“The Weigh In”: A Look Back At Oscar de la Hoya

Oscar De La HoyaBy Michael Klimes: T.S. Eliot hit on something when he wrote in his magnificent poem ‘The Hollow Men’, “This is the way the world ends. / Not with a bang but a whimper.” Like so much of the best poetry, these lines reveal a profound truth about the collapse of great forces. The British Empire, the Soviet Union and Apartheid in South Africa all dissolved far more peacefully than they could of. Now Oscar de la Hoya, who was once the best fighter in the world or at the very least among them, has announced his retirement. It is an open secret that de la Hoya wanted one final victory against a prominent fighter so he could end on a high but the little dynamo Manny Pacquiao terminated any chance of that last December. Unfortunately for de la Hoya, Freddie Roach’s brutal observation that he could not pull the trigger anymore was devastatingly accurate as he could not handle Pacquiao’s mesmerising speed. Although de la Hoya will never fight again, we all know there will be a fight among the boxing historians and journalists to define his legacy..

There is no doubt that the retirement of this megastar is of huge significance in boxing as he really did carry the sport almost singlehandedly into the post-Tyson era. There is something coincidental too about Tyson’s incarceration in 1992 and de la Hoya winning the gold medal that year at the Barcelona Olympics. The fact that his mother died and he dedicated his victory to her made his journey from East Los Angeles to Barcelona even more compelling. Right from the beginning, de la Hoya was unique but in a complex way. He was American but of Mexican heritage and felt attached to both countries very strongly, probably through language as he spoke both English and Spanish fluently yet also by fighting tradition as he could draw on the rich American and Mexican boxing cultures. His background gave him licence to look at both traditions to see which type of fighter he wanted to be.

Although de la Hoya wanted to be popular with the Mexican and more broadly Hispanic fans, his style of fighting in the ring and his image outside of it did not fulfil the stereotype of the blue collar, Mexican blood and guts brawler. De la Hoya was remote from the iconic template established by Julio Caesar Chavez, which had conquered the imaginations of Mexican fight fans by the time de la Hoya turned professional. De la Hoya was an excellent boxer-puncher in his younger days with a style that was far more polished than anything Chavez had ever shown. Behind a high guard and compact stance, de la Hoya launched fluid and graceful combinations that were fast, powerful and accurate. His jab was very effective and his left hook was one of the best in the business – it was by far his greatest ally.

Nonetheless, his right cross and body blows were also impressive and could be very damaging to his opponents. De la Hoya was also, at the lighter weights where he had power, a world clash finisher and occasionally he would resemble a hybrid between Sugar Ray Leonard and Alexis Arguello. His classy left hook was as good as Leonard’s, maybe even better, and this is only one of the three departments in which de la Hoya may have been superior. The other two were his popularity and he was definitely a higher cash cow for the sport.
The two fights where de la Hoya shows a real resemblance to Arguello are in his wins against Rafael Ruelas and Jesse James Leija. De la Hoya is stunning in both of these encounters and these performances really demonstrate what a boxer-puncher he was at lightweight and light-welterweight.

His combination of speed, power, discipline and athleticism were mightily displayed. If de la Hoya had given us more of these performances, he might have become an all time great and I think, if a case is to be made for de la Hoya being recognised as such, there are no better places to look than in those two divisions where he dismantled note worthy opposition in style. Still, de la Hoya eventually settled into the welterweight division and this is where fans started to discover his limitations in exhilarating ways.

He experienced a degree of vertigo in his bout against Pernell Whitaker, which is understandable as he was not the first conventional fighter to see his style that followed the fundamentals of boxing befuddled by an unorthodox genius. Whitaker’s peculiar movements, speed and clownish attitude made de la Hoya look amateurish but he failed to steal victory from de la Hoya, due to his dangerous lack of power and toxic level of narcissism, where he appeared to slip more punches than he actually threw. Whitaker must have heard of the time when Willie Pep won a round without throwing a punch and he seemed to try and extend that premise to an entire fight. Obviously it did not work and even great genius has limitations when it ignores the fact it there are walls it cannot climb.

De la Hoya also had a hard assignment against Ike Quartey and won a split decision in an extremely close and entertaining affair, where the tone of the fight was set by a Quartey’s excellent left jab and de la Hoya’s searing left hook. Both knocked each other down and de la Hoya had to show mettle to win the concluding round and get the decision against the skilful and hard Ghanian. There were many exciting exchanges a de la Hoya played Sugar Ray Leonard and Quartey was Tommy Hearns. Nevertheless, de la Hoya was starting to look vulnerable against the competition he was fighting, which was getting better and it was only a matter of time before he lost to an elite fighter.

