Oscar De La Hoya

GQ, August 2004

He is boxing’s Golden Boy, the anti-Tyson with over $150 million in the bank who blushes when he swears. As he prepares for his toughest fight yet, Oscar De La Hoya talks exclusively to GQ.

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“Hey, did you see that commercial on TV? There’s a bunch of guys talking about what products they use to clean the toilet with. And one guy says, ‘oh I use these little wipes…’.”

In the back of a blacked-out limo, in a sober navy suit and tie, Oscar de la Hoya leans closes his eyes, like a campaign trail senator trying to steal a powernap between fundraisers. He has every excuse for being tired. Aside from winning belts in five weight divisions – a record only Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns can match – Oscar is now setting up the hardest fight of his life in September, with a view to an unprecedented sixth weight class in 2004, while simultaneously launching a tandem career as a boxing promoter whose first HBO event is in a couple of days, which is why he has spent the day giving interviews and why he’s now on his way to CBS studios to ‘do’ the Craig Kilborn Show, a Letterman/Leno clone.

None of which, however, explains this sudden preoccupation with toilet-cleaner.

“It just goes to show how the whole macho attitude is out of date now,” he continues, his eyes still closed. “I come from very macho blood, from my father and especially my grandfather. My brother picked up a bit of it, but not me, not at all. If you ask me it’s an equal society now and you got to give women their respect.”

I mumble something about “once the dinner is on the table”, but he takes no notice.

“It’s not just cleaning, it’s everything. You work for GQyou know, all the grooming lotions and whatever. I mean I have more products now than my wife!” He strokes his chin. “I use Clinique actually. Hey, this is turning into one of those ads! And I wear those pantyhose, they’re really good and snug.” He laughs. “You know that film, What Women Want with Mel Gibson, when he was putting those pantyhose on and he painted his nails? It just came to me, I don’t know why.” His phone rings – the ‘Rocky’ theme music.  “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I have to take this.”

Oscar is an oddity, he is boxing’s David Beckham. A brilliant athlete with teen idol looks, he’s as vital to Just 17 readers as to veteran sportswriters. Just as Becks isn’t averse to donning a sarong, Oscar is happy discussing moisturiser and pantyhose and neither one can pop out to the shops without attracting a horde of palpitating women. Oscar even has his own Posh, the gorgeous Puerto Rican pop star Millie Corretjer, whom he so adores that he plays her ballads in the gym while he trains. (Who’s going to tell him to switch CDs?)

Yet as unusual as Beckham is in football, De La Hoya is doubly rare in boxing, particularly as a Latino. A feminist pretty boy who can’t abide all that machismo stuff? As a Hispanic fighter, Oscar’s heritage couldn’t be more macho – the likes of Mexico’s Julio Cesar Chavez and Panama’s Roberto Duran are revered hard men who both looked and talked like the born fighters they are. Oscar, however, looks like a member of a boy band and talks about beauty products – it’s easily forgotten in his company, that he too hits men in the face for a living. Beckham loops balls beautifully into the top corner. Oscar sends the hardest men he can find crashing to the canvas wondering where on earth that came from.

And this is the enigma of clean-cut Oscar De La Hoya with the cereal-box smile. Where does it come from?

To find out, I spent several days with Oscar over the last six months, in the lead-up to his showdown on September 13th against Sugar Shane Moseley, the only man to squarely beat him in the ring. (Of the two blemishes on Oscar’s 37 fight record, the other – a loss to Puerto Rico’s Felix Trinidad – was an outrage).

As with every Oscar night, Las Vegas will roll out the red carpet and A-list movie stars will flock to ringside – Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas and Harrison Ford are all big De La Hoya fans. More importantly, the fight itself promises to be a corker – two evenly matched fighters with lightning fists, exciting styles, strong chins and everything to prove. When Moseley won in 2000, he was promptly declared the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world – such are the rewards for beating the great De La Hoya. But his tenure was brief. Within a year he lost twice to the same fighter, Vernon Forrest, and his star fell fast. To lose now to Oscar, his greatest scalp, would threaten obscurity for Sugar Shane. Oscar, meanwhile, is fighting for pride. To avenge his only loss would redouble his legend, for sure, but should he lose, his legacy would be sorely defaced – for all his achievements, history would remember De La Hoya as a flawed and beatable fighter who was twice exposed by the same man, a humbling experience, as Moseley well knows.

