Saturday, April 25, 2009

Want a Life? Read a Book - Reprint

Science and Technology
DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia Updated February 26, 2009 12:00 AM

Folks, it has been scientifically confirmed: you read in order to live. Those words attributed to novelist Gustav Flaubert are often seen printed in quaint bookmarks or publishing house signs. Now, they have also been seen in your brains.

You guessed it. Scientists looked inside the brains of people who were asked to read stories and they found that whatever they read, their brains showed they were processing it in parts as if they were doing it in real life. In other words, the subjects were simulating the scenes they were reading, in their minds.

The lead author of the study is Nicole Speer, while among his co-authors was Jeffrey M. Zacks, associate professor of Washington University in St. Louis. Their study appears in the next issue of the journal Psychological Science. In the study, they scanned the brains of people in fMRI machines while asking them to read four stories of about 1,500 words culled from a 1940s’ book about the daily tasks of a young boy named Raymond. Because the participants are not allowed to move while in the fMRI machine, they did not use an actual book but used a computer screen to display one word at a time. Each participant took about 40 minutes to finish.

I listened to Dr. Zacks’ interview in NPR. He said that this proves that when you read a scene, it is “significantly like being there.” This finding gives us back the power of the original virtual reality we each are endowed with: our imagination. It has been proven before that when you imagine an object, your brain part lights up for that image as if you were looking at the real thing so that an imagined apple and a real apple are eerily the same apple — neurologically. This study extends it to even animated scenes so that the motor parts of the brain are activated when the text states an action scene and other scenes evoking visual, smell and tastes also summoned the “real” in their brains.

I was especially struck by what Dr. Zack said about language. He said that we always think that “virtual reality is something that involves fancy computers and helmets and gadgets” but now with these findings, we see that “language itself is a powerful form of virtual reality” that “when we tell each other stories, we can control the perceptual processes that happen in each other’s brains.” This means that you need not play virtual reality games to safely rehearse living! Reading could serve as some sort of mental activity workbook where you are able to go in and out of your many selves safely through language, without the threat of being obligated to don a straightjacket in your size. Through reading, you can put yourselves in several situations and never have them destroy you when you make a wrong move. This gives us some sort of built-in online training for the whole enterprise of living. It also affirms that reading is not a substitute for living but perhaps another side of it, and even serves it.

If I had a bookstore, I would post this everywhere to encourage people to read. Readers and writers have always known this about the power of language. But now science has given us pictures of our own brains to prove it: reading simulates life for real life! Lure them to read and you lure them to live!

The Power of Books - Reprint


ROSES & THORNS By Alejandro R. Roces Updated April 25, 2009 12:00 AM

Today marks the last day of Instituto Cervantes de Manila’s three-day celebration of Dia Internacional del Libro (International Book Day). Instituto Cervantes Director Jose “Pepe” Rodriguez objective for this year is to give focus on the rich culture and traditions common to both the Philippines and Spain and to bring back Manila’s glorious past as the cultural capital of Asia by featuring literary works. On a wider scale, the event, which is also promoted by UNESCO as The World Book and Copyright Day, highlights the importance of books and reading as a key to learning, which is the only way one can improve himself and the life he leads. Hence, authors worldwide are also recognized for their works and their contribution in the preservation of culture and heritage, regarded as fruits of the human spirit. The importance of protecting intellectual property is also brought to fore as authors create books which express and demonstrate cultural diversity.

Data from UNESCO reveal that over 100 million children in the world receive no kind of schooling of which two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa. In our country, for those with more resources than others, reading books seemed to have been relegated to the back seat as browsing the internet to get information and texting has become more popular due to its accessibility and convenience. With the vast resources that can be accessed from the internet, including literary works, it is not surprising that less people buy books to read. Even the once voluminous and expensive volumes of encyclopedia can now be accessed through the internet.

