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.”
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.