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THE PUGILIST AND THE PROFESSOR OSCAR DE LA HOYA, SCHOOLED BY A NEW TRAINER, IS READY FOR HIS BIG TEST: A SHOWDOWN WITH JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ

June 10, 1996
June 10, 1996

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June 10, 1996

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THE PUGILIST AND THE PROFESSOR OSCAR DE LA HOYA, SCHOOLED BY A NEW TRAINER, IS READY FOR HIS BIG TEST: A SHOWDOWN WITH JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ

The Golden Boy stands well off the tee and waggles his golf club
under the late-afternoon sunshine, purposely casting odd shadows
on his brother's ball. Like a moth, the dark shape flits over
the ball, back and forth and all around. But the brother, a
publinx kind of guy who must be used to bigger distractions than
this, ignores the nervous little shadow and drives the ball
deep. The Golden Boy shrugs, as if that's all he has got up his
sleeve. He walks to the tee, smacks his own ball (unshadowed)
over a water hazard and onto the green.

This is an article from the June 10, 1996 issue Original Layout

His golf game is a combination of finesse and power, a startling
alloy considering his cherubic face and his slight build. In
golf clothes he appears frail and apologetic, shambling even.
It doesn't seem possible that he's become a nine-handicap golfer
in two years, without a single lesson. Yet, just as he does in
the somewhat more physical sport of boxing, he will do whatever
he must to win. Next hole the ball flies wide left of the
fairway, close to a condominium development, too close to suit
him. "That's a free drop," he declares to the others in his
ragtag foursome. "You know it is."

Their turn to shrug. Nobody's even keeping score. He smacks it
from the more favorable lie--onto the green.

Oscar De La Hoya moves through life the same way he moves
through a golf course--purposefully and to his own advantage.
Those seduced by either the huge smile he offers in public or
his private shyness are doomed to defeat, be it in the ring or
on the golf course. That is a certainty, and it is just now
being recognized. De La Hoya, previously suspect as a pretty-boy
dilettante, has been installed as a heavy favorite in Friday's
WBC super lightweight championship fight with Mexican legend
Julio Cesar Chavez at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. And by
logical extension, De La Hoya is now being proclaimed as the
game's next leading light.

It's as if the world has finally sensed De La Hoya's ambition,
his drive, and has decided he brings more goods to the table
than the average Olympic hero (who too often has stalled out in
the real world) or even the more typical rogue (who too often
has stalled out in the real world). Nobody is deceived any
longer by De La Hoya's amateur purity or professional innocence.
Whether the real world recognizes greatness in him, or just has
an unsatisfied appetite for a fighter without tattoos or a
prison record, the sport is now his to take.

On the eve of a fight that would normally be intriguing only to
aficionados and Latinos--that is, a nonheavyweight fight--De La
Hoya is getting the kind of attention and money ($8.95 million)
that certifies him as a crossover star. Here's what we mean by
crossover: In the past month De La Hoya has been interviewed in
Penthouse, in Details, in Playboy and in Harper's Bazaar. TV
Guide came to his camp in the high altitude of Big Bear, Calif.,
as did Live. Photographers come and go (as, comically, does his
hairdresser), and there was even a visit by a Hollywood producer
and screenwriter who hoped to get a head start on De La Hoya's
biopic. They were sent back down the hill, to be recalled when
his life is less hectic and, presumably, even more interesting.

For De La Hoya, a lifelong Southern Californian whose parents
immigrated from Mexico, the Chavez fight is just the start.
Should he prevail over Chavez, a vivid and charismatic--but
aging and slowed--champion who has been a Mexican icon for well
over a decade, De La Hoya will be coronated both an athletic
prodigy and a marketing phenomenon. He will presumably inherit
Chavez's constituency and will likely broaden it with his
bilingual appeal. Chavez, 33, was never much concerned with the
north-of-the-border crowd. A victory in this bout for De La Hoya
would consolidate a growing glory that began with his gold medal
at the 1992 Olympics. And he's just 23.

