Last Saturday's doubleheader featuring Oscar De La Hoya and
Bernard Hopkins wasn't even a tournament, just a twofold teaser
meant to pique pay-per-view interest in a Sept. 18 showdown
between those two marquee fighters. It was a marketing device, a
road show meant to prove that Hopkins wasn't too old, at 39, and
that De La Hoya wasn't too small to face middleweights. And that,
yes, their eventual fight would make history, money (the expected
$35 million purse could be a record for a nonheavyweight match)
and, certainly, sense.
But De La Hoya's surprisingly close win over Felix Sturm--unless
his odd performance was meant to ensure Hopkins's
participation--seemed strange advertising for a $35 million bout.
And that's if you agree that De La Hoya won on Saturday, which
not everybody does.
Hopkins had done his part earlier in the evening, although
without his usual elan. Even he admitted, after he'd outlasted
Robert Allen in a rugged and not particularly satisfying fight,
that the allure of a $10 million paycheck in the fall mitigated
his usual recklessness. "I was safer than usual," he said. "But
with so much on the line, and knowing what happened to Roy Jones
[his May 15 loss to Antonio Tarver ruined a proposed matchup
against Felix Trinidad], well, I wanted to make sure [the De La
Hoya fight] wasn't something I torpedoed."
It's full speed ahead for Hopkins, who made his 18th middleweight
title defense. Maybe he didn't look great, but he still doesn't
look 39. "Genetics," he explains. "I'll box until I'm 42, and
you'll still see my razzle-dazzle."
It's De La Hoya, fighting at 160 pounds on Saturday for the first
time (he began his pro career at 135), who looks most dangerous
to the promotion, which is supposed to enrich him by $25 million.
He is keen to hold major world titles in six divisions (the WBO
belt he wrestled from Sturm hardly counts), a remarkable feat, to
be sure. Saturday night's sampling--bringing in a European
fighter with no big-fight experience--was supposed to be a
painless preview for the September fight, but it created more
questions than excitement.
Didn't De La Hoya look a little fleshy? Didn't he look
defenseless? Would he truly try to slug it out with Hopkins the
way he did with Sturm? De La Hoya fought hard and
bravely--pulling out a decision only by winning the final round
on the three cards--but he hardly fought well, or wisely. His
idea of breaking down Sturm with body shots was never going to
work. Furthermore, hanging his mug out there for Sturm to pepper
with every jab he threw was poor preparation for the payday of a
De La Hoya and his camp hinted at physical problems, namely a
back injury that required chiropractic care. Or perhaps it was a
sore hand. Or shoulder. "Everything went wrong tonight," De La
Hoya said immediately afterward. "Everything."
Later in the evening he was more cheerful, back on his
promotional talking points, rapping about history and Hopkins and
even doing some selling, finishing his stand at the podium by
insisting, "This fight will happen."
It'll certainly happen--that's not the question any more. The two
biggest names remaining in boxing, whatever their age or
infirmities, guarantee attention when so much money can cajole
them into the ring together. The question after De La Hoya's
desperate struggle with Sturm is, Does it still matter?
Jose Luis Castillo, who lost his lightweight title to Floyd
Mayweather two years ago, got it back by defeating Juan Lazcano
last Saturday.... And what of Pretty Boy? Mayweather beat
DeMarcus Corley last month and presumably awaits a shot at
Arturo Gatti's 140-pound title. Insiders doubt Mayweather, now
a free agent after his contracts with HBO and Top Rank have
expired, would ever fight the gate-busting Gatti for the short
end of that purse, which is all he'd get for that fight.