For the more disadvantaged members of society, the picture becomes grimmer as the poor, who would rather work to earn, miss schooling. The vicious cycle leads to lesser opportunities to learn which hopelessly binds them to a lifetime of poverty and illiteracy. For those who can manage to attend public school, they have to face the problem of the lack of textbooks for basic learning and or the proliferation of poorly written books. Unaware of the defects and errors in public school textbooks, these poor students are doomed to an impaired ability to communicate and incorrect learning. The worst part is the tendency for their children to take after their experience.

Latest data from the National Statistical Coordination Board brings the alarming news that more than 11 million Filipinos, or about 12 percent of the population live below the subsistence level and about half of this number cannot read or write. Add the number of those who have access to education but barely read, we have a large group of Filipinos doomed to a lifetime of poverty, illiteracy and mediocrity, unless a drastic action is taken.

The opportunities need not to be for a few. The resources are there, it is just for the taking. But we have to help the less disadvantaged get access to these available resources and opportunities. We have read of philanthropists and advocates installing library hubs and donating books to libraries. We should have more educational institutions and teachers reaching out to poor students in barrio schools through reading programs which have proven to enrich their intellectual skills, training community teachers in the process. We should have more schools doing this as part of their outreach programs so that the benefits are replicated and realized on a larger scale. Beyond helping the youth improve learning through reading, the most important part should not be forgotten — imparting to them the legacies of culture and tradition of generations past without which the present can have no meaning.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Anatomy of a Fight Pt. 5 - Reprint

Anatomy of a Fight, Part Five: Manny Pacquiao's Triumph


Manny Pacquiao handily won last week's bout against Oscar De La Hoya at the MGM Grand. Photographs by Sye Williams.This is the fifth and final installment of a series on the fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao. Read parts one, two, three, and four here.

Forty-five years ago, a bill was proposed to ban boxing. Cassius Clay testified on the sport’s behalf, casting himself as its messiah:

“Boxing is at the winter of its year…When there are no great fighters, people lose interest. It’s a question of time…Will man ever get to the moon? In time he will. Will I be the next champ? Time will tell. In boxing’s winter, people lose interest, but I am here to liven things up.”

Last Saturday, the media room’s false prophets were again heralding the death of boxing, after the sport’s colossus, Oscar De La Hoya, fell to Manny Pacquiao, virtually disintegrating before the audience of the MGM Grand Arena. His corner threw in the towel after eight rounds, 224 punches received, 83 punches landed, and one eye souffléed shut. De La Hoya shook hands with his opponent’s trainer (and his own former cornerman), Freddie Roach, in the ring and conceded, “I just don’t have it anymore.” With poise and humility, boxing’s ambassador congratulated Pacquiao through a din of boos before heading to the hospital as a precautionary measure.

Pacquiao was guaranteed $11 million for the fight, in contrast to De La Hoya’s $20 million. From what’s left of the pay-per-view (early figures are at $70 million gross), ticket sales, and foreign rights, Golden Boy will take 68 percent, while Top Rank, which represents Pacquiao, will get 32 percent. (The promotion costs for this fight are estimated to be $4 million, including $1.5 million to produce the HBO behind-the-scenes documentary series on the fight, 24-7.) The judges received $5,150 each to watch a TKO at ringside, slightly less than the referee who was given $8,150 and a better view of the action. As far as I know, nowhere in the fight contract was it stipulated Pacquiao was to go essentially untouched in the ring.

Though in superb physical condition, De La Hoya seemed to have trained excessively. He gained only two pounds in the 24 hours between the official weigh-in and fight night, about 10 pounds lighter than many anticipated. I would guess he was weakened from a shrunken stomach. His strength suffered immensely—De La Hoya was apparently trying to prove the point that he was not going to beat Pacquiao with sheer size. Even if De La Hoya had taken another approach, however, I do not believe the Golden Boy would have been a safer gamble. Pacquiao’s speed and surgical precision were unstoppable.

