1. MADISON SQUARE GARDEN hosted a festive treat for fight fans on December 15, 1996. Topping the bill was young Oscar De La Hoya, defending his WBO lightweight belt against Jesse James Leija while another star-in-the-making, Arturo Gatti, was taking part in his first world title fight against IBF super-featherweight boss, Tracy Harris Patterson.
2. THE handsome image of De La Hoya was all over New York. “He’ll charm you with his looks and harm you with his hooks,” was the snappy line on the fight posters. The 22-year-old ‘Golden Boy’ was certainly confident but some wondered if he might have been too confident. The 1992 Olympic champion already had his next two fights agreed, culminating with a May 6 superfight with Mexican hero, Julio Cesar Chavez.
3. GATTI, meanwhile, was also expected to shine. The 23-year-old had scored 20 knockouts from 23 bouts, 14 of those in the opening round. In Patterson he was meeting a man eight years his senior, whose form was hard to judge. The adopted son of former world heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson had looked sensational while hammering Eddie Hopson in July, but had struggled in a non-title warm up against Bruno Rabanales.
4. SOME 16,000 fans turned out for the show and they would have heard the rumblings of greatness. Gatti was in chief-support and he was exceptionally impressive. He put his slugging reputation to one side, exhibiting maturity and exceptional boxing ability to contain the obvious desire of Patterson.
5. GATTI started fast, dropping Patterson in the second round, before withstanding a late onslaught to deservedly take the title via unanimous decision. Scores of 115-112, 116-111 and 114-113 handed Gatti the championship. Along the way there were clues about the thrills and spills that lay ahead, like a riveting give-and-take 10th round.
6. DE LA HOYA was just as impressive. He boxed calmly and patiently in the opening round, occasionally putting full power into his shots when the chance arose. “He hits hard,” said a miserable Leija as he took to his stool at the bell.
7. HE hit even harder in the second. A left hook span 29-year-old Leija and he looked in trouble as he hit the deck. Dazed but game, he found his feet. De La Hoya would not be denied victory, and attacked expertly, launching another savage left hook. Leija’s mouthpiece evacuated and as he bent down to try and pick it up, blood dripped from a cut over his left eye. The bell saved him, but the fight was rightly called off.
8. “HE has a lot of power,” said Leija afterwards. “He should be a middleweight… It was hard for me to get past his reach… A fighter knows when he’s beaten. There’s no disgrace in that. I gave my best and that’s all I could give.”
9. UNMARKED and happy, De La Hoya entered the post-fight press conference wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. He looked out at the media and smiled warmly. “Ask me anything,” he implored. “Whatever you like. Professional or personal.”
10. BOTH Gatti and De La Hoya would come together in 2001, when Oscar hammered “Thunder” into fifth round defeat. And their names will forever be together, in Canastota’s Boxing Hall of Fame.