"I don't think there's any question that Oscar's going to be a
major American personality," says sports agent Leigh Steinberg,
a De La Hoya adviser. "The nature of boxing lends itself nicely
to the concept of personalities' becoming household names. Think
Muhammad Ali. Boxers are individuals, not on a team. And they
don't play on a huge field. And here's Oscar, handsome,
bilingual, an Olympic star, with a clean reputation, who worked
himself up the hard way. He'll be a major marketing force in
this country." He'll be the anti-Tyson.

If De La Hoya, who is a budding draftsman, follows the blueprint
that was drawn up for him by promoter Bob Arum, it will all
happen very quickly. "I want this to be a short career," he
says, "different than all the other boxers'. I don't want to
fight 150 fights like Willie Pep, but I do want to be a great
champion. I'll fight 30, 40 times, but I'll fight the best,
won't duck anybody. At 26, I'll be happily retired and in
architecture school." And he hopes to have won titles in six
weight classes.

So far De La Hoya, who is a rangy 5'11", has not lost any power
as he has advanced from his WBO junior lightweight title to the
IBF and WBO lightweight crowns and now to Chavez's 140-pound
turf; he has 19 KOs among his 21 victories--four of the last
five coming against former world champions. Nor should he lose
too much as he steps up even further. And big-money attractions
await him at every stop, from welterweight champions Pernell
Whitaker and Felix Trinidad to junior middleweight champ Terry
Norris. Because he is surrounded by quality rivals, he could
achieve his legacy with an economy of effort. Whether he can
leave all of that behind at age 26 to enroll in a junior
college, as he's promised, will be the biggest test of all.

Nobody who has watched De La Hoya conduct his career can predict
such smooth sailing. To see him on the cusp of greatness is to
forget all the wrangling that has attended his remarkable
progress. In the four years since he turned pro, he's made
almost as many management changes as George Steinbrenner. Only
recently has De La Hoya settled out of court with manager Shelly
Finkel, who says he invested in De La Hoya when the fighter was
still an Olympic prospect out of the Los Angeles barrios before
the 1992 Games. And though De La Hoya is mostly clear of former
managers Robert Mittleman and Steve Nelson, who led his pro
campaign until '93, there is lingering litigation over parting
shots De La Hoya made in a KO magazine interview concerning the
duo's trustworthiness. It's all very messy, and, ordinarily, it
would not be particularly reassuring to learn that the fighter
has since handed off managerial responsibilities to a Monterey
Park, Calif., car dealer and has newly delegated a mystery man
known as the Professor to be his trainer. Except that it all
seems to be working.

The so-called manager, Mike Hernandez, is one of those
characters in sports who find themselves leasing and selling
cars to local heroes and then becoming their confidants.
Hernandez had already befriended a number of Los Angeles Dodgers
in the Latin community by the time De La Hoya came calling for
$140,000 worth of machinery. A little later, in December 1993,
De La Hoya approached Hernandez with concerns about his personal
finances. He had none--finances, that is. Hernandez has acted as
an adviser ever since.

Equally ticklish was De La Hoya's nondevelopment as a fighter.
De La Hoya's superior firepower disguised a lot of deficiencies
as he pounded handpicked opponents, all of them smaller.
However, beginning with his fight against former two-time IBF
junior lightweight champion John John Molina in February '95,
his lack of professional schooling caused bells to go off. De La
Hoya's longtime cornerman Robert Alcazar, who helped him to his
gold medal in Barcelona, was at a total loss as Molina bulled
his fighter around the ring. De La Hoya won the decision but was
appalled when he looked for instructions in the tough middle
rounds and got none. Alcazar later explained to his fighter that
he had felt nervous. That was not a confidence builder.

So De La Hoya went to Hernandez and Arum and told them he wasn't
improving the way he thought he should be. Arum agreed and
thought, since language wouldn't be a problem, maybe there was
some veteran trainer in Mexico who could help. A promoter in
Mexico City gave Arum the name of Jesus Rivero, an enigmatic
fellow who helped Mexican flyweight champion Miguel Angel Canto
to a record 14 title defenses in the 1970s. But, as Arum admits,
the guy had been retired for 20 years and was, even in the
boxing world, little more than a rumor.

Arum and Hernandez brought in Rivero as an adviser in De La
Hoya's May 1995 fight with IBF lightweight champ Rafael Ruelas.
Although there was tension in the camp, there was satisfaction
afterward. "When Ruelas gave him the shoulder, pushed him back,
and Oscar hit him with a right," remembers Arum, "that was the
old man's move."

