Nobody who has watched De La Hoya conduct his career can predict such smooth sailing. To see him on the cusp of greatness is to forget all the wrangling that has attended his remarkable progress. In the four years since he turned pro, he's made almost as many management changes as George Steinbrenner. Only recently has De La Hoya settled out of court with manager Shelly Finkel, who says he invested in De La Hoya when the fighter was still an Olympic prospect out of the Los Angeles barrios before the 1992 Games. And though De La Hoya is mostly clear of former managers Robert Mittleman and Steve Nelson, who led his pro campaign until '93, there is lingering litigation over parting shots De La Hoya made in a KO magazine interview concerning the duo's trustworthiness. It's all very messy, and, ordinarily, it would not be particularly reassuring to learn that the fighter has since handed off managerial responsibilities to a Monterey Park, Calif., car dealer and has newly delegated a mystery man known as the Professor to be his trainer. Except that it all seems to be working.
The so-called manager, Mike Hernandez, is one of those characters in sports who find themselves leasing and selling cars to local heroes and then becoming their confidants. Hernandez had already befriended a number of Los Angeles Dodgers in the Latin community by the time De La Hoya came calling for $140,000 worth of machinery. A little later, in December 1993, De La Hoya approached Hernandez with concerns about his personal finances. He had none—finances, that is. Hernandez has acted as an adviser ever since.
Equally ticklish was De La Hoya's nondevelopment as a fighter. De La Hoya's superior firepower disguised a lot of deficiencies as he pounded handpicked opponents, all of them smaller. However, beginning with his fight against former two-time IBF junior lightweight champion John John Molina in February '95, his lack of professional schooling caused bells to go off. De La Hoya's longtime cornerman Robert Alcazar, who helped him to his gold medal in Barcelona, was at a total loss as Molina bulled his fighter around the ring. De La Hoya won the decision but was appalled when he looked for instructions in the tough middle rounds and got none. Alcazar later explained to his fighter that he had felt nervous. That was not a confidence builder.
So De La Hoya went to Hernandez and Arum and told them he wasn't improving the way he thought he should be. Arum agreed and thought, since language wouldn't be a problem, maybe there was some veteran trainer in Mexico who could help. A promoter in Mexico City gave Arum the name of Jesus Rivero, an enigmatic fellow who helped Mexican flyweight champion Miguel Angel Canto to a record 14 title defenses in the 1970s. But, as Arum admits, the guy had been retired for 20 years and was, even in the boxing world, little more than a rumor.
Arum and Hernandez brought in Rivero as an adviser in De La Hoya's May 1995 fight with IBF lightweight champ Rafael Ruelas. Although there was tension in the camp, there was satisfaction afterward. "When Ruelas gave him the shoulder, pushed him back, and Oscar hit him with a right," remembers Arum, "that was the old man's move."
It was a second-round KO, by the way. Hernandez, who has a contract with De La Hoya that pays him one dollar per fight—that's one dollar, although he did complain he has yet to see a single dollar—brought Rivero in as the trainer for the Chávez fight. But recognizing the importance of having Alcazar, an old De La Hoya family friend, around, Hernandez smoothed everyone's feelings by shrewdly offering him a five-year contract to remain in Oscar's corner.
Meanwhile, De La Hoya is giddy with the old man's instruction. "He's basically taught me I can box anybody," he says of Rivero. "He's taught me to keep opponents off balance. When I was knocked down early in my career, and everybody got on me for that, well it would have never happened if I'd had the Professor."
The Professor is kept pretty much under wraps, which generates a lot of mystique. "I think he was a philosophy professor at the university," says Arum, generating more mystique than information. "He's a devotee of classical music, and he's got Oscar reading Shakespeare. Books are all over the place. Very intellectual."
A visit to the De La Hoya compound—a spacious log cabin designed by the fighter himself—offered little evidence of the study of literature. The only visible reading material was Golf Digest. Then again, Rivero is a classicist where it counts. Every night he and De La Hoya watch fight films from the old man's library. Recently Willie Pep was the featured attraction, and De La Hoya was excited. "Now there was a fighter," he said. "He'd go 15 rounds and never get hit. He was a technician, more like a matador."
That De La Hoya has been more like the matador and less like the bull is the source of long-running frustration in the Latin community. Where De La Hoya comes from, a blood-and-guts fighter like Chávez is the ideal, which means that De La Hoya's ring elegance is considered the worst kind of pretension. "People want to see blood and bruises," he says, "but I'm not going to give them that. I love boxing, but I hate fighting."