To a British audience, the feverish anticipation for this fight might seem alien. Since Oscar’s career coincides roughly with SKY’s dominion over prize-fights, only the hardened pay-per-view fan will appreciate the hubbub. Throughout the Americas, however, Oscar/Moseley II is expected to be the fight of the year. No fighter, other than Tyson, has so effectively captured the public imagination as Oscar De La Hoya.

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Tyson and De La Hoya could not be less alike, yet for the last decade or so, these two polar opposites have led the pack in terms of their pay-per-view clout. Like Beckham, they transcend their sport, they have mass appeal. (Equally, their fans are not necessarily fight connoisseurs, but then it’s no secret that you only really make it as an artist when the philistines love you).

Tyson fed our need for an outlaw, a brute, a dark alley “darketype” who entered stage left. Once his ferocious authority in the ring had passed, it was the terrible mischief of his demons that kept us gripped, the tragic curve of a talent squandered.

Oscar, however, carved a persona so wholesome he became a kind of anti-Tyson. Beside the self-styled “baddest man on the planet”, there shone the “Golden Boy”, the Olympic hero whose fairytale begins in Barcelona 1992, on the podium, with America’s only boxing gold hanging around his neck. You didn’t need to follow boxing to succumb to the sheer theatre of his victory, at once a dream come true and “the saddest day of my life”. His mother had died of cancer weeks earlier, and poor Oscar, this grieving cherub, longed desperately to share his glory with her. Women sobbed. You could hear violins.

Since then, the gulf between Oscar and Mike has only widened. Oscar’s manners are so impeccable scarcely a cuss word passes his lips. He plays golf and wants to be an architect when he retires. He recorded an album of Spanish love ballads, women of all ages adore him, and fight fans too, for restoring their faith every time Iron Mike revived the clamour for the ban of boxing. Oscar fights clean, he fights the best and, when he wins – or after those two losses – he’s hungry to do it again.

Now that Tyson seems spent, Oscar has the summit of modern boxing more or less to himself. In a market driven sport, it’s as though Oscar is Pepsi, and Coke just lost its fizz.

“You look at Tyson, [Fernando] Vargas and Zab Judah,” says Oscar, citing three notorious champions of recent years who traded heavily on their thuggish personas. “They all talked trash and acted tough, and they all got knocked out. I think my example shows that there’s more to success than just having an attitude.”

He masks his relish, but last September, Oscar whipped one such posturing tough guy, the surly Fernando Vargas, who made great play of ‘keeping it real’ with his Mexican homeboys, as opposed to Oscar’s more effete pursuits, his golf, his crooning. Vargas smeared De La Hoya as “Mr Silk Pajamas”. He impersonated Oscar’s “sissy” voice. But by the 11th round, ‘Ferocious’ Fernando was taking such punishment that, had the referee not saved him, Mr Pajamas might have done him a permanent injury.

Oscar views the last leg of his astonishing career with his faculties intact, a personal fortune according to some estimates, of over $150 million – he earned $43m in 2000 alone – and with his most lucrative fights still to come. In a sport notorious for old, slurring fighters, defying their doctors for a last purse, Oscar stands to retire, fit and minted, by the age of 31 (he’s 29 now). And he will bow out on his own terms. With his massive pay-per-view fan base, Oscar can assure his opponents a handsome payday, so he has a long queue of challengers. It’s up to Oscar, though, who he chooses.

