Robert Mittleman, a New York booking agent, and Steve Nelson, a New York mortgage banker whose previous involvement in boxing consisted of a stint as manager of onetime WBA heavyweight champion James (Bonecrusher) Smith. Mittleman and Nelson presented De La Hoya with the richest signing deal in boxing history, a package worth more than $1 million. It includes a reported $500,000 in cash, a car, a van and about half the cost of a four-bedroom house for De La Hoya and his family in the Montebello neighborhood of Los Angeles, three miles and a world removed from East L.A.
Finkel, who reportedly declined to match the Mittleman-Nelson offer, says he is being paid back by De La Hoya. "The kid is being honorable," Finkel says. "I wish him well. Beyond that, I don't want to say anything."
Sources familiar with the deal say that De La Hoya's father, Joel, who wields considerable influence over Oscar's life, was concerned that Finkel and Duva were spread too thin in their boxing interests and that his son would get short shrift.
Joel De La Hoya doesn't have that worry with Nelson and Mittleman, but now the question is whether they can provide the boxing savvy that their prodigy will need. They have signed a three-year deal with promoter Bob Arum, who, in typical fashion, says, "I think Oscar De La Hoya will be bigger than Sugar Ray Leonard."
Certainly De La Hoya has as much charm as any fighter since the young Leonard. He had already appeared on Arsenio Hall, and he had been a hit on The Tonight Show, telling Jay Leno about his visit after the Olympic victory to the White House, where he had used a bathroom. I thought, Wow, to sit here where George Bush sits is a real honor," De La Hoya told Leno.
To help with endorsement deals, Mittleman and Nelson have retained Lon Rosen, Magic Johnson's agent. According to Nelson, the newly christened Team De La Hoya is close to signing with a "major soft-drink company." In addition, a TV movie of De La Hoya's life is in the planning stage.
Ultimately, the marketing of De La Hoya will depend on his success in the ring. A rangy 5'11", De La Hoya, who weighed 133¾ pounds for Williams, could grow into a middleweight. He has marvelous hand speed, a superb jab and a devastating left hook. As effective as he was as an amateur, De La Hoya seems made for the pros. Only his chin and his heart remain untested.
Neither was called upon against the hapless Williams, who, after Hitting around the ring for half a minute, took a very professional left hook to the liver and immediately began looking for a spot to fall down. Williams's hasty exit raises the inevitable question of matchmaking. While no one expects Nelson and Mittleman to throw their golden boy to the wolves just yet, they should at least make sure that his future opponents come to fight. "He was in with a living dead man," said heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe, who watched the fight from a ringside seat.
"We're not going to go crazy and rush him," said Arum. "But we're going to have to quickly step up the quality of the opposition." De La Hoya will probably fight for a title within the next 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, his next fight, on Dec. 12 in Phoenix, is against someone named Cliff Hicks.
It was nearly 1 a.m. when De La Hoya arrived at his new house for a long-planned post fight victory party. The house was jammed with family and friends. There was music and drink, and Arturo Islas, the Team De La Hoya chef who for six weeks in training camp had cooked nothing but pasta and steamed vegetables, had prepared a Mexican feast. De La Hoya, though, ate nothing. For the next hour, in his own living room, he shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures. "Thank you," he said to everyone. "Thank you for coming."
They wouldn't have missed it for the world.