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Richard Hoffer
June 10, 1996
Oscar De La Hoya, schooled by a new trainer, is ready for his big test: a showdown with Julio César Chávez
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June 10, 1996

The Pugilist And The Professor

Oscar De La Hoya, schooled by a new trainer, is ready for his big test: a showdown with Julio César Chávez

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The Golden Boy stands well off the tee and waggles his golf club under the late-afternoon sunshine, purposely casting odd shadows on his brother's ball. Like a moth, the dark shape flits over the ball, back and forth and all around. But the brother, a publinx kind of guy who must be used to bigger distractions than this, ignores the nervous little shadow and drives the ball deep. The Golden Boy shrugs, as if that's all he has got up his sleeve. He walks to the tee, smacks his own ball (unshadowed) over a water hazard and onto the green.

His golf game is a combination of finesse and power, a startling alloy considering his cherubic face and his slight build. In golf clothes he appears frail and apologetic, shambling even. It doesn't seem possible that he's become a nine-handicap golfer in two years, without a single lesson. Yet, just as he does in the somewhat more physical sport of boxing, he will do whatever he must to win. Next hole the ball flies wide left of the fairway, close to a condominium development, too close to suit him. "That's a free drop," he declares to the others in his ragtag foursome. "You know it is."

Their turn to shrug. Nobody's even keeping score. He smacks it from the more favorable lie—onto the green.

Oscar De La Hoya moves through life the same way he moves through a golf course—purposefully and to his own advantage. Those seduced by either the huge smile he offers in public or his private shyness are doomed to defeat, be it in the ring or on the golf course. That is a certainty, and it is just now being recognized. De La Hoya, previously suspect as a pretty-boy dilettante, has been installed as a heavy favorite in Friday's WBC super lightweight championship fight with Mexican legend Julio César Chávez at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. And by logical extension, De La Hoya is now being proclaimed as the game's next leading light.

It's as if the world has finally sensed De La Hoya's ambition, his drive, and has decided he brings more goods to the table than the average Olympic hero (who too often has stalled out in the real world) or even the more typical rogue (who too often has stalled out in the real world). Nobody is deceived any longer by De La Hoya's amateur purity or professional innocence. Whether the real world recognizes greatness in him, or just has an unsatisfied appetite for a fighter without tattoos or a prison record, the sport is now his to take.

On the eve of a fight that would normally be intriguing only to aficionados and Latinos—that is, a nonheavyweight fight—De La Hoya is getting the kind of attention and money ($8.95 million) that certifies him as a crossover star. Here's what we mean by crossover: In the past month De La Hoya has been interviewed in Penthouse, in Details, in Playboy and in Harper's Bazaar. TV Guide came to his camp in the high altitude of Big Bear, Calif., as did Live. Photographers come and go (as, comically, does his hair-dresser), and there was even a visit by a Hollywood producer and screenwriter who hoped to get a head start on De La Hoya's biopic. They were sent back down the hill, to be recalled when his life is less hectic and, presumably, even more interesting.

For De La Hoya, a lifelong Southern Californian whose parents immigrated from Mexico, the Chávez fight is just the start. Should he prevail over Chávez, a vivid and charismatic—but aging and slowed—champion who has been a Mexican icon for well over a decade, De La Hoya will be coronated both an athletic prodigy and a marketing phenomenon. He will presumably inherit Chávez's constituency and will likely broaden it with his bilingual appeal. Chávez, 33, was never much concerned with the north-of-the-border crowd. A victory in this bout for De La Hoya would consolidate a growing glory that began with his gold medal at the 1992 Olympics. And he's just 23.

"I don't think there's any question that Oscar's going to be a major American personality," says sports agent Leigh Steinberg, a De La Hoya adviser. "The nature of boxing lends itself nicely to the concept of personalities' becoming household names. Think Muhammad Ali. Boxers are individuals, not on a team. And they don't play on a huge field. And here's Oscar, handsome, bilingual, an Olympic star, with a clean reputation, who worked himself up the hard way. He'll be a major marketing force in this country." He'll be the anti-Tyson.

If De La Hoya, who is a budding draftsman, follows the blueprint that was drawn up for him by promoter Bob Arum, it will all happen very quickly. "I want this to be a short career," he says, "different than all the other boxers'. I don't want to fight 150 fights like Willie Pep, but I do want to be a great champion. I'll fight 30, 40 times, but I'll fight the best, won't duck anybody. At 26, I'll be happily retired and in architecture school." And he hopes to have won titles in six weight classes.

So far De La Hoya, who is a rangy 5'11", has not lost any power as he has advanced from his WBO junior lightweight title to the IBF and WBO lightweight crowns and now to Chávez's 140-pound turf; he has 19 KOs among his 21 victories—four of the last five coming against former world champions. Nor should he lose too much as he steps up even further. And big-money attractions await him at every stop, from welterweight champions Pernell Whitaker and Felix Trinidad to junior middleweight champ Terry Norris. Because he is surrounded by quality rivals, he could achieve his legacy with an economy of effort. Whether he can leave all of that behind at age 26 to enroll in a junior college, as he's promised, will be the biggest test of all.

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