Pacquiao’s trainer, Freddie Roach, told me months ago that he knew a secret he could not reveal: why De La Hoya’s jab stopped working in his loss to Floyd Mayweather, Jr. in May 2007. Saturday, Pacquiao unveiled the reason: De La Hoya could not “cut off the ring,” meaning that he was unable to limit his opponent’s mobility. The second weakness Roach perceived in De La Hoya was an inability to attack with resolve, a point Roach articulated at press conference in October; after De La Hoya took a friendly swipe at Pacquiao at the Space Center in Houston (declaring Roach’s only words for his fighter would be “Houston, we have a problem”), the cornerman limped a mile-long walk to a toy store where he bought a plastic machine gun for the following event in San Francisco: “Oscar, I found this toy gun, and I can’t pull the trigger. I think it must be yours,” to the delight of the congregation of in-the-know boxing journalists.

Two independent boxing notables predicted this fight correctly to me: the author Bert Sugar, who said “Pacquiao will win because the union limit on hands allowed is two,” and Mike Tyson, who pointed at Pacquiao at his final training and whispered that the Filipino would triumph “because he’s hungry.” After the first round, I asked the reporter sitting next to me whom he believed won it: “Pacquiao,” he glibly replied, “because I don’t believe he’ll win many more.” By the second round, the reporter sitting on the other side of me (who had also picked De La Hoya to win the bout) had written in his notebook, “The fight is over.”

By the end of the fifth, De La Hoya wore a sad expression in his corner, having caught his opponent on the ropes with three crushing blows to no visible effect on Pacquiao. As A.J. Liebling put it back in 1962, “there are few dreams worse than the one in which you hit a man without making any impression, and in waking life the situation is even more frightening.” The crowd, too, seemed to affect De La Hoya. Hedging their bets, they had been applauding both men early. They were now against him.

After the fight, Freddie Roach joined Pacquiao’s after-party at the Mandalay Bay’s Rum Jungle, where members of the Wu-Tang Clan serenaded him with their greatest hits. (Roach inquired the next day, “Who is the Wu-Tang Bang?”) Barely 40 hours after the victory of his life, Roach already had begun training of another fighter this past Monday morning.

Emmanuel Pacquiao entered the ring a 2-1 underdog and left it having destroyed a legend. In his native Philippines, the match induced an unofficial ceasefire between the army and rebel militants. The fight brought to mind Pacquiao’s role this year in a historical reenactment as Chief Lapu-Lapu, the George Washington of the Philippines, who became the nation’s first hero when he slew Magellan and cut short his hubristic trip around the world. By now, Pacquiao’s boxing legacy in his country far surpasses that of Muhammad Ali after he defeated Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila (which, like last week’s fight, was co-promoted by Bob Arum). The support of his people may lead him to victory in his second run for congress there.

In the west, Pacquiao will likely never attain the mass-marketability of an Oscar De La Hoya, but hopefully he can comfort himself with being known merely as the greatest fighter in the world. Unlike the Golden Boy, Pacquiao is still struggling with English. At times, he will give enigmatic responses to questions that he seems not to have fully understood. (In an unaired segment from a televised interview last month, Pacquiao was asked, “You love the Philippines as much as the Philippines loves you?” He paused, replying, “Maybe.”) A king in his native country, he sometimes appears an innocent abroad here. Although we have done several interviews, when Pacquiao was reading about his own dietary habits in this series, he asked who had written the article. "Peter," the champion was informed by a friend. Pacquiao was confused, "Who's Peter?" The member of the entourage explained, "You know, the guy who's always here." Pacquiao replied, "He's a writer? I thought he just liked to hang out."

De La Hoya’s loss to Pacquiao has ushered in the dogs, and the Golden Boy is undergoing blistering criticism in the media. His mastery with the press is a charm that has worked both for and against him. “I’m a target,” he shrugged during one of our interviews prior to the Dream Match. Despite having been able to pick his opponents, he has deliberately chosen brutal competition, and even Roach admits, “Oscar does not dodge fights.” By successfully transcending the sport of boxing, however, he has invited a backlash against his popular image. His unpolished moments, like when he swears, are reassuring: it is a reminder that behind every Disney character is an animator who takes cigarette breaks. With a blushing laugh, De La Hoya once described to me a moment of weakness when he signed into a boxing web forum: “I went in as Gold92…and it’s crazy because I find myself really getting into arguments with people like, ‘What are you talking about? De La Hoya’s cool! He’s a cool guy!’”

