If you think Saul Canelo Alvarez is divisive in terms of popularity amongst modern day boxing fans, he had nothing on his former mentor and promoter, Oscar de la Hoya. The self-proclaimed “Golden Boy” was immensely popular among Mexican-American and female boxing fans. When it came to traditional hardcore boxing fans, the reviews were mixed. Despite the criticism, Oscar fought at a level of greatness and popularity that has rarely been matched. These qualities easily made the multi-division world champion the 22nd greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
After winning the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona at 132 pounds, de la Hoya signed a huge deal with Bob Arum and ABC television. It would be similar to the deal Sugar Ray Leonard signed after winning his gold medal 16 years earlier. Ironically, my father always compared Oscar to Leonard as he said they were both good looking young men who were considered “unthreatening” minorities by the general public. That same blueprint followed by Oscar would generate over 700 million dollars in earnings in a 17-year fight career.
Early in his career, Oscar won bogus world titles at 130 and 135 pounds as recognized by the WBO. I never considered these titles as legitimate because at the time the WBO was considered a joke of a sanctioning body. It wasn’t until May 6, 1995 in his 18th pro fight that I considered Oscar to have fought for and won a legitimate world title. That night he destroyed Rafael Ruelas in the second round to win the WBC 135-pound crown. Seven months later I took my father to see Oscar fight Jesse James Leija at Madison Square Garden. My father and I were very impressed by Oscar’s one-sided beating of the always durable Leija, who took such a ferocious beating that he quit on his stool after round two. This would be an appetizer before what would be the first of a plethora of super fights Oscar would engage in.
On June 7, 1996 de la Hoya faced Mexican legend and long time reigning WBC 140-pound champion Julio Cesar Chavez in the single biggest fight between a Mexican-American (de la Hoya) and Mexican (Chavez). Promoter Bob Arum attempted to turn back the clock by not airing this monumental fight on pay-per-view. Instead, it would be broadcast throughout the United States in closed circuit theaters throughout the country. I took my then girlfriend and my father once again to Madison Square Garden to witness what Pops and I predicted would be Oscar’s coronation as the biggest star in boxing. Oscar, at nearly 5’11, was three inches taller, quicker, and stronger than the flat-footed Chavez. Chavez had absolutely no chance in hell against the 23-year-old Golden Boy. Oscar landed his vaunted left jab at will, battering the soon to be 34-year-old Mexican legend into a bloody mess. Referee Joe Cortez had no choice but to stop the gruesome massacre late in round four. For the next 12 years, Oscar would reign as the sport’s box office king.
Oscar would move up to 147 pounds on April 12, 1997 to challenge long-time WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker. At this point in time, Pernell was considered past his prime and tailor made for Oscar to shine in victory. However, someone forgot to give “Sweet Pea” the script. Whitaker put on one of his vintage defensive performances, totally confusing the “Golden Boy” as he made Oscar miss all night. In a fight that could’ve gone either way, Oscar was given a far too wide unanimous decision. Oscar, like Leonard did over 15 years earlier, refused to give a tough adversary an immediate rematch after a tough win. De la Hoya instead focused on the other 147-pound champions in the division; the WBA champion Ike Quartey and IBF champion Felix Trinidad.
On February 13, 1999 Oscar and Quartey faced off in one of the greatest 147-pound world title fights of all-time. Quartey had abdicated his IBF version of the welterweight title but for all intents and purposes, this was for the right to face Trinidad and the right to be considered the real 147-pound king. The fight was up for grabs going into the 12th and final round. Oscar scored a late round knockdown to eke out a split decision, setting up what many expected to be the greatest welterweight unification fight since the September 16, 1981 fight between Leonard and Thomas Hearns.
The matchup between WBC 147-pound champion de la Hoya and IBF 147-pound champion Trinidad took place on September 18, 1999, almost 18 years to the day of the iconic Leonard-Hearns fight. My father and I salivated at seeing what we thought would be a sure fire classic. Unfortunately, we were wrong. De la Hoya wisely used his superior boxing ability to dominate the first eight rounds by completely neutralizing Trinidad’s one-punch power in both hands. Then, after Trinidad stunned de la Hoya in the the ninth with a thudding right cross, Oscar decided to play prevent defense the rest of the fight. Erroneously thinking he had banked enough rounds, de la Hoya ran away the last three rounds and gave away what should’ve been a clear cut decision. Although both Pop and I thought de la Hoya had done enough to win a decision, the three judges scoring that fight didn’t see it the same way. Trinidad shockingly won a majority decision, not only resulting in Oscar’s first career lost, but it would also be the first time he didn’t get the benefit of a close decision. It would also be the turning point in Oscar’s career.