Next was the infamous super fight against Felix Trinidad which de la Hoya commanded with his boxing acumen. Unfortunately, de la Hoya did not win due to his decision to be over defensive in the last three rounds and Trinidad got a lucky victory. The fact that they did not have a rematch remains one of boxing’s unseen episodes and this is a shame.

Occasionally a fighter gives their best performance when they lose and in 2000 de la Hoya gave his greatest spectacle when he confronted another Californian in Sugar Shane Mosley. This was a splendid match between two highly competent operators. De la Hoya was really undefeated, so was Mosley and they were both in their primes. Mosley was the smaller man but was he faster than de la Hoya. Ironically, Mosley was more of a brawler in style and mentality while de la Hoya was the boxer-puncher. Between them, they produced not only one of the finest bouts of their generation, but one of the legendary welterweight battles in the history sport as they fought in a fast-paced and sometimes rapid part-time brawl/part-time boxing match, as they hit each other with their best combinations and kept on going. Until round seven the bout was even but Mosley’s conditioning, superior athleticism and crisp right hands made the difference in the second half of the fight. De la Hoya was truly beaten for the first time and he had nothing to be ashamed of as it was his most honest performance. His timing, footwork and combinations were in premium condition that night – he was worth every dollar.

De la Hoya was never quite as good after this and he started his long decline, which was difficult to measure due to its insidious progression compounded by the fact de la Hoya did not fight that often. His next big test and an extremely personal one at that came against Fernando Vargas in the junior middleweight division in 2002. Both men disliked each other intensely and again de la Hoya produced a vintage performance that reminded people of how good he could be when he was focused and ambitious. Vargas’s strategy was to use his size and power to turn the fight and de la Hoya into a bloody mess. The Mexican side of de la Hoya sprung out as he was trapped on the ropes during the early stages of the fight and had to receive hellacious treatment at the fists of Vargas. At one point, de la Hoya tried to use the shoulder roll that had been incorporated into his repertoire from his trainer, Floyd Mayweather Senior but it was slightly odd and ineffective.

De la Hoya, although a good boxer, had never been a tremendous counter-puncher and he returned to his older instincts and became the mixture of style, power and speed from his youth. The left hook that knocked Vargas down a second time and de la Hoya’s merciless pounding of Vargas in the eleventh round that stopped his LA rival was exceptional. That left look remains one of the greatest I have ever seen with de la Hoya’s step in, pivot, trajectory and follow through.

De la Hoya then found revenge against Mosley in 2003 and attempted to make history in 2004 by defeating Bernard Hopkins to become the middleweight champion. He surprised many by his willingness to stand close to Hopkins but a body shot ended his dream of emulating Sugar Ray Leonard’s coup d’état against Marvin Hagler in 1987. The only bouts where de la Hoya looked good after this were his fights against Ricardo Mayorga and Floyd Mayweather Jr. Again, de la Hoya showed his best qualities against Mayorga as he was patient, economical with his punching and savagely entertaining. Mayorga’s ruggedness and looping shots were harmless compared to de la Hoya’s compact nuance.

Against Mayweather, de la Hoya did not have enough speed or stamina to really trap Mayweather who engaged in his bad habit of punching off the ropes. As already mentioned, the final bout of significance saw Pacquiao manhandle his idol and de la Hoya wisely quit.

It was fair that de la Hoya announced his retirement where he first started his career: Los Angeles. He looked eerily presidential in his dark suit, reminding us of the corporate identity that has been with him for a very long time and has only grown with the establishment of his promoting company Golden Boy. It was also refreshing to see the emotion emanate his face as he talked about his father and thanked him for pushing him so hard. It shows fans that beneath the quiet voice, controlled demeanour, smart suits, matinee looks and charm that there was; still is and always will be a fighter who cared about the sport that he loved, was brilliant at it and fortunate to make more money than he could have possibly imagined. He also has added to boxing’s best one liners as he said during a different interview that retirement, “feels like I’m letting go of one of my kids and I’m never ever going to see him again.” This is sounds like the hardest punch he has been hit with and even de la Hoya cannot buy back time or finish on the high note that he desired.

He should have fought more frequently and retired a few years ago instead of dragging the process out which was irritating and seen in various quarters as self-indulgent. One of the reasons he did fight on and on was that the shares of his promotion company were enhanced with his career intact, even with diminishing returns. Still, for all of the celebrity and pomp that has surrounded de la Hoya, he is, I think, one of the better men in the sport. If he can transfer the same level of passion, class and precision from his fighting days into promoting, he could find it as rewarding as his boxing career. He deserves our respect and gratitude despite his shortcomings as fighter. I salute him.

Article posted on 23.04.2009

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