Oscar De La Hoya has been a vaporous personality throughout his
public life, hard to pin down. Is he a well-groomed marketing
machine, a brutish brawler, a cautiously programmed prodigy or a
reckless and arrogant champion who fights from the heart? In
winning five titles since he turned pro in 1992, De La Hoya has
been all of these things and more. He has been so susceptible to
influence--from his trainers, his promoter and his father--that
he has become boxing's Sybil, not so much somebody without
character as someone with too many of them.
"All I wanted to do was please people," De La Hoya said during
training recently, acknowledging the scattershot approach to his
career--to his life--that has been monumentally successful but
confusing all the same. Sitting on a deck beneath whispering
pines at Big Bear Lake, Calif., he promised that in his fight
with fellow welterweight champion Felix (Tito) Trinidad he'd be
standing on his own two feet, more independent than he'd ever
been. "Finally," he said, "I am my own man."
It may be that, finally, De La Hoya is his own man. But last
Saturday night, by insisting on displaying skills that nobody
was particularly interested in seeing, he lost his WBC title.
That now goes to Trinidad, a man far less complicated and
interesting than De La Hoya but one more concerned with the
commercial interests of boxing than with his own aesthetic
ambitions for the sport--and better rewarded for it.
De La Hoya's consolidation of character may have been ill-timed.
Trinidad, plodding through 12 rounds as he chased a dazzling but
defiantly defensive De La Hoya, scored a majority decision at
Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay without scoring a knockdown or even
landing many punches. It was not a fight that Trinidad won; it
was a fight that De La Hoya perversely handed over.
September 26, 1999
"My plan tonight was to box," De La Hoya said after the fight.
"I've proved I can stand in with anybody, but this time I wanted
to put on a boxing show. I think I gave the boxing lesson of my
De La Hoya had determined that Trinidad was no match for him on
his feet. So Oscar circled left and then, to mix it up, circled
right, jabbing all the while and landing the occasional right
hand. It seemed to be his easiest fight ever; he bloodied
Trinidad's nose in the second round and generally seemed to
neutralize the Puerto Rican's hard right hand. Trinidad's most
effective punch came after the bell in Round 7, when,
frustrated, he threw a left that landed as De La Hoya was
turning toward his corner. Most of Trinidad's other punches
didn't connect--they just whizzed by. It was indeed a boxing
lesson, although De La Hoya became an indifferent teacher in the
championship rounds, when, having decided that the fight "was in
the bank," he simply circled without jabbing or doing anything
else risky to his plan. "I had it won," he explained later.
But Trinidad, and the judges, understood that this fight,
perhaps the richest nonheavyweight bout ever, would not be
decided by such arbitrary guidelines as De La Hoya's, regardless
of his drawing power and Las Vegas clout. When a fighter is
guaranteed $15 million, as De La Hoya was, there is some
expectation of violence. You can't conjure what may prove to be
one million pay-per-view buys--a record for a nonheavyweight
fight--out of anything less. De La Hoya had proved that he was
not afraid to mix it up, to wade in, to bleed, to fall down, to
get up. Failure to do so this time would result in severe
penalty. De La Hoya was clearly the better man inside the ring,
but his style ran so contrary to expectations that the judges
reacted wildly against it.
Many at ringside, not to mention promoter Bob Arum, thought the
punishment was stiff. In fact, a lot of the ringside press
scored the fight for De La Hoya, though most had it so close
that any decision would have been acceptable. There was
certainly no outrage after the announcement of Trinidad's
victory, as there had been last March when Evander Holyfield
received a dubious draw after taking a beating from Lennox
Lewis. Even De La Hoya's strongest supporters were baffled by
his decision to coast through the last three rounds--Trinidad
won all three on two of the judges' cards--giving away his lead
and then some in his determination to dance instead of fight.
The event was supposed to have been one of those megafights that
is as much about meaning as money. These two boxers, undefeated
and 26 and controlled by domineering fathers, had been on a
collision course for some time. De La Hoya was the larger
attraction, having been headlined by Arum his entire career,
schooled for just this kind of attention. Trinidad, fully as
concussive in the ring as De La Hoya, had been hampered by
language problems and by poor promotion. Don King had kept the
Spanish-speaking Trinidad hidden on Mike Tyson undercards,
stewing in his neglect (and going to court repeatedly to get out
Despite their differing profiles, the two fighters were regarded
as comparable talents. De La Hoya, who had begun his pro career
as a pampered Olympic gold medal winner, overcame his cautious
approach to the game (which had made him much reviled among
Hispanic fight fans) to become a regular tough guy. In fights in
which brawling wasn't necessary--against outclassed athletes
such as Julio Cesar Chavez and Ike Quartey--De La Hoya charged
in like some desperate palooka, seeming to enjoy the frenzy as
much as his fans did.