It was a second-round KO, by the way. Hernandez, who has a
contract with De La Hoya that pays him one dollar per
fight--that's one dollar, although he did complain he has yet to
see a single dollar--brought Rivero in as the trainer for the
Chavez fight. But recognizing the importance of having Alcazar,
an old De La Hoya family friend, around, Hernandez smoothed
everyone's feelings by shrewdly offering him a five-year
contract to remain in Oscar's corner.

Meanwhile, De La Hoya is giddy with the old man's instruction.
"He's basically taught me I can box anybody," he says of Rivero.
"He's taught me to keep opponents off balance. When I was
knocked down early in my career, and everybody got on me for
that, well it would have never happened if I'd had the Professor."

The Professor is kept pretty much under wraps, which generates a
lot of mystique. "I think he was a philosophy professor at the
university," says Arum, generating more mystique than
information. "He's a devotee of classical music, and he's got
Oscar reading Shakespeare. Books are all over the place. Very
intellectual."

A visit to the De La Hoya compound--a spacious log cabin
designed by the fighter himself--offered little evidence of the
study of literature. The only visible reading material was Golf
Digest. Then again, Rivero is a classicist where it counts.
Every night he and De La Hoya watch fight films from the old
man's library. Recently Willie Pep was the featured attraction,
and De La Hoya was excited. "Now there was a fighter," he said.
"He'd go 15 rounds and never get hit. He was a technician, more
like a matador."

That De La Hoya has been more like the matador and less like the
bull is the source of long-running frustration in the Latin
community. Where De La Hoya comes from, a blood-and-guts fighter
like Chavez is the ideal, which means that De La Hoya's ring
elegance is considered the worst kind of pretension. "People
want to see blood and bruises," he says, "but I'm not going to
give them that. I love boxing, but I hate fighting."

This apparent diffidence has not played well in Los Angeles. In
title fights at the city's Olympic Auditorium, he was a
box-office bust. Fighting against crowd-pleasing Mexicans like
Ruelas and Genaro Hernandez, he is considered the pretty boy and
is, unbelievably, booed. "Jealousy," De La Hoya sniffs, though
his refusal to pick up a Latin banner is probably more to blame.
"I don't fight just for Hispanics," he says. "I want to break
that barrier."

Arum is certain a victory over Chavez will help. "Unfortunately
Oscar has had to fight very popular Mexican guys," says Arum,
"and that hasn't endeared him to Mexicans." But that will
change. "They'll have to love him," he insists. "They won't have
anybody else."

However, De La Hoya's disappointment in his fan base, which was
only checked when he fought in New York City to huge acclaim,
has been debilitating to the point where he has even toyed with
retirement. His love of architecture, born in high school and
heightened in Barcelona when he glimpsed all those old spires,
was suddenly pulling him from the game. Or so he said. Actually,
he admits now, his obsessive attraction to golf had more to do
with his threatened ring departure than did any alternative
career or dwindling fan club. "I'm in love with the game," he
said on an afternoon when he and brother Joel Jr., and two other
camp members stole six holes on the closed Big Bear course.
"After every fight, that's the first thing I do--play golf."

The Professor, though, hasn't permitted many outings such as
this one. For most of the two months spent in training at Big
Bear, De La Hoya has had to be content with the Golf Channel on
his big-screen TV. This may be sorry news for Chavez. The Golden
Boy says he is newly committed to his sport, aware of his
growing place in boxing history and determined to secure it
quickly. Chavez will not lose his greatness in an instant, and
he's not likely to fold up against some cub like De La Hoya.
Then again, if De La Hoya's plans hold, Chavez may turn out to
be little more than a free drop on the Golden Boy's front nine.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Rivero gets high marks for showing De La Hoya the ropes. [Jesus Rivero towelling off Oscar De La Hoya]PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Though he beat Molina (left), De La Hoya felt his corner could have given him better advice. Given his lie, it's clear why De La Hoya prefers golf to training. [John John Molina and Oscar De La Hoya boxing]PHOTO: GILLES MINGASSON/GAMMA LIAISON [Man pushing large ball against Oscar De La Hoya's abdomen]