Ringing In The New, Again Oscar De La Hoya returned to action with a fresh look and (maybe) a new attitude

April 01, 2001

In the course of a man's life--and this is a gloomy and
oft-quoted saw--there may indeed be no second act. Failure dooms
you, and nothing can restore that youthful brilliance, that
exuberant arrogance, that happy innocence. But the example of
Oscar De La Hoya, in the proud tradition of teen movies, at
least teaches us that makeovers are possible. In place of a
second act there is, for sure, a new haircut.

Well, that's cheap. There's also a new promoter, a new trainer
and a new CD (action figures sold separately). It's not quite a
new De La Hoya--he seems as insecure as ever when you hear him
talk--but it's definitely a new look. Whether any of that
facilitates his comeback from a loss to Sugar Shane Mosley nine
months ago is still impossible to say. In the meantime, while we
wait to see if these little changes amount to a true
transformation, De La Hoya has reminded us that nothing beats
booking the perfect opponent to showcase one's return to boxing.

Still, beating Arturo Gatti to a pulp in Las Vegas last Saturday
doesn't qualify De La Hoya for anything close to the spiritual
rehab he's claiming. Most people beat Gatti to a pulp. It's how
Gatti, a former junior lightweight world champion with a
mix-it-up style, makes a living these days. That De La Hoya teed
off on a bloodied Gatti, using superior speed and power, stopping
him in the fifth round when Gatti's corner came to the rescue,
hardly confirms his comeback. Yes, his combinations were crisp,
and yes, he used his right hand more than he did in his losses to
Mosley and Felix Trinidad. However, given Gatti's reluctance to
resort to anything resembling defense, it's hard to draw a
meaningful conclusion.

After the fight, during which De La Hoya floored Gatti in the
first round and battered him wickedly thereafter, there was much
talk about the improvement his new trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr.
(father and former trainer of junior lightweight champ Floyd
Jr.), had wrought. "It's a learning process," De La Hoya said,
appearing before the press more than an hour after the fight,
"but I'm very proud of myself."

True, coming off a long layoff during which he thought about
abandoning boxing for a burgeoning singing career, he appeared
newly dedicated to the sport. He easily made weight at 147
pounds, and whatever self-doubt lingered from the two defeats
that blight his career seemed to vanish as he pounded away at
Gatti. This dedication and confidence ought to carry him easily
enough through his next opponent, WBC 154-pound champion Javier
Castillejo, a light-hitting Spaniard whom one boxing insider
described as "perfect" for De La Hoya. A win over Castillejo in
June would be world title number 6 in five weight classes, which
is not bad but is still not redemption for those two losses.

Where De La Hoya's comeback takes him after that (Trinidad and
Mosley both have commitments that will put off those rematches
for the forseeable future) is anybody's guess. So far any changes
in De La Hoya seem skin deep. And sure enough, when he told the
media after the fight that he was late because "I was getting my
hair styled," nobody laughed.

The real question is not whether Mayweather or Jerry Perenchio,
De La Hoya's new promoter, can bring him back to his former
prominence. They can, if only because De La Hoya maintains his
crowd-pleasing charisma through both victory and defeat. (He
nearly filled the MGM Grand, selling 12,692 tickets for a more or
less meaningless fight.) The question, as always, is whether De
La Hoya wants to risk defeat anymore.

In the buildup to the Gatti fight, there was a mean-spirited
desperation that had rarely been in evidence around De La Hoya.
The Golden Boy has usually been above that, at least appearing
respectful. Suddenly, though, he was blasting away at the very
people who had helped him to five world titles and at least $125
million in purses. First was the fighter's insistence that he had
been badly promoted and poorly taught. In a surprise move earlier
this year, De La Hoya used the courts to extract himself from a
contract with longtime promoter Bob Arum and HBO, and become a
freelance. For the near term that meant aligning himself with
broadcasting mogul Perenchio, whose last boxing experience came
in 1976, when he promoted the second George Foreman-Joe Frazier
bout.

In boxing, ditching a promoter is business as usual. It's harder
to forgive De La Hoya's trashing of past trainers, and Lord knows
he's had a bunch. Besides family friend Robert Alcazar, De La
Hoya enjoyed the instruction of such top trainers as Gil Clancy,
Jesus Rivero and Emanuel Steward. Now there's Mayweather Sr.

De La Hoya had always been gracious in his professional whimsy.
Now he was dumping on these guys at every opportunity. It was one
thing to proclaim Mayweather's excellence: "Nobody's ever taught
me the way he's teaching me." It was quite another to hang pros
like Clancy and Steward out to dry: "Don't blame me. Blame all
the trainers I had. I won a lot of titles on natural talent."

Then Mayweather, who is not so great a trainer that his own son
didn't fire him, unloaded on poor Gatti. "Gatti is a piece of
meat," Mayweather said in February. "He fights with his face, not
his fists. What we are going to do with Gatti is put a swivel on
the top of his head, hang him up and use him for a punching bag."

At least De La Hoya didn't get on that bandwagon, perhaps
guessing that his bravado might be found wanting in comparison
with Gatti's bravery. Responding to complaints about his
unwillingness to take risks, he pointed to rival Fernando Vargas,
whom Trinidad decked repeatedly en route to a 12-round TKO last
December. "If I'm a coward," De La Hoya said, referring to the
caution that led to his own loss to Trinidad in September 1999,
"I don't know what he is. It's better to be a coward than to be
knocked down five times." Huh? "It's about time somebody stands
up and thinks smart."

This is an odd ethos for a boxer, but then you realize it is part
of the conflict that has haunted De La Hoya from the beginning.
He does stand up and think smart. His ambivalence about boxing--he
has toyed with golf, architecture, music and the possibility of
acting--is entirely rational. All those other things are more fun
and lots safer. Why would you want to be knocked down five times
when you can preen on Jay Leno's couch, a new CD out, and unreel
your new video? This is not to say De La Hoya lacks heart. He has
lots of it. He might actually be more at home with the cruelty of
the ring (anybody remember his cutting up Julio Cesar Chavez,
apparently for the fun of it?) than the overdubbed smarminess of
the recording studio. It would be a shame if we overlooked a
pretty accomplished career because he's sporting a makeover.

It's just that unlike the Vargases and Gattis of this world, De
La Hoya has choices, and he'll forever be confused by them. As
will we. The next time we see him, who knows, he might have a new
haircut.

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN

De La Hoya floored Gatti in the first and battered him wickedly
thereafter.

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)