The thought occurred, as the hooded figure entered the ring, that Oscar De La Hoya had never experienced the full force of such an event. The voltage at these fights, the ones they hold on desert evenings behind Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, is really dialed up, and few boxers have the personality to insulate themselves from it. Fifteen thousand people watching, their partisan hate spilling down the stands, their own celebrity and wealth mocking the fighters' miserable ambitions—it's no place for a 23-year-old kid whose most impressive credentials are an Olympic gold medal and a toothy smile. Looking at De La Hoya last Friday, shrouded in his robe, it was impossible to know how he would react in a situation so electric. A culturally divided crowd opposed him; his own inexperience seemed certain to betray him.
Then Julio César Chávez, the old lion, entered the ring—smiling, his teeth more famous than the kid's after all these years—and the crowd went wild, assured of both the old man's confidence and his legacy. The ions must have seemed to be crackling in the kid's corner.
But it went like this: The kid doffed his robe, marched resolutely to the center of the ring, slashed Chávez above his left eye with a jab in the opening 90 seconds and in the space of four rounds reduced the legendary Mexican to a very public form of arterial spray. The exhibition was startling in its professionalism. De La Hoya, now 22-0, coolly kept Chávez at bay with his jab, using it like a sharp stick to disturb the wound. Then when Chávez, who in his declining years has had to learn the taste of his own blood, became desperate and lunged forward in the fourth round, the kid unleashed an uppercut to the nose to begin a machinelike, six-punch barrage. Not one of the punches missed, and they nearly exploded Chávez's liquefying face.
It was chilling, not because of the gore. It was chilling because such killer flourishes are aspects of character, not training. A new thought occurred: Oscar De La Hoya, entering the ring, had picked up all the dancing live wires he could find and marinated himself in the amperage, and he liked it.
This was reassuring, to discover that Chávez's heir to the World Boxing Council's super lightweight title had nerve to go along with his natural skills and would continue a tradition of violent and colorful entertainment in the ring—and perhaps enhance it. Few doubted that De La Hoya, even with his limited résumé of 21 fights, was the better talent in Las Vegas last week. Chávez, after 16 professional years in the ring and 99 fights, was sufficiently faded that he was actually an underdog in this, his 32nd title bout, as he might have been in any fight against the 140-pound elite. However, even those who believed De La Hoya to be the favorite had to wonder if he had the manhood that Chávez kept referring to in his news conferences, always hefting these imaginary globes in his cupped hands. There was little need to wonder after the first round and certainly no need after referee Joe Cortez, on the advice of ring doctor Flip Homansky, stopped the fight at 2:37 of the fourth round, halting a destruction that seemed frighteningly determined. De La Hoya, for all his recent dalliance with the vanity press (what boxer, of any era, has been featured in such publications as Harper's Bazaar and Vibe?), had earned the right to cup his own hands in future news conferences.
The fight was not entirely satisfactory because De La Hoya was not truly tested by Chavez, never had to weather those fearsome hooks to the body. And Chávez left the ring whining, as has been his wont in recent years, this time complaining that De La Hoya had simply opened a cut first made in training during the past month. By Chávez's account, De La Hoya had enjoyed some good luck. "I never felt Oscar's punch," he kept saying the next day. "I just was not able to see."
Still it was not a fight that Chávez was ever in, or had any chance of getting into, no matter what his vision. De La Hoya's calm cruelty in the ring was sufficient to quash any notion of dispute over the outcome. The kid, with his advantage in range and reach, with his superior speed and movement, with his precision punching and killer instinct, would beat Chávez every time. Really, nobody but Chávez seemed much interested in a rematch.
The fight was an impressive landmark in what will surely be one of the sport's most spectacular careers. "Oscar has the chance to be one of the greatest of all time," said promoter Bob Arum, who has nursed the former Olympian along to his first $9 million payday—a shrewd exploitation of cultural tension among Mexicans and Chicanos—and has positioned De La Hoya for more paydays just like it. "He's got natural talent, he's got no bad habits, and he wants to learn." He is, in short, the Sugar Ray Leonard of his era, charismatic outside the ring and hit-man cool inside. He is boxing's favorite composite character, the molten core of rage surrounded by a mantle of civility, even suavity.
Composite characters like this (Chávez, in his time and in his country, was one, though he was never suave) are well paid, both in respect and money. Arum unveiled a five-fight schedule for the next 15 months—including marquee bouts with WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker and IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad—that will put De La Hoya in the same tax bracket as some of the celebrity ringsiders (Pat Riley and Jack Nicholson among them). Twenty-five million a year, says Arum, easy. What's more, the 5'11" De La Hoya, who has now won titles in three weight classes since his 1992 debut as a lightweight, may grow beyond even welterweight, possibly to middleweight, where more fighters and more money await.
Having dispatched Chávez with ease, De La Hoya continued to behave humbly, an attitude as promising as his final flurry. "I need many more fights to learn, many more years to become a complete champion," he said. His deference to Chávez, a fallen idol to him, too, was no doubt calculated, as he strives to knit the divide between Chávez's Mexican constituency and his own Chicano fan base. Nonetheless, there is something refreshingly subservient in his approach to the game. He really is determined to improve, and his recent alliance with veteran Mexican trainer Jesus Rivero—variously referred to in De La Hoya-speak as Don Jesus, the Professor and the Old Man, is comical and reassuring. The Professor, 66 years old and a devoted disciple of Willie Pep and Willie Shakespeare, is an odd duck even by boxing standards. Lured from his aluminum-window business in Mexico to fine-tune De La Hoya's game, Rivero has tried to impart the classics, in all disciplines, to the youngster. "To hit and not be hit," De La Hoya often muses after the nightly screenings from the Professor's fight film library. "That Willie Pep was a boxer."