Six months later, Oscar was handed back the WBC welterweight title after Trinidad vacated the title. It would be a short lived title reign. On June 17, 2000, Oscar defended his WBC title against childhood friend Sugar Shane Mosley. In one of the best 147-pound title fights of my lifetime, Mosley came on strong late in the fight to defeat Oscar via split decision. After a short absence from the sport, Oscar moved up to 154 and defeated WBC champion Javier Casillejo to once again become a world champion. Oscar’s next fight would once again be for a unified world title fight, this time against the WBA 154-pound champion and longtime rival Fernando Vargas.
In what I consider de la Hoya’s most satisfying victory, de la Hoya knocked out Vargas on September 14, 2002 in the 11th round to unify both the WBC and WBA super welterweight titles. Immediately, de la Hoya sought out redemption for his prior loss to Mosley. The rematch took place a year later on September 13, 2003. In my opinion, it was the finest performance of de la Hoya’s magnificent career as he thoroughly outboxed Mosley over the entirety of the 12 rounds. Inexplicably, all three judges scored the fight in favor of Mosley. For the second time in four years, de la Hoya lost a questionable decision in Las Vegas. De la Hoya then moved up to middleweight in anticipation of a fight with the undisputed champion Bernard Hopkins.
Before his super-fight with Hopkins, Oscar faced the undefeated German boxer Felix Sturm in an attempt to win another bogus world title. Sturm was the WBO 160-pound champion. The WBO was still an illegitimate championship and I saw this again as Oscar attempting to falsify an already great legacy by adding another bogus crown. On the evening of June 5, 2004, Oscar looked lethargic and old as he was completely dominated by the machine gun left jab of Sturm’s. Shockingly, de la Hoya won a unanimous decision despite getting his ears boxed off. The powers that be looked to be making sure that the September 2004 super-fight between Oscar and Hopkins would not be denied.
The night of September 18, 2004 Oscar faced the undisputed middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins in a surprisingly competitive fight. The first eight rounds saw Oscar frustrate the much taller and stronger champion by staying outside and boxing. Then, late in round nine, Hopkins landed one of the greatest one-punch left hook body shots in boxing history, paralyzing Oscar to the point where he was unable to beat the 10-count. Hopkins earned his biggest paycheck and added another huge name to his legendary career. Oscar would net over 30 million in the loss to Hopkins. He had started Golden Boy Promotions and it appeared that he was about to transition into full time boxing promoter. Seventeen months later, he returned to the ring.
On May 6, 2006 Oscar returned against the WBC super welterweight champion Ricardo Mayorga. Mayorga was a brawler whose best defense was his chin. De la Hoya stopped Mayorga in the sixth round to once again win a world title, resulting in a matchup against Floyd Mayweather in a fight that would briefly set the all-time boxing pay-per-view record.
In every sport, the key to continual growth and prosperity is the ability for the torch to be passed from one great to the next. On May 5, 2007, de la Hoya’s fight against Mayweather accomplished just that. In setting the pay-per-view-record, de la Hoya’s close loss to Mayweather set up Floyd as the perfect replacement as the new box office king of boxing. It should’ve been the end of Oscar’s career. Oscar, like the vast majority of legends before him, fought one too many fights.
De la Hoya fought the much smaller and younger Manny Pacquiao on December 6, 2008. Manny had never fought above 135-pounds before that night and was five inches shorter than Oscar. The now 35-year-old Oscar came into the ring that night an overwhelming favorite. He fought as though he aged 10 years overnight. Oscar laid on the ropes and took a ferocious one-sided beating before retiring for good on his stool at the end of the eighth round. In his last two losses, Oscar passed the torch to two of the biggest box office stars in boxing history; Mayweather and Pacquiao.
Oscar de la Hoya finished his career with a record of 39-6 with 30 knockouts. Except for Winky Wright, he fought every great fighter from 140-160 pounds. He was vastly underrated in his boxing ability as his left jab was a problem to go along with his violent left hook. The “Golden Boy” was more than just a pretty boy. He was a great fighter who more than held his own with the greats of his era.