“I think maybe three or four fights before I retire,” he says, over a mushroom risotto at his favourite Mediterranean restaurant in Pasadena. He moved to Pasadena from Belair in 2001. “First I want to avenge my losses, that’s important to me. Then I want to make history by beating Bernard Hopkins for the middleweight title, which will be my sixth weight class. No one has ever done that before. I don’t see Hopkins turning that down, we’ll offer him great money…” Before history, however, comes Moseley, arguably a stiffer challenge than the heavier Hopkins. It’s typical of Oscar to take the toughest fight of his career first, rather than opt, as most fighters would in his shoes, for a less precarious payday. But that’s why most commentators will tell you that Oscar de la Hoya is “great for the sport”.

“It’s funny because I never wanted to be a fighter,” he says. “First I wanted to be a singer, then a baseball player. But whenever I went to the park with my friends, my father would bring me back. ‘Forget baseball, go to the boxing gym’. I was only six years old, what could I do?”

In those days, his father Joel only wanted to toughen the boy up. He once came home in tears after tussling with some neighbourhood kids, and Joel – a journeyman pro in his day, and himself the son of a fighter – despatched him to the gym at once. No doubt champions like Oscar are born, not raised, but who could guess that this sensitive mother’s boy was so destined? His brother, Joel Jr, was the family prospect at the time and it was only when he refused to train any more, that the weight of his father’s ambition fell upon Oscar instead. “I was about 10,” he says, with a shrug. “From then on, my life was just gym, school, gym, school, like that.”

Joel De La Hoya was a classic ‘ring dad’ – an emotionally austere ex-fighter who whip-cracked his boy towards glories that had eluded him. Often more of a manager than a father,  Joel’s fear of softening his prospect with fatherly approval only exacerbated Oscar’s sense of loss, both of his childhood, and in years to come, his mother. Even when Oscar had put the De La Hoya name in lights, Joel Sr struggled to adjust to his son’s improbable interests. “I asked Joel about Oscar’s record,” says Bob Arum, Oscar’s promoter, “and he said, ‘Bob,’ he said. ‘He sounds like a girl.’”

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As unsympathetic as Joel Sr will appear when they eventually film the Oscar story, he is undoubtedly responsible for his son’s success. Despite the emotional fallout, ring dads have raised many of the finest fighters around. Both Roy Jones Jr and Floyd Mayweather Jr have had public splits with their trainer fathers. Yet last year, when Mayweather Sr was fired by his son, he joined Team De La Hoya, where he fits in so well they call him a “Blaxican”. No doubt his understanding of these father-son rifts – as well as his abundant charisma (Floyd Sr likes to bring Ali-style poems to press conferences) – has attuned him to Oscar’s needs. The way Oscar speaks about Mayweather, he’s the Burgess Meredith to his Rocky.

The fact that Mayweather Sr is Oscar’s 5th trainer speaks little of the fighter’s professional loyalty, not least since De La Hoya didn’t fire any of his predecessors in person. But the brisk coach turnover also suggests a hunger to improve as a fighter and perhaps the search for a male figure with whom he can discuss his problems as well as his jab. Besides, Oscar seems a loyal friend – he grew up with most of his inner circle. As for the proxy firings, Emanuel Steward, Lennox Lewis’ trainer – who was fired by Team De La Hoya in the mid-90s – doesn’t take nearly the umbrage of certain sportswriters. “In my experience, managers fire trainers anyway,” he says. “I think Oscar’s a wonderful fighter. What can you say about a guy that fought everybody?”

Criticism of Oscar must be taken into context. As Larry Merchant, the veteran HBO analyst says: “No one likes a good-looking fighter”. It’s partly the primal threat of a man who can both kick your ass and steal your girlfriend. In boxing circles, however, the pretty fighter is also regarded with suspicion. “The thinking is he clearly doesn’t have to fight to impress women, so what’s he in it for, what does he want?” says Merchant. “And they always suspect good looking fighters, like Ali and Ray Leonard before him, of lacking courage. But no one can say Oscar has fought to protect his face. He’s put his nose in there, he’s taken some shots and come back. Like Ali, who took a lot of blows, he has shown that beneath his gleaming exterior lurks the heart of a warrior.”

