ON FEBRUARY 24, 2000, Oscar De La Hoya, The Golden Boy, sat on the podium in the press room at Madison Square Garden where in a couple of days he was scheduled to headline the show against Derrell Coley. De La Hoya had suffered his first professional loss in his previous fight, being beaten controversially on points by Felix Trinidad. But gold does not tarnish. De La Hoya remained as popular as ever. This was not lost on the then New York State Athletic commissioner Mel Southard who was giddy as he referenced De La Hoya. Southard, who had previously worked for the New York Yankees, compared De La Hoya to that team’s iconic shortstop, Derek Jeter. Southard cited how clean cut De La Hoya was, just like Jeter.
De La Hoya looked expressionless, however. There was no acknowledgement whatsoever. He had no idea who Jeter was, something that his promoter Bob Arum quickly picked up on. “Oscar,” said Arum, “the Commissioner is giving you the ultimate compliment. Jeter has a great image.” After Arum’s gentle prodding, De La Hoya, still expressionless, signaled a thumbs up to Southard.
It was easy to fall in love with the Oscar De La Hoya story, which hit the ground running when he won the Olympic gold medal in 1992, apparently fulfilling the final wish of his dying mother in the process. From that point forward, De La Hoya transitioned from a boxing star to a mainstream one.
Initially, however, De La Hoya was perceived as a pretty boy handed a degree of favoritism because of his status. Mike Katz, the New York Daily News beat writer, even called him Chicken De La Hoya; a nickname that couldn’t possibly stick as Oscar made it a point to take on the best fighters available and ducked no one. There have been greater fighters than De La Hoya, but none in and around his era that so consistently met the toughest challenges head on. There were no shortcuts to his greatness inside of the ring. Outside was a different story – he looked for any he could get.
HBO’s two-part series The Golden Boy, which ran on the evenings of July 24 and 25 exhibited the De La Hoya of today bearing his soul. For the viewer it was like sitting in on a therapy session in which De La Hoya tried to be as honest as he could while clearly struggling with his inner demons. Now 50 years old, the ageing superstar is still conflicted.
“The last 45 years have been pretty dark,” he says. “The world fell in love with my story.” Oscar then reveals that the dying wish of his mother had all been fabricated. “I was going to win the gold medal no matter what, but I was driven by a lie. I embraced it. I held onto it. It didn’t seem like I was doing anything wrong.”
The perception over the years was that Oscar’s relationship with his father Joel was complicated irrespective of how hard he tried and no matter what accomplished, Oscar had failed to win his dad’s approval. Conversely his mother was painted as a sweet woman, sensitive to Oscar’s feelings. In reality, we’re now told, Oscar’s relationship with his mom was just as complicated. He tells the story of running into the street for a ball when he was a kid and winding up under a car, but miraculously escaping harm. Watching his mother frantically run down the street, Oscar waited for her to give him a hug. Instead, she whacked him for being so careless. It would not be the first or last time she put her hands on him out of anger. “I never saw her hit my brother or sister. I hated it when she hit me,” he says. “When I stepped into the ring, I visualised my mother’s face on an opponent and unloaded.” Expanding on the complex relationship, De La Hoya says: “A few days after Barcelona (Olympics 1992), I went to mom’s grave to talk to her. I never had the courage to tell her I loved her. I wish I had.”
Perhaps the fighter’s difficult relationship with his own parents made it difficult to be a good father himself. Several years later a now infamous picture of De La Hoya, dressed in a fishnet outfit and high heels, drew widespread attention. “My lawyer said these people want a million dollars to make the pictures go away. ‘This is f**king bad’,” Oscar recalls thinking. “The first thing I thought about was my kids. We hired a forensic expert who could tell whether the pictures were real or doctored. He said they were fake photos, and everyone believed him, so I’m in the clear.”
It is perhaps noble of De La Hoya to think about the embarrassment those photos might have potentially caused his kids, but the bottom line is that for the most part he has been an absentee figure in the life of the three of them, all of whom were born to different women. That his two sons and daughter have seemed to turn out okay reflects well on their mother’s behalf, not his. In fact, the three siblings (Jacob, Atiana, and Devon) did not meet until they were grown up. They have established a much better relationship with one another than with him. “We more than our own dad look out for one another,” admits Jacob. Says Devon of meeting his dad after an absence of many years, “I wanted to hug him and punch him.”
