Emulating Sugar Ray Leonard

02.06.04 – By Ben Dunn: The eighties belong to Sugar Ray Leonard. For while Mike Tyson was spawning a whole generation of black-trunked, black-booted imitators, who ate up his self-propelled urban legend, Leonard was transcending fashion and attitude by changing the blueprint of boxing.

After Leonard, dominating a single division was no longer the principle path to greatness; weight-division jumping, in an attempt to accumulate as many titles as possible, became the new route to the hall of fame.

So now, as the last of Tyson’s men-in-black are turning grey and fading from the scene, Leonard’s disciples are in full flow, paying homage to their hero by emulating his deeds. And at the forefront of this new boxing religion is Oscar de La Hoya, who, in entering the last phase of his career, is paying the highest of all accolades to his predecessor in attempting to imitate his finest hour and claim the last ten years as his own. This weekend serves up a grand advert for the most anticipated fight of the year. On 18th September, Bernard Hopkins will defend his undisputed middleweight title against Oscar De La Hoya, providing that they emerge victorious from their respective bouts this Saturday night.

Both men will be entering the ring as favourites on their shared bill, and although no result is certain in boxing, their assumed superiority is merited. Hopkins’ opponent, Robert Allen, despite being the mandatory challenger, appears undeserving of his chance, having been convincingly knocked out in seven rounds when the two last met in 1999. And while there is no previous form by which to judge De La Hoya’s task, it would seem to be equally straightforward.

Entering the fight as the nominal challenger, De La Hoya will come up against Felix Sturm, a light-hitting novice, who has found himself in possession of the WBO middleweight belt more by accident than design after only 20 professional fights. All of which, leaves the fight card looking like a moneymaking promotional exercise in anticipation of the main event later in the year.

So, baring an upset that would deny Hopkins the large financial reward he insists is due, September will bring a super-fight between a long-reigning middleweight champion and a blown-up welterweight whose pedigree was confirmed against considerably smaller opposition.

At 160lbs, De La Hoya is entering new territory, and seeking what would have been an unimaginable goal when winning his first world title as a super-featherweight in 1994. But, just like Leonard, as he moved from Welterweight to Light-heavy in the space of six years, De La Hoya has foregone gaining muscle mass in order to preserve his speed as a means of counteracting the obvious weight and power disparity he will encounter. To date, this tactic has served him well, but he is now facing an opponent at what was, until a few years ago, his natural walking around weight.

Bernard Hopkins, on the other hand, is De La Hoya’s polar opposite. Hailing from the old School, he is a career-long middleweight who rarely leaves the gym, or fluctuates from his fighting weight. He has also reigned for so long as middleweight king that comparisons with past champions have become inevitable. Although his ring title, ‘the executioner’, falls short of such self-idolising eccentricities as the addition of marvellous to Marvin Hagler’s name, his skills and achievements bear favourable comparison to the last great middleweight champion. Making De la Hoya’s task all the more monumental.

Both of them hhave very different reasons for wanting this fight to happen. Statistically it will add nothing to Hopkins’ career, after all, beating up a much smaller man is what is expected, but as his main motivating-factor for this fight is money, questions of leaving his mark in the history books have taken a back seat for the year. Hopkins will see the fight as a belated reward after struggling to make the money he thought he deserved for most of his career. And anyone who has had to endure his long and loud, Don-king-like diatribes bemoaning his lack of recognition and big money fights, will be thankful that his $11 million dollar paycheque will finally see him reach financial parity with today’s other big earners.

For de La Hoya, however, the fight is all about legacy, and that final leap from great to legend. Other fights could have been made at lower weights and for the same money, but he has chosen to take the difficult road, with the prize of boxing immortality as the incentive. The precedent was set by Leonard 17 years ago when he took the undisputed middleweight title from Hagler, but it is a difficult act to follow, and the means by which to replicate the victory will have to be altered.

The unanimous decision that brought the end to Hagler’s reign was due, in no small part, to the champion’s decision to try and outbox his more skilled opponent, confining the use of his power advantage until the later rounds. This tactical error, however, is unlikely to be repeated by Hopkins, who has proven to be one of the more technically flexible of recent champions.

While he isn’t a classical boxer in any sense, his defensive skill is comparable to any other active fighter, and offensively he possesses enough hurtful power, to trouble De la Hoya from the start. In return it is unlikely that Hopkins’ will be unduly cautious of De La Hoya’s punches, as, even though three of his four victories at light-middleweight were by TKO, Hopkins has faced harder hitters and is yet to be stopped in his professional career. The remaining option for De La Hoya is to work behind a rapid jab, and use constant lateral movement for the whole three minutes of every round, looking for a points victory over the full distance. But even this poses problems. His inability to remain offensively active during the last four rounds of his fights against Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley cost him the points victory. If this four round fading happens against Hopkins, he will, in all probability, be knocked out.

A rational mind would have to say that there can be only one possible winner. Hopkins is bigger, as tactically aware and possibly more experienced than De La Hoya, who is fighting well above his weight, against a genuine world champion with the power to push him around the ring and knock him out. All this means that the intelligent money will be on a late stoppage win for Hopkins.

So, it would seem that De La Hoya should be preparing to lose, but despite continually challenging the best, he has never contemplated being defeated. So maybe he has seen an exploitable weakness that others haven’t. After all, Hopkins will be four months short of his fortieth birthday when they meet, and time is due to catch up with him soon. It just seems unlikely that De La Hoya will be the man to exploit the ageing process.

Ultimately, De La Hoya’s stock can only rise. If he loses, it’s an entertaining end to the career of a great fighter, who took on one challenge too many, at a weight too far. But, if he defies all logical predictions by taking the title, then the last ten years are his. Possessing the undisputed middleweight title will be an unsurpassable moment to enter retirement, shining a light on all his previous accomplishments and leaving his name to be placed alongside Leonard’s in the pantheon of boxing. And, as long as the fight takes place, the possibility exists.

Article posted on 02.06.2004

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