If your future were as bright as Oscar De La Hoya's, you wouldn't do anything without sunglasses either.
So it was that family, friends and media cooled their heels for close to an hour last Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas while the Golden Boy's camp scrambled for shades. Who the hell had the shades! Finally a security guard produced a pair just stylish enough for De La Hoya, and the World Boxing Organization lightweight champion was ready to deliver his postfight address, a weird but winning homily of arrogance leavened with just the right amount (not very much, that is) of humility, the kind of fighter's rap that helps produce superstars.
"Oscar," a reporter suggested, "you seemed to be looking up at the clock in the middle rounds, as if you couldn't wait to get out of there."
De La Hoya, the lights glinting as much off his magnificent teeth as off the borrowed Ray Bans, rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I wasn't worried about the time," he said. "What I was doing, I was worried about this bruise under my eye, and I was looking at the [arena's TV] screen. I have a photo shoot tomorrow!"
February 27, 1995
De La Hoya may have been kidding about the photo shoot, but his preoccupation with his looks rankled some people in the postfight crowd. "Where do you get your modesty?" yelled one writer. He was actually angry. But how can you stay mad at Oscar, who in the next sentence will lament his own performance, saying, "I'm just a puppy in this sport, fighting against the big dogs."
De La Hoya's unmistakable charisma partly explains why he is well on his way to becoming boxing's next big attraction. Another reason was evident in the ring Saturday when he earned a unanimous decision over a three-time champion who was so tough he required two first names.
It was a 12-round stretch, and there was nothing truly impressive about his defeat of John John Molina. Still, De La Hoya mustered enough will, if not as much skill, as you would have liked to see, in surviving a canny and dirty fight. He was not particularly resourceful, but considering he was a 22-year-old puppy fighting the first big dog of his 27-month pro career, it was a promising enough evening.
For sure, many of us in the crowd of 6,272 would have liked some eyewear of our own—who the hell has the shades!—to shield us from the ugliness in the ring. A night that began with a huge upset, former Olympian Montell Griffin beating the formerly formidable James Toney in a light heavyweight match ("I was raised for this," the underdog said), deteriorated as the main event progressed.
De La Hoya, whose 16-0 record included 15 KOs, began the fight with a first-round knockdown of Molina, who had abandoned his junior lightweight title to move up and fight at 135 pounds and entered the ring with a 36-3 record. Indeed, De La Hoya sailed through the first four rounds, his jab impressive against Molina, who is listed at 5'8", three inches shorter than the champion.
But then Molina, recognizing that his only chance lay in a contained recklessness, began charging De La Hoya, winging and then clinching, and if his head happened to conk his taller opponent, that was a shame. The result was that De La Hoya, who had been a hero in headgear—the only U.S. boxer to win gold in the 1992 Olympics—was getting a very rough introduction to in-fighting.
One other result: Referee Mills Lane, in his 75th title bout, was getting the workout of a lifetime, repeatedly separating the two, calling time to reason with them and just generally trying to improve working conditions. "It was a bitch," Lane said afterward.
The fight degenerated into a mutual exercise in clutching and rabbit punching, with De La Hoya struggling to preserve his good looks and the world struggling to maintain interest. There was nothing scientific about it, and afterward everybody seemed to have a beef.
Molina: "I was trying to fight inside, but the ref wouldn't let me." De La Hoya: "John John Molina had three punches, a left, a right and his head. It was an easy fight, I just wasn't prepared for his head."
De La Hoya, who earned $1.25 million, admitted he should never have let it come to that. He said he should have boxed Molina more, should have used his jab and shouldn't have gone crazy trying for a knockout. "You see, I wanted to fight a fight like never before," he said.
Maybe next time—which would be on May 6, when De La Hoya is scheduled to face International Boxing Federation lightweight champ Rafael Ruelas. It was probably enough this time around that he dealt with as seasoned a pro as the 29-year-old Molina. That was the whole point of the fight anyway, to discover if De La Hoya was one of those phenoms constructed entirely of press clippings. Certainly there was concern over a paper chin—he had been dropped twice in a pro career that can only be regarded as careful. And although he showed power and grace, to go with his huge smile, he also brought some questionable baggage.
There were managerial disputes, which to this day are so unresolved that the De La Hoya-Molina buildup included rumors of papers being served on fight night. He has jilted some big-name handlers, settling on a group that seems better at getting endorsements than in developing his talents. (A photo shoot, indeed!) And naturally the jilted ones have responded with undisguised snideness.
One former manager, Steve Nelson, said afterward that De La Hoya has no chin and that he wanted any sparring partner with a punch out of camp. Shelly Finkel, who estimates he invested $100,000 in De La Hoya during his amateur days and then was unable to sign him, is suing him for several million dollars.
Lou Duva, who trains many of Finkel's fighters, worked with De La Hoya before the Olympics and assumed he would join his stable. When he didn't, Duva was left to wonder, "Who the hell knows if he wants to be a fighter? I think he's a good prospect. But I still think he's immature. He may wind up another Paul Gonzales."
Like Gonzales, a 1984 gold medalist out of the Los Angeles barrio, De La Hoya brings what Hollywood likes to call backstory to his sport. Just the laying of his gold medal on his mother's grave, which he did on his return from Barcelona, is angle enough to fuel competing miniseries these days. In fact, De La Hoya's press bio boasts of a life story in the works. But he will eventually have to produce the goods more than Gonzales, who retired last year with an 18-4 record to end an injury-plagued career, ever did.
To that end, it will help De La Hoya anytime he finds a way to win fights when some desperate veteran behind on points is grinding his brow into his face, throwing rabbit punches and disregarding every stylistic nicety of the sport. It'll be worth it. These days, the young guy with promise, the guy promoted as golden, doesn't mind forsaking a little glamour to grit it out when he has to.