Like most tycoons, Oscar De La Hoya defined an era and is in search of an heir. For years, while his physical prowess rivaled his celebrity, he had no need to cultivate a successor. Since 1995, he has generated nearly $700 million of gross revenue on Pay-Per-View (the most of any athlete) and built a promotional empire. He now has an opportunity to win over the skeptics with his promotional ambitions: to unionize boxing, help all fighters receive proper healthcare, and restore public faith in the underlying credibility of the sweet science. Accomplishing just one of these aims would redeem De La Hoya in the eyes of all boxing enthusiasts, eclipsing even the illustrious reputation he established in winning 10 world titles. At his training camp in Big Bear, De La Hoya told me, “There’s so much room for improvement for boxing… We need a drastic change. It’ll happen. I mean, fuck—I’m young. We have all the time in the world.” As a fighter, however, his time is running out. Regardless of the calls to retirement, De La Hoya may fight again. Just before he began training, he told me, “that last impression that you make is really important, especially in boxing, because you’re [only] as good as your last fight. That’s just the way they see it for some reason. I would love to go out on a win.”

Today, the general public can name five modern fighters as quickly as they can five modern sculptors. As the most powerful man in boxing, De La Hoya could change this. He echoes the sentiment that HBO pay-per-view has carved a niche for a paying public: “Our audience is on HBO or pay-per-view which obviously diminishes the viewership to a certain amount.” He also cites the absence of talent among American heavyweights, who now “want to become football players. They want to become basketball stars. They don’t think of going to the gym and becoming heavyweight champion of the world.” Beyond just skill, a transformative champion must define his artistry in and out of the ring. As David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker magazine, said to me about Muhammad Ali, the subject if his 1998 biography, King of the World, “Individual talent is astonishing not because it resembles other things, but because it has the feel of originality.”

Should De La Hoya focus on saving boxing instead of continuing to fight, he would doubly defy the tradition of fighters who are resistant both to change and to retirement. This sport, however, is addictive. When I was a boy, I thought the ring’s ropes were there to keep the fighters in, but increasingly I believe that they also help keep the pensioners out. In reforming this sport, De La Hoya would embody the greatest post-career metamorphosis in boxing history—that is, until Pacquiao becomes President of the Philippines.

Anatomy of a Fight Pt. 4 - Reprint

Anatomy of a Fight, Part Four: Before the Bell Rings

Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao at a press conference in Los Angeles on October 7. Photograph by Chris Farina.

For the moment, Oscar De La Hoya is the best-known boxer in the world who is not named Muhammad Ali. The Golden Boy’s star rose with no shortage of devastating blows endured. As Ali showed us with his opponents inside the ring and his inability to step out of it in time, boxing may be fought with muscles, but it is won through the psyche. Tomorrow night, we will see if De La Hoya’s desire to regain respect in the game he loves can match Manny Pacquiao’s drive to defeat his former hero and uplift the hopes of his native Philippines—if even just for a day. Of these two good men, I am having trouble deciding whom I prefer to see temporarily rendered unconscious.

As the anticipation for the Dream Match crescendos, odds are tightening, but predictions vary greatly. Gamblers are star-struck with each sighting at the MGM of any man wearing an official De La Hoya or Pacquiao warm-up jacket who vaguely fits the profile of either fighter. As the weigh-ins, interviews, and other promotional events conclude, the two champions are reminded that there are tasks more tedious than training. The typical press conference is designed for the fighters to pretend to hate each other while their promoters pretend to like each other. De La Hoya and Pacquiao have largely eluded these antics—the fight is all that is on their minds. Asked if he feels he has to win, considering the odds against him, Pacquiao replied to HBO’s boxing commentators with a smile: “Losing sucks.”

