COLD-BLOODED OSCAR DE LA HOYA, CALM IN THE GLARE OF BOXING'S SPOTLIGHT, SLICED UP HIS IDOL, JULIO CESAR CHAVEZ

June 16, 1996

The thought occurred, as the hooded figure entered the ring,
that Oscar De La Hoya had never experienced the full force of
such an event. The voltage at these fights, the ones they hold
on desert evenings behind Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, is really
dialed up, and few boxers have the personality to insulate
themselves from it. Fifteen thousand people watching, their
partisan hate spilling down the stands, their own celebrity and
wealth mocking the fighters' miserable ambitions--it's no place
for a 23-year-old kid whose most impressive credentials are an
Olympic gold medal and a toothy smile. Looking at De La Hoya
last Friday, shrouded in his robe, it was impossible to know how
he would react in a situation so electric. A culturally divided
crowd opposed him; his own inexperience seemed certain to betray
him.

Then Julio Cesar Chavez, the old lion, entered the ring--smiling,
his teeth more famous than the kid's after all these years--and
the crowd went wild, assured of both the old man's confidence
and his legacy. The ions must have seemed to be crackling in the
kid's corner.

But it went like this: The kid doffed his robe, marched
resolutely to the center of the ring, slashed Chavez above his
left eye with a jab in the opening 90 seconds and in the space
of four rounds reduced the legendary Mexican to a very public
form of arterial spray. The exhibition was startling in its
professionalism. De La Hoya, now 22-0, coolly kept Chavez at bay
with his jab, using it like a sharp stick to disturb the wound.
Then when Chavez, who in his declining years has had to learn
the taste of his own blood, became desperate and lunged forward
in the fourth round, the kid unleashed an uppercut to the nose
to begin a machinelike, six-punch barrage. Not one of the
punches missed, and they nearly exploded Chavez's liquefying face.

It was chilling, not because of the gore. It was chilling
because such killer flourishes are aspects of character, not
training. A new thought occurred: Oscar De La Hoya, entering the
ring, had picked up all the dancing live wires he could find and
marinated himself in the amperage, and he liked it.

This was reassuring, to discover that Chavez's heir to the World
Boxing Council's super lightweight title had nerve to go along
with his natural skills and would continue a tradition of
violent and colorful entertainment in the ring--and perhaps
enhance it. Few doubted that De La Hoya, even with his limited
resume of 21 fights, was the better talent in Las Vegas last
week. Chavez, after 16 professional years in the ring and 99
fights, was sufficiently faded that he was actually an underdog
in this, his 32nd title bout, as he might have been in any fight
against the 140-pound elite. However, even those who believed De
La Hoya to be the favorite had to wonder if he had the manhood
that Chavez kept referring to in his news conferences, always
hefting these imaginary globes in his cupped hands. There was
little need to wonder after the first round and certainly no
need after referee Joe Cortez, on the advice of ring doctor Flip
Homansky, stopped the fight at 2:37 of the fourth round, halting
a destruction that seemed frighteningly determined. De La Hoya,
for all his recent dalliance with the vanity press (what boxer,
of any era, has been featured in such publications as Harper's
Bazaar and Vibe?), had earned the right to cup his own hands in
future news conferences.

The fight was not entirely satisfactory because De La Hoya was
not truly tested by Chavez, never had to weather those fearsome
hooks to the body. And Chavez left the ring whining, as has been
his wont in recent years, this time complaining that De La Hoya
had simply opened a cut first made in training during the past
month. By Chavez's account, De La Hoya had enjoyed some good
luck. "I never felt Oscar's punch," he kept saying the next day.
"I just was not able to see."

Still it was not a fight that Chavez was ever in, or had any
chance of getting into, no matter what his vision. De La Hoya's
calm cruelty in the ring was sufficient to quash any notion of
dispute over the outcome. The kid, with his advantage in range
and reach, with his superior speed and movement, with his
precision punching and killer instinct, would beat Chavez every
time. Really, nobody but Chavez seemed much interested in a
rematch.

The fight was an impressive landmark in what will surely be one
of the sport's most spectacular careers. "Oscar has the chance
to be one of the greatest of all time," said promoter Bob Arum,
who has nursed the former Olympian along to his first $9 million
payday--a shrewd exploitation of cultural tension among Mexicans
and Chicanos--and has positioned De La Hoya for more paydays
just like it. "He's got natural talent, he's got no bad habits,
and he wants to learn." He is, in short, the Sugar Ray Leonard
of his era, charismatic outside the ring and hit-man cool
inside. He is boxing's favorite composite character, the molten
core of rage surrounded by a mantle of civility, even suavity.

Composite characters like this (Chavez, in his time and in his
country, was one, though he was never suave) are well paid, both
in respect and money. Arum unveiled a five-fight schedule for
the next 15 months--including marquee bouts with WBC
welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker and IBF welterweight
champion Felix Trinidad--that will put De La Hoya in the same
tax bracket as some of the celebrity ringsiders (Pat Riley and
Jack Nicholson among them). Twenty-five million a year, says
Arum, easy. What's more, the 5'11" De La Hoya, who has now won
titles in three weight classes since his 1992 debut as a
lightweight, may grow beyond even welterweight, possibly to
middleweight, where more fighters and more money await.