Trinidad, meanwhile, made a virtual bombing run through the
welterweight ranks. By the time he got to De La Hoya, he'd
knocked out 30 men in 35 bouts. He would never be the crossover
fighter De La Hoya was (that is, Trinidad would never make $8
million to $10 million a year in endorsements, as the
media-friendly De La Hoya has), but he was seen as the
inescapable opponent, the explosive fighter who might detonate
America's new favorite son.
Even when King finally delivered Trinidad, giving the public
that rare fight--two undefeated men still in their
primes--Trinidad remained a secondary element of the promotion.
He would collect $8.5 million against De La Hoya, but put it
this way: Representatives of McDonald's, Budweiser and six other
firms did not convene in the desert last week to dream up
campaigns for the little guy from Cupey Alto, P.R. They were in
town to ride Oscar's marketing momentum.
Because of the mechanics of the promotion, both Trinidad and
King were largely silent during the buildup--King because he was
subordinate to Arum, who enjoyed De La Hoya's pull, and Trinidad
because, well, who knew? The fighter was a no-show at press
conferences, suffered no interviews of substance and kept a
closed camp. This was largely ascribed to the paranoia of his
father, a man who goes by the name of Don Felix and controls
every aspect of the son's career that King doesn't. Don Felix
complained of "spies" but later let it be known that he simply
didn't want anybody seeing how sharp his son was in training,
lest De La Hoya decide to back out.
None of this, however, made Trinidad especially mysterious--just
a little easier to overlook. What glimpses there were of him
contributed to the simplicity of his image. The one time
reporters were allowed in camp, they saw him hitting a heavy bag
labeled CHICKEN DE LA HOYA. When they did quote him, it was to
record his prediction of a sixth-round knockout. Standard stuff.
Even when the media pried into the father-son relationship, the
kind that has tortured De La Hoya so publicly, the Trinidads
failed to oblige. Asked how he avoided the tension that De La
Hoya said his own father brought to camp, Felix seemed puzzled.
Turning to his father, who is always at his side, he said, "He
taught me my first punch and my second and my third." There
didn't seem to be any tension at all.
De La Hoya remains haunted by his father's refusal to offer
praise. Recently trainer Robert Alcazar said that Joel De La
Hoya Sr., though generally not an overwhelming presence in camp,
was an important and largely negative one. Joel always found
something wrong. But during a visit to Big Bear he told Alcazar,
"I like what I see." This was stunning, but it did not develop
into one of those Hallmark moments. "I read that in the papers,"
Oscar said evenly. "I'd like to hear it in person once."
The ringside psychologists have had no trouble connecting De La
Hoya's erratic ring behavior to his quest for his father's
approval. Everything De La Hoya has done has been at someone
else's suggestion. Arum has had him change trainers several
times, waffling between defensive and offensive approaches. The
trainers have all hewed to Joel's approach--until they've been
fired, as Emmanuel Steward was in 1997. When Joel wasn't calling
the shots, financial adviser Mike Hernandez or Arum was, "until
I decided to take charge of everything," Oscar said during
Up in the high altitude of Big Bear, it must have seemed easy to
declare independence. That is a world of Oscar's making (the log
cabin is of his own design), and everybody is in sync with his
wishes. It is an odd environment, as much about golf as about
boxing. The camp's cook can be seen hunched over a practice
green. "Maybe I don't need boxing," De La Hoya said. "I have my
family [a lady friend and two children] and golf. I don't need
as much as I thought I did."
In fact, against his father's wishes, he seized control of his
empire, firing Hernandez and five others. De La Hoya's career,
too, is now under his control, though Arum remains his promoter.
"Maybe two, three fights," De La Hoya said in Big Bear when asked
about his long-range plans. "What's to prove? This isn't a
make-or-break fight for me. I've already made it."
This declaration of independence was encouraging, but it's
something De La Hoya will probably have to savor more alone than
usual under the whispering pines. His need to stand on his own
two feet--on his toes, actually--for 12 rounds has placed him
out of fame's rotation, at least temporarily. At the fight's end
there was a dividing of the spoils as Arum and King battled on
the dais, King hysterically exultant, Arum looking as if he'd
swallowed expired dairy products. They argued over a rematch,
which, given their mutual hatred, is not very likely.
Redemption, for De La Hoya, is not at hand.
"Maybe I'll take some time off," he said at the press conference,
satisfied that he'd won the fight but smart enough to see that
he'd lost the war. "A long time."
It was not a fight that Trinidad won; it was, rather, a fight
that De La Hoya perversely handed over.
There was no outrage after Trinidad's victory, as there had been
after the dubious Holyfield-Lewis draw.