Boxing’s nickname, “the sweet science of bruising,” was coined in Boxiana, a monthly journal about the London prizering begun in 1812. This science is an applied one, and the lab work is hazardous. The bruising is both of bodies and egos. For the past few months, I have been asking many men in this sport why they stick with it, until one evening Freddie Roach’s business associate Billy Keane captured it irrefutably: "You know, boxing is dishonorable, and people lie and cheat and steal from you when you least expect it. But when Manny Pacquiao knocked out Erik Morales in the third round—it was fucking euphoric."

Anatomy of a Fight Pt. 3 - Reprint

Anatomy of a Fight Pt. 2 - Reprint

Anatomy of a Fight, Part Two


In boxing, training shapes styles, and styles make fights. In preparation for their match on December 6, Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao, combined, will have studied hundreds of hours of footage, run more than 350 miles, sparred more than 400 rounds, and done more than 100,000 sit-ups. The number of protein shakes consumed is simply too astronomic to compute. When two champions face off in the ring, each boxer exhibits the refinement of an encrypted system programmed to decode the other. In the first round, this is accomplished through hesitant, awkward jabs to open up the nuanced combinations of later rounds. There is nothing more graceful than the knockout punch thrown with precision. Elegance is the result of infinite hassles.

De La Hoya-Pacquiao has been christened “The Dream Match,” a reference to its physical improbability. De La Hoya is slimming down from the super welterweight category (154 lbs) and Pacquiao is bulking up from lightweight (135 lbs). They are set to fight each other at 147 lbs, a fighting weight De La Hoya has not gotten down to in more than seven years. Pacquiao has never boxed over 135 lbs. His legendary promoter, Bob Arum, 76, tells me that if De La Hoya weighs in heavy, he would like Golden Boy Promotions, De La Hoya’s company, to pay Pacquiao’s team $3,000,000 per pound in excess.

Weight is not a concern to De La Hoya’s camp. His diet is carefully constructed around frequent blood analysis done to determine the nutrients his body best absorbs. If you ask him what he misses when at home in Los Angeles, he’ll wax nostalgic: “this taco truck comes all the way from Tijuana every Saturday. I actually crave those carne asada tacos.” His strength and conditioning coach, Rob Garcia, forbids them. “His perfect fruits in the morning are pineapple, guava, strawberry, mango, and banana,” Garcia tells me. “He’ll have that with a little bit of ice. Dinner-wise, he has his choice between Chilean sea bass, lamb, or steak…. It is all organic and antibiotic free.” This contrasts with Pacquiao, who recently invited me to sit in on a game of Chinese poker in a two-bedroom apartment currently sleeping six to ten men of his Filipino entourage. (The number of inhabitants varies each time it is asked.) The winner of the game had the honor of buying everyone dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken as karaoke blared in the background. In terms of nutrition, such a meal is not so different from the recommended boxer’s breakfast of 1818, as described in the first history of the sport, Pierce Egan’s Boxiana: “beef-steaks or mutton-chops under-done, with stale bread and old beer.” Team Pacquiao’s standard feast is less indulgent, if equally delectable, comprised of beef bone stews, rice, and chicken kabobs. Grilled vegetables are laid out for guests, but not the host. “I do not like them,” Pacquiao tells me.