Having dispatched Chavez with ease, De La Hoya continued to
behave humbly, an attitude as promising as his final flurry. "I
need many more fights to learn, many more years to become a
complete champion," he said. His deference to Chavez, a fallen
idol to him, too, was no doubt calculated, as he strives to knit
the divide between Chavez's Mexican constituency and his own
Chicano fan base. Nonetheless, there is something refreshingly
subservient in his approach to the game. He really is determined
to improve, and his recent alliance with veteran Mexican trainer
Jesus Rivero--variously referred to in De La Hoya-speak as Don
Jesus, the Professor and the Old Man, is comical and reassuring.
The Professor, 66 years old and a devoted disciple of Willie Pep
and Willie Shakespeare, is an odd duck even by boxing standards.
Lured from his aluminum-window business in Mexico to fine-tune
De La Hoya's game, Rivero has tried to impart the classics, in
all disciplines, to the youngster. "To hit and not be hit," De
La Hoya often muses after the nightly screenings from the
Professor's fight film library. "That Willie Pep was a boxer."

The idea of defense is particularly appealing to De La Hoya, who
is unlikely by temperament ever to wear Chavez's mask of blood.
Against Chavez, at the Professor's advice, De La Hoya adopted a
strange stance, keeping his hands uncharacteristically low. The
idea, De La Hoya explained after the fight, "was to keep my body
covered and move my head all the time." This is exactly what
kept Chavez out of contention; without the possibility of
breaking De La Hoya down with body shots, there was no way he
could win against the taller man.

Hearing De La Hoya espouse the benefits of such surgically clean
boxing in the promotion of the event may have led some people to
believe he planned an attack that was entirely tactical. The
perception that De La Hoya is concerned more with the
aficionado's appreciation of skill than with the casual fan's
appetite for raw meat haunts him. It is this view of De La Hoya,
partly, that makes him unpopular with the Latin crowd, which
prefers fights to be proving grounds for machismo--a typical
Chavez fight, for example--instead of chess matches. Perhaps
some critics were won over, watching De La Hoya turn Chavez
inside out. There were ring subtleties there, but concussive
blows, too.

Of course, De La Hoya will never win over the entire crowd, no
matter how desperate his quest for support becomes. On Friday
his team colors were half Stars and Stripes and half Mexican
flag. But it is not citizenship that is at stake. By now De La
Hoya's values are so stubbornly suburban that he can never again
be identified with the rough-and-tumble barrio culture that
first inspired him to fight. He wants to play golf? He wants to
study architecture? He wants to retire by age 28? This idea of
executive boxing, first formulated by Leonard, ought to be more
appealing to fight fans than it is. If the game truly is hard
and dangerous, nobody should have to do it long and for
diminishing benefits. Take the money and get on with your life.

This, arguably, is what Chavez has failed to do. Not that old at
33, he is nevertheless the worse for wear after 100 bouts. His
peak was reached in the late '80s, in fights with Edwin Rosario
and Jose Ramirez. Since then, it seems that all his major bouts
have been won in curious circumstances or not won at all. He
escaped Meldrick Taylor on a referee's decision, got a
questionable majority draw with Whitaker and finally lost to
Frankie Randall. In the rematch he bled all over the place to
win--win!--on a head butt.

Everlastingly popular in Mexico, Chavez has survived this decade
more as a marketing phenomenon for promoter Don King, who used
him relentlessly while meal ticket Mike Tyson was imprisoned and
inactive. Yet Chavez apparently has kept little of the money he
made under King. Even on the eve of this payday, he got a
reminder in a Nevada court that he allegedly owes King $1.35
million in unpaid loans and advances.

Chavez intends to keep boxing. All during the promotion, he
promised that there would be no excuses. However, immediately
after the fight he told the closed-circuit audience that he had
been nicked in sparring just five days earlier. A remarkable
story. Ring officials were flabbergasted; Chavez had passed a
physical inspection just the night before. How does a fighter
hide a cut, anyway? Then on Saturday morning he entertained the
media with another tale, "this one the truth," about being cut
while sparring about four weeks ago and being reinjured three
days before the fight when his three-year-old son, Christian,
playing in his lap, unintentionally head-butted him. Any of
these things could have happened, but it's likely the wear and
tear on his brows has simply left scar tissue so brittle that
the smallest jab will indeed open it.

The excuses were the only salve available to him, those and five
stitches. "He took advantage of the moment," he said sadly. "If
Oscar had knocked me down, I'd have retired last night. But he
was lucky, and this doesn't mean he's better than me." Chavez
was insisting upon one fight to prove his worth and then a
rematch. The idea was not met with any vigorous applause.

There remains a deep reservoir of goodwill for Chavez among his
countrymen, and his legacy will not suffer much because of this
one fight. He may be able to rehabilitate it a little with a few
well-chosen bouts, or he could become somebody's trial horse as
he attempts to regain his financial footing. Either way, he
won't be horribly diminished in history. He was too great for
too long.

You hope De La Hoya is paying the same attention to Chavez's
career as he is to Pep's. The one thing De La Hoya must learn
from Friday's fight is that somewhere down the line another
boxer will appear in the ring, shrouded in relative mystery, a
cold desire hidden behind his polite smile. Such boxers come
along once a generation or so. The lesson is, you should be gone
when they do.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Chavez's 16 years of experience and 99 pro fights were no defense against De La Hoya. [Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez boxing] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY V.J. LOVERO Chavez blamed his bleeding on a sparring wound and a subsequent head butt from a three-year-old. [Julio Cesar Chavez bleeding]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)