His defeat of Ike Quartey would be a case in point, not to mention Pernell Whittaker, Hector Camacho and Fernando Vargas last year. Just as Ray Leonard is remembered for electrifying the 80s, by appearing in six of the nine fights featuring Duran, Hagler and Hearns, in the 90s, most of the sub-heavyweight spectaculars featured De La Hoya. And incredibly, in 228 amateur fights and 37 as a pro, Oscar’s nose has never been broken. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says, running his finger down the bridge. “I have my mother’s nose.”

The other grumble over De La Hoya concerns his business practices. Courting management in the early days, he passed over Shelley Finkel who had paid his mother’s mounting medical bills in the last months of her life. When Robert Mittelman and Steve Nelson entered the fray, they were similarly dismissed having given Oscar an extravagant deal to turn pro, delivered an HBO deal and a title shot. Admittedly, it’s hard to side with management over the fighter in a sport so infamous as boxing, and Oscar’s father Joel is blamed for many of the spurious handshakes during Oscar’s early years. Nevertheless, the discontent over Oscar the businessman rumbles even now.

“I beat Oscar last time,” says Moseley. “But for the rematch, he’s making nearly $20m while I get about $6m, win or lose. He said ‘take it or leave it, I can always go fight someone else’. Does that sound fair to you? Is that good for boxing?”

Oscar’s fiercest critics however, have been Hispanic fight fans, the very people for whom he is also a figurehead. Certainly, Oscar commands a huge Mexican American following. When Time magazine ran a survey of the burgeoning Latino market, Oscar’s face preceded even J-Lo on the cover. He’s one of those rare fighters who has become associated with social change in America. His endorsement even arguably swayed a 1998 senatorial vote in Nevada.

But for the hardcore, Oscar is out of step with his lineage. Not enough machismo. Not enough like Duran and Chavez. Oscar fights different – “not in the straight ahead Mexican style,” says Bob Arum, “where you take 3 punches to land one and fight with your face.” And he speaks both English and Spanish in interviews, which the media love, but defies a stubborn Spanish-only tradition by which even modern stars like Marco Antonio Barrera and Eric Morales abide.

Worst of all, however, Oscar moved out of East LA in the mid 90s to an eight-bedroom mansion in Bel Air; he married a Miss USA (Shanna Moakler), hung out with movie stars, played golf and reputedly bought a pair of silk pajamas. The cries of “sell-out” were deafening. Though the rank and file of East LA admired his aspirational style, and knew of Oscar’s enormous contributions to the community – the boxing gym he built there, the cancer ward in his mother’s memory, his fleet of paramedic vans, the De La Hoya Foundation – Oscar’s rivals had enough ammunition to needle him constantly as a Pocho: neither Mexican nor American.

As a result, Oscar’s most compelling contests have been over this Hispanic controversy. In 1995 Rafael Ruelas accused Oscar of “doing it for the money, not the sport” – Oscar destroyed him in two. Months later he shattered Genaro Hernandez’ nose in 22 places. Even Julio Cesar Chavez, the ageing legend, was brutally despatched in four, his first ever knockout loss after 99 pro fights. “When I saw him across that ring, I felt like, wow, I’m fighting my hero,” says Oscar. But he didn’t hesitate to split his hero’s eye within a minute. There was venom in his eyes that night. Still, the Mexican fans cheered for the bloody Chavez – so much for the passing of the torch. As Larry Holmes discovered when he pummelled Ali, you don’t win fans by beating up their hero.

Last September’s epic against Fernando Vargas squashed the “true Mexican” charge once and for all. (Though shortly afterwards, Oscar got a Mexican passport, to make sure). “We called it Bad Blood,” he says, earnestly, “because I really didn’t like the guy. It’s funny, because I never talked trash before, and I kinda have to admit that I stooped down to his level where I said bad things. My gosh, I really was mad at him.”

“My gosh”? This is the heart of the De La Hoya conundrum. In the fight itself, he displays a glorious mean streak – he appears to let Vargas back into the fight in the middle rounds only to tire him out for a frenzied kill in round 11. But when he recalls his triumph over lunch, he sounds like a boy in a comic book. He doesn’t say “gee” as much as he used to, but he “gosh”es all over the place.