Training lasts eight weeks. The average day for both fighters begins around 5:30 a.m. and winds down around 9 p.m. Work consists of long runs with fellow fighters (Pacquiao’s Jack Russell Terrier, Pacman, usually sets the pace for him), drills, sparring, stretching, rub downs, and copious napping. De La Hoya receives acupuncture and electro-stimulation. Pacquiao plays darts. Both men are Catholic, and Sundays are for rest. Pacquiao trains in Hollywood at his trainer Freddie Roach’s gym, Wild Card. Filipino fans fill the parking lot to see their hero enter and exit. The last time I was over there, a call came in for Roach from someone claiming to be “a punch expert who wants to teach Pacquiao how to punch harder.” I asked Roach how often he gets calls like this. He shakes his head, “All the time.” He tells me sports psychologists call frequently, too. “Manny doesn’t have a confidence problem. He likes to say his own name when it’s announced at a fight.” Roach has duct-taped a picture of De La Hoya’s face to the body padding he wears when Pacquiao is working the mitts with him in the ring. During this exercise, Pacquiao listens to Dr. Dre, a remix of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” and “The Champion”—a song about Pacquiao by apl.de.ap of The Black Eyed Peas. (De La Hoya lately has been listening to Ozzie Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and classic Mexican singers like Vicente Fernandez.) For years, he and Roach would listen to Shakira, in part because it was considered lucky. It is the same reason Pacquiao continued to stay at the $85-per-night Vagabond Inn next to Wild Card for years after winning his U.S. debut under Roach, in 2001.

De La Hoya trains in Big Bear, a mountainous resort town 100 miles east of Los Angeles where he has periodically trained since winning the Olympics, in 1992. For his past few fights, he has trained in Puerto Rico (where his wife is from and where he spends half the year), but this fight is about returning to his roots. That applies not only to geography, but also to his fighting style, and to his training season hobbies. “I’m going to paint several paintings,” he says. “I used to paint a lot. Probably last time I painted was six years ago.” The seclusion of Big Bear minimizes distractions, which should have no place in the ring. Back in 2000, De La Hoya was fighting at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. It was the only time he claims ever to have lost his focus during a fight. “It was like the Oscars…Everybody was there. I’m in the sixth round…just throwing it down like there’s no tomorrow. So I go back to my corner. I’m sitting down, breathing hard, sweating. My trainer’s trying to talk to me. So I’m curious and I look to my left just to see who’s out there, and there’s Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek. And I’m thinking, ‘fuck!’ I’m just distracted like there’s no tomorrow. The rest is history. I lose the fight.”

Many trainers discourage their fighters from having sex or consorting with women. In Shadow Box, George Plimpton quotes Hemingway as saying that “oldtime trainers would fit a ‘ring’ over the fighter’s privates at night, so that if he began to get an erection and was in danger of having a wet dream, the pain from the ring would wake him up and the trainer would rush in to throw a pail of cold water over him.” (Roach believes sex should stop 10 days before the fight, but as a boxer he used to stop six weeks prior—Pacquiao stops at five.)

The trainer is at once an athletic coach, paternal disciplinarian, cryptologist, therapist, and chess master. At 69, De La Hoya’s Mexican trainer, Ignacio “Nacho” Beristain, no longer holds the mitts for his fighters, preferring to impart knowledge from the corner. De La Hoya says of him, “I don’t need somebody to physically train me and prepare me to go 12 rounds. I need someone who’s going to work with my head. He’s the strategist. He’s the master.” With a moustache as thick as the frames of the sunglasses he wears indoors, Beristain resembles a German butcher with an exceptional tan. He seems to look you in the eye only when he wishes to emphasize how stupid he thinks you are. Unlike Roach, he is not from a boxing family. “My motivation to box came from the fact that I needed to defend my marbles in primary school,” he says. De La Hoya is the 16th world champion Beristain has trained. One of them, Juan Manuel Marquez, recently fought to a draw and then lost a stinging decision to Pacquiao (and Roach).

Each trainer believes this fight is theirs. Roach, who had trained De La Hoya in his fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. last year, speaks about that fight (which De La Hoya lost) with a boyishly mischievous grin: “I know why the jab stopped working, but I’m not going to tell you, because we’re going to take advantage of that…. I’ve known why the whole time. It’s not because Floyd made an adjustment. It’s because Oscar made a mistake. And I can’t tell you. I’m sorry.” Beristain seems equally confident, though more laconic. When I asked him if he thinks De La Hoya will have any difficulties with Pacquiao, he squarely replied, “No,” underscoring his point by lighting up a stogie.