“Being a father is a huge responsibility,” acknowledged De La Hoya, “I didn’t know how to do it. I handled it by having drinks. When I turned pro I would drink as much as I could between fights.
“I always thought money would take care of everything. All the pain I caused, I regret it.”
Reportedly there is a significant other in the life of De La Hoya at the present time. His past relationships have never worked out for long. They have been accompanied with lies and deceit on Oscar’s part. Not that it was intended to be that way, but the temptation of the nightlife and the fringe benefits it afforded a celebrity such as himself, was too tempting to turn down for a stable family environment. “I wasn’t happy being at home,” he admits. But is he now?
De La Hoya still seems to have an insatiable hunger for the limelight. It is satisfied to an extent with his involvement as the head of his company Golden Boy Promotions. But nothing compares to when De La Hoya was riding the crest, fighting in the biggest fights and being in demand as a mega star. The 10-part series, The Last Dance, put Michael Jordan front and centre again, reminding us of just how big an icon he was and still is in the process; doubtless Oscar was hoping for the same result. But just like the complexities of the man, the timing of HBO’s airing of the “Golden Boy” was strange. In a week in which the boxing world was focusing on the Naoya Inoue-Stephen Fulton and Terence Crawford-Errol Spence, there was not as much interest in the De La Hoya documentary as there would have been if it had premiered at a different time.
There are the disturbing rape accusations in which no criminal charges were ever filed, but a civil case was settled. “It’s not in my DNA to do something like that,” Oscar says. “I’m young, I have popularity, I have money and that’s what they [women] want.”
De La Hoya’s parents were Mexican. He is proud of his heritage but was viewed as an outsider when he boxed the great Julio Cesar Chavez. It motivated him more than it ever did for any opponent. “I respect the Mexican culture, but I’m proud to have been born in the USA. I had something to prove to a culture. I was never so focused.”
There is excellent footage of De La Hoya’s two stoppages of Chavez. And there was a revealing comment from his dad that showed just how hard it was for Oscar to get acceptance. Asked who would have won had they boxed during their respective primes, Joel De La Hoya said “If they had been the same age, it would have been a tough fight, but Julio would have beaten Oscar.”
De La Hoya described Pernell Whitaker as the best boxer in the world pound for pound when they met in 1997. But the reality is that Whitaker, while still formidable, was past his best. That was reflected in the 3/1 odds favouring Oscar.
The sad ending of De La Hoya’s career is graphically shown with the pummeling he takes from Manny Pacquiao. “I knew this would be my last fight, but I didn’t tell anyone,” he says. “For the first time I was drunk in training camp. ‘If I get hit with one punch and never wake up it’s okay’,” he recalls thinking.
The signs that De La Hoya had serious issues outside of the ring were there for all to see, but his status made virtually everyone ignore them. This writer included.
At the Boxing Writers Association awards banquet in Las Vegas, in 2011, De La Hoya approached me at the cocktail party to have a chat. I was BWAA President at the time and can only surmise that someone probably pointed me out to him since we had never previously met. I must admit, I was starstruck and did not know what to really say. After a few minutes I essentially got rid of Oscar by taking him over to a television crew who were thrilled to interview him. The HBO documentary made me recall what I noticed that night, but conveniently overlooked. De La Hoya looked disheveled, his hair not really combed, a friendly but far-away look in his face, a man who was as timid as a child on his first day of school.
Try as he might, Oscar De La Hoya could not escape being who he was because we wouldn’t let him. We looked at him one way while he looked at himself another. When push came to shove, he found it easier to escape reality and play along with the image we created of him.
Despite forging a Hall of Fame career, De La Hoya feels he could have done more inside the ring as well. “I won 11 titles in six different weight classes. Who is not satisfied with that? But I never lived up to my potential.”
The one area De La Hoya seemed pleased with was his success with Golden Boy Promotions and all the matches in which they promoted Floyd Mayweather. But strangely Floyd Mayweather Snr did not merit a mention despite Oscar having previously stated that he was the best trainer he ever had. Instead, De La Hoya gave props to Jesus Rivero who only trained him for a few fights, but obviously left a strong impression.
De La Hoya talks of becoming a better father and how that is so much more important than what he ever did inside of the ring. “The Golden Boy [image] is bull,” he says. “It’s time to start living in reality.” It is never too late for that, but will he?