Was Vargas the first fighter he hated?

“Yes. I don’t mind being friends with anybody, but I find a lot of times they don’t want to be friends with me,” he says, rather sadly. “So I try to build up that anger in the gym. But it’s just not in me.”

But Vargas called you a phoney, a sell-out. Did you exchange words in the ring?

“Yeah, yeah, I told him ‘I’m going to kick your… you know.’” Ass? “Yeah, yeah, stuff like that.”

When I ask him about his heady single years, the flocks of women who camped outside his Belair home, Oscar looks uncomfortable. “I used to party a lot, sure. We used to have entourages and there were more women than guys, it was out of control.” Admittedly he’s a married man now and gory details would be inappropriate, but “more women than guys” sounds almost bashful.

Since January I have seen Oscar the promoter, Oscar the fighter, the chat show guest, and the East LA hero handing out presents at a local school. I even tried running with him at his training camp in Big Bear in an ill-judged fit of Norman-Mailer-it is, but each time Oscar appeared to present a front. An affable and respectful front, but a front nonetheless. He is friendly and courteous to a fault, kind to waiters, he remembers your name, arrives on time and answers your questions with all the conviction he can muster – rare qualities in a start of his stature. Yet the fighter who kicks ass so expertly and blushes at saying “ass” in an interview remains a mystery. It’s as though his mother were watching.

Oscar has a child-like innocence about him. He once said of the walk toward the ring: “I want to run away, like a small boy, but I don’t. This is what they pay me to do.” And no doubt he loves children – in a crowded room of cameras and reporters, Oscar always makes time for the one child in the room. But it’s not just innocence that steers him clear of foul language or lurid talk; and it’s not just a fondness for kids, or even a pining for his own missed childhood, that compels Oscar to engage the five year old before facing the banks of press. Politicians home in on kids too. And though he claims no interest in politics, he often resembles a candidate – meticulous with his public image, leaving reams of vanilla interviews in his wake.

Shane Moseley, who has known Oscar for 20 years, describes him as “locked up, like he can’t be himself. It’s like he’s trying but he can’t be spontaneous.” At his first press conference as promoter, for example, Oscar’s awkward efforts to say the right thing revealed a shy and oddly vulnerable centre. He was a jangle of nerves. He stuttered, fumbled, jumbled his words. He was dying so badly, I felt sorry for him. He’s easily rich enough to retire, his place in the hall-of-fame is secure – why does he put himself through it?

Yet throughout his career, Oscar has always set himself these often unnecessary challenges, as though to prove a point. He needn’t always take the hardest fights available – most fighters in his shoes would skip Moseley, for example, for a less precarious payday. But Oscar insists because he says: “I have a big ego”. In fact, the opposite may be true. Perhaps Oscar needs these challenges to fill a hole. He recorded an album and, though sick with nerves, sang live on television. “That’s it for music, I’ve done it now.” He took up bowling, practiced every day until he shot a perfect score – “I’ve never played since.”

Behind whichever glinting front, he conceals the source of his fire, it is impossible to begrudge Oscar his success. So what if his amiability is a conscious effort, in part? He should be applauded for cultivating his manners. At least in Oscar’s company, you’re guaranteed a respectful reception. He won’t snap if you say the wrong thing. He’s the soft-spoken kid at school, the bully’s nightmare, who would never volunteer for trouble but could end it if pushed. And when the fight scribes mutter at his press conferences “I wish he’d just talk some shit, give me a story”, it says more about the receding shadow of Tyson than it does for Oscar’s principled reign. Mayweather Sr recites the poetry – Oscar reserves his eloquence for the ring.

Perhaps Oscar is driven at heart to answer a private question, left by the loss of his mother. “I know my mother is watching over me in the ring,” he says. “That’s why I’m never scared of getting hurt. Never. But only in the ring. Outside on the street, I don’t know.” He looks at me with mock contempt. “Outside the ring, even you could kick my ass!”