The question remains whether De La Hoya can turn back the clock, or at least tie up its hands. De La Hoya has teased reporters about his retirement from the ring since 2000. Cynics say it’s just a ploy to drum up box-office sales. Yet De La Hoya is also driven by a passion to win, and wants to go out with a flourish. He told me, “it’s in the back of my mind of doing one of my last fights on free TV…Yes, I am the fight on pay-per-view and we’re going to have millions of buyers, but it’s really not going to bring boxing back.” A network fight would be a coup for both the exposure of boxing and the Golden Boy brand. I wonder if De La Hoya is smart enough to catch on his promoter hopes to exploit him so flagrantly.

We will see on December 6th if De La Hoya has perfected his juggling act—handling his business empire, family, and fighting career—or if the moment for retirement is at hand. Doing what is best rarely aligns with what is least painful. In life’s many spheres—business, love, and art—the divide is often hard to see, but if you were in a prizefight, one shotgun jab to the nose would likely correct your vision. Outside the ring, the complexities are harder to refine. Life is a brazen affair of inelegant hassles.

Anatomy of a Fight Pt. 1 - Reprint

Manny Pacman Pacquiao has definitely arrived. Vanity Fair profiled him and Oscar dela Hoya last year.

Anatomy of a Fight, Part One


Welterweight Oscar De La Hoya, left, fights Steve Forbes at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, on May 3. De La Hoya won by unanimous decision. Photograph by Tom Hogan.

This is the first essay in a series about boxer Oscar De La Hoya, his looming retirement and rebirth as a promoter, and the saga leading up to his upcoming bout against a five-foot-six-and-a-half-inch lightning bolt from the Philippines named Manny Pacquiao. The fight is expected to rake in at least $165 million, the most in boxing history. The bell sounds on December 6 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Critics make poor morticians, so with sorrow many have told us: boxing is dead. They said it in England in the 1820s, when the bare-knuckle fighters of the time were said to pale in comparison to a champion in the 1740s named Jack Broughton. They said it in 1951, when Joe Louis retired from the ring. They said it after Muhammad Ali. They say it today. What they remember is the Ali-Frazier “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden, where Frank Sinatra snapped photos ringside for Life magazine; they remember the unparalleled agility of Sugar Ray Robinson; and they long for the heroism of bare-knuckle heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, who knocked out Jake Kilrain after a scant 75 rounds. Boxing is a sport whose popularity always seems on the decline—until a major fight is on the horizon. “My event with Manny Pacquiao is going to be probably the biggest in the history of any fight game—so that’s an indication boxing is alive and well,” Oscar De La Hoya told me recently. He was unwittingly paraphrasing the poet Randall Jarrell who wrote, “The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.”


Front row from left, Golden Boy Promotions executives Richard Schaefer (C.E.O.), De La Hoya (President), and Raul Jaimes (Vice President). Photograph by Tom Hogan.In a matter of hours, the fight’s tickets sold out, securing nearly $17 million at the gate, a fraction of the expected gross. Once De La Hoya retires as a fighter (he is 35 years old) and devotes himself fully to promotion, the challenge will be to sustain such revenues for the sport. Currently, this goal seems improbable short of the rumored Tyson-Holyfield III face-off in Dubai. (Karl Marx claimed major events happen twice—first as tragedy and then as farce—but he forgot to tell us about the third time, which apparently blends both and takes place in Dubai.)

