The Right Stuff With a thunderous finale against Ike Quartey, his most dangerous opponent yet, Oscar De La Hoya proved that there's guts behind the glitter

February 22, 1999

For all his achievement and for all his acclaim, Oscar De La
Hoya remains oddly unsure of himself. You can hear it in his
voice when he wonders why he can't get the approval of those he
respects most. You can see it in his dark, nervous eyes every
time he mounts the national stage. You can almost feel it when
he flinches in the face of some totally anticipated danger.

At these instants of self-doubt, he seems the hollow man, a
pay-per-view creation whose ready smile has catapulted him onto
magazine covers and billboards in advance of his talent, a
26-year-old boy whose commercial potential has been realized far
ahead of his athletic promise. What's worse, he seems fully
aware of the entirely cynical process. He sits in his room
before a big fight and, his brows furrowed, wonders if he's
really all he has been made out to be. "What if I lose?" he
says, with an apprehension that is more natural to him than,
say, a milk mustache. "The same fans that are there for me now,
where do they go? Do they still buy tickets?" On the eve of his
biggest fight, he ponders his own comeuppance.

This is the Golden Boy, who has earned more than $75 million in
purses, who has won titles in four divisions, whose cross-over
charisma is considered boxing's last stand. He is a champion
whose fans sometimes jeer him for the prettiness of his
fighting, whose promoter has steered him through a lucrative
career of unimportant matchups, whose generally admiring press
clippings sometimes call him chicken, whose father has never
told him he has done well. "Of course I am insecure," he tells
you.

So even he recognizes that his fame and fortune are no
substitute for character. So even he wonders if he has any.

Yet, as was finally demonstrated last Saturday in Las Vegas,
there really is something there, something inside him after all.
De La Hoya came fully into his own in the combustion of the 12th
round of his WBC welterweight title defense against Ike Quartey
of Ghana. There will be arguments over whether De La Hoya was
the better athlete, and even arguments over the scoring, which
awarded him a split decision. But anybody who saw him swarm
Quartey in that last desperate round, flooring the undefeated
challenger at the outset with a left hand and then cornering him
with a brutal barrage that left Quartey woozy, must now certify
De La Hoya's manhood, if nothing else. There's something there,
all right.

It was a startling finish to a bout that had been promoted as De
La Hoya's first true test, "my first big, dangerous" fight, as
he himself called it. Quartey, who entered the ring with a
34-0-1 record and who had been the WBA welterweight champion
until his title was stripped when he pulled out of a mandatory
defense, is heavy-handed, with a punishing jab that had earned
him the nickname Bazooka. If De La Hoya's education had been his
29 wins without a loss against fighters too small or too old to
validate all that Olympic gold medal promise, Quartey was to be
his graduation rite.

Even though De La Hoya had demanded that his wary promoter, Bob
Arum, set up the bout, by fight time he didn't look like a guy
who was 100% sure he'd done the right thing. Although he always
looks serious in the ring, he seemed especially tentative in his
approach to Quartey, whose sneer throughout the fight was meant
to announce his superiority to this pampered brat.

De La Hoya, who earned $9 million for the bout and preserved his
position as boxing's non-heavyweight superstar, was clearly not
overconfident in either his demeanor or his style, giving the
shorter Quartey (who earned $3 million) plenty of room and, as
he said later, "way too much respect." De La Hoya appeared
nervous and reluctant to close the gap between the two. When he
did cross into Quartey's turf, the African challenger, with
drums beating up in the high seats somewhere, answered smartly.
A trickle of blood appeared at De La Hoya's nose in the first
round, and swelling around his left eye began after the fifth.

The most severe penalty for De La Hoya's encroachment was a
sixth-round knockdown that De La Hoya admitted "actually dazed
me." That electrifying round began with De La Hoya dropping
Quartey with a crisp left hook. But when De La Hoya attempted to
press his advantage, Quartey delivered a beautiful left hand,
flush on the cheek, sending the Golden Boy down for only the
third time in his pro career.

Reflecting on the moment later, De La Hoya said he simply
determined that he "wouldn't quit, that I'm not a quitter."
Quartey sniffed at that. "He's just surviving," he said. "That's
all he did all night."

But Quartey could have followed up with more himself, and if the
judges were hard on him, he had himself to blame for failing to
chase the champion in the later rounds. Instead, De La Hoya,
looking more purplish about the eye than golden, began venturing
into the danger zone of Quartey's jab. De La Hoya answered
whatever questions remained concerning his chin when Quartey
clipped him with a right hand in the ninth but failed to deck him.

Then, in the 12th, having been reduced to a plodding, crouching
figure looking for a turnaround shot, De La Hoya answered
whatever questions remained concerning his heart. According to
the scorecards, he could have preserved his split decision
without any final-round heroics. It was close, but two of the
three judges had him ahead. Yet he shot off his stool for that
round, clubbed Quartey to the canvas with a left hand, chased
him into the opposite corner and, with an abandon that went
straight past reckless into frantic, bore through Quartey's jab
and pounded him silly.

It was not boxing so much as the imposition of one man's will
upon another. Quartey had seemed to have more skill all along,
yet De La Hoya had more resources in the end. Or maybe he had
more need. That 12th round, with so much unscripted fury,
offered the true flare of his personality, the drive to achieve
victory at all costs.

Afterward De La Hoya seemed to sense that, no matter how he had
struggled, he had done something significant. While Quartey
retired to a suite with his family and ate sardines and cornmeal
and groused about the decision, De La Hoya was enjoying the
feeling of mission accomplished. "I had to go out big," he said,
"and prove to everybody I can fight."

It's still possible to be troubled by the neediness of this
gifted young man. His yearning for approval from his father,
Joel, who started him in boxing, is especially disturbing. De La
Hoya tries to seem amused at his father's refusal to laud
him--"He's the only person who hasn't said I've done good," says
Oscar--but the dismay is hard to hide.

Thus, it was a relief to see him stand, however flatly, on his
own two feet in that fiery 12th round and prove once and for all
that he's not merely a commercial opportunity. He has substance
as well and, despite his own doubts, is more than just
gold-plated.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO CLOSING TIME Bruised but determined to finish with a flourish, De La Hoya unleashed a 12th-round barrage that rocked Quartey.

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)