De La Hoya’s story has elements similar to those of many bootstrap fighters: he was born into a poor Mexican-American family, at times surviving on food stamps, in East Los Angeles, where he was taken in by confidence men. Unlike most cauliflower-eared champions, De La Hoya was blessed with a teen heartthrob’s mug. The pairing of looks and power has made him a celebrity, which has enabled him to transition from the ring—where he has won an Olympic gold and 10 world titles—to a flourishing career as a promoter (and a Latin Grammy–nominated crooner). In 2007, his estimated earnings were $43 million. Sure, there have been colossal mishaps along the way: fights he could have won but lost; a reality show, The Next Great Champ, that tanked; and a bevy of lawsuits. The most notorious legal entanglement occurred last year, when a former stripper sold images of what appeared to be De La Hoya in drag to a gossip Web site, and then threatened a $25 million defamation suit (dropped nine months later) against him for asserting what digital-forensics experts would also conclude: the photos were fake. Despite such setbacks, De La Hoya’s family remains strong, and his wife supportive. His company, Golden Boy Promotions, continues to thrive. His business savvy has allowed his cachet as a fighter to grow even as a handful of losses have tarnished his once-perfect record (he is 39–5 in his career). Overall, De La Hoya’s life has seemed charmed ever since he was a young boy, when a towering man in a gray plastic workout suit showed up unannounced to the rundown Resurrection Gym in Los Angeles and taught him combinations. Though De La Hoya didn’t know it at the time, the man was Muhammad Ali.

Undoubtedly, De La Hoya is the draw of the fight on December 6, but many boxing buffs will watch for his opponent. Manny Pacquiao, 29, has yet to become a superstar in the United States, but boxing fans know the current lightweight champion as the best fighter in the world pound for pound. Like De La Hoya, Pacquiao grew up poor. (He ran away from home as a teenager when his dad ate his dog.) In his native Philippines, his face is perhaps better known than the president’s, and some believe Pacquiao lost a bid for political office there because voters prefer he represent them in the ring rather than in congress. With opening odds at 8 to 5 in favor of De La Hoya, bookies question whether Pacquiao’s speed and precision will be enough to offset De La Hoya’s raw power. Pacquiao is a southpaw, which would make the bout awkward enough, but De La Hoya compounds this by being naturally left-handed himself, having been forced as a boy to fight in the orthodox righty stance. (The result is a murderous left hook.) Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach says the fighter grew up idolizing De La Hoya. Yet Pacquiao has defeated so many Mexican contenders that he is nicknamed, to his distaste, “the Mexicutioner.” There is a tradition in boxing of reluctantly defeating your idol: Rocky Maricano did it to Joe Louis, and cried in his locker room afterward; Oscar De La Hoya did it to Julio César Chávez—twice. In these cases, the vanquished bowed out of the sport as the younger man took up the torch.

Like most abusive relationships, a boxer and his career usually do not part ways on the first try. After saying the Pacquiao fight would be his last, De La Hoya began backpedaling fast enough to qualify for the Tour de France. In addition to Muhammad Ali—who finally gave up the sport after it was too late—other notable recidivists include George Foreman, Evander Holyfield, and Sugar Ray Leonard. Yet De La Hoya insists he will soon hang up the gloves. Money for him is an enticement, but not a need. He says it’s about his health. “I don’t want to be like every other fighter and do it one more time. That’s obviously when it gets dangerous.”

De La Hoya extends the same concern to Golden Boy’s fighters, defying the stereotype of the profiteering promoter. While he has grown his hair out over the years, he bears little resemblance to Don King—or any other promoter, for that matter—when he sounds off with urgency about wanting “to make sure fighters have a pension plan, make sure that fighters have that retirement fund just to feel secure. It’s just amazing how it hasn’t been done. Where I’m going to set my legacy is unionizing boxing. That’s my goal. Can it be done? Absolutely.” This is a lofty ambition, indeed, given how diffused, byzantine, and treacherous the four major sanctioning bodies of boxing are—each with preferred promoters, venues, and completely disparate governing rules. (The fighters themselves prefer there be more belts to win.)

But De La Hoya has shown time and again that he’s not afraid of being the underdog. “Boxing was the biggest sport in its heyday, and we can bring it back,” he says. I hope he’s right. I hope he can. When I take my seat on fight night at the MGM Grand, I'll be searching for Sinatra among the photographers at ringside.