Oscar De La Hoya's magnificent tour bus idled smoothly outside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas last Saturday night, waiting to take its young star even farther down the road to greatness. A fourth championship belt was safely aboard, and if a million people really did buy the pay-per-view bout, as predicted, there would soon be new sponsors' logos joining the ones painted alongside his likeness on the side of the bus. De La Hoya's many shrieking fans gathered outside had to imagine that the ride was going to be long and wonderful for them all.
Yet a few people watched the pale blue bus smoking in the parking lot and saw a getaway car instead. To these critics—most of them boxing writers and television commentators—De La Hoya had just performed something more along the lines of grand theft than assault and battery. He hadn't won a 12-round decision from WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker, he had stolen it. The critics grumbled that it wouldn't be a big surprise to see the ringside judges, who scored the bout a runaway, slinking on board the bus as part of the gang. Such is the suspicion and resentment that the 24-year-old De La Hoya seems to generate as he tears through boxing.
The truth, though, lay somewhere between what his fans felt and his critics reported. De La Hoya, on the basis of his troublesome and controversial victory over the 33-year-old Whitaker, is probably going to suffer a few more bumps than anyone had thought on the road to whatever his final destiny might be. He didn't manhandle Whitaker; he barely touched him. It was mostly cat-and-mouse, and the mouse kept getting away. Not once did De La Hoya stop Whitaker in his tracks or put two solid punches together. The blows, what small percentage landed (34% for De La Hoya, 40% for Whitaker), were almost all glancing. This lack of dominance in so heavy a favorite (De La Hoya went off at 7 to 2 despite the fact that he was moving up to the welterweight division for the first time) does not bode well for someone who intends to win six titles before he takes up architecture and golf full time.
Then again, it required the heightened paranoia of boxing writers and commentators to suggest that the victory was the result of a conspiracy or, for that matter, anything but the natural forces that replace old with young, traditional with modern. The fight was close, without conclusive volleys, and probably featured a little more of Whitaker's exaggerated sense of artfulness than anybody needed (and a lot less of De La Hoya's firepower than everybody else wanted). The bout was certainly not a 9-3 or a 9-2-1 affair, which is how two of the Nevada judges scored it (the third had it 8-4, also for De La Hoya), but neither was it robbery. It was just a tough fight that De La Hoya won, barely.
That he did win may have had something to do with De La Hoya's amateur training. Emanuel Steward, the veteran trainer, thought that De La Hoya must have figured early on that he wasn't going to overpower so resourceful a technician as Whitaker, so he "relied on his amateur tricks," said Steward, to be just active enough to win rounds. For instance, if the judges were tempted to mark De La Hoya down for his ineffective jab, he had the good sense to close rounds with flurries, which tended to obscure Whitaker's consistent ability to frustrate him.
If the decision was unpopular—and De La Hoya himself was mindful enough of the dissatisfaction not to claim Whitaker's unofficial title as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world—that may have had less to do with the actual fight than with the new champion himself. Not everyone cottons to the idea of a corporate boxer, the kind of kid whose career is shaped more by the requirements of the endorsement world than boxing's. His talent is impossible to ignore, and the quibbles over the Whitaker fight notwithstanding, his future is ordained. Yet there is resistance to a fighter whose popularity seems based on good looks and good marketing. The fight game has not advanced sufficiently into the 20th century that somebody with a toothy smile and a Web site can be embraced fully.
Even Whitaker, his best days and his six championships behind him, seemed resigned beforehand to the force of De La Hoya's personality. Chiding De La Hoya for living like a "rock star" on Willie Nelson's hand-me-down bus, Whitaker nonetheless wearily conceded his opponent's appeal. At Friday's weigh-in, when hordes of female fans, most of them Hispanic, screamed and impersonated the bobby-soxers of generations ago, Whitaker waited behind a curtain and said, "It must be Liberace."
De La Hoya has been better handled than any fighter before him, with the possible exception of Sugar Ray Leonard. With his East L.A. roots, he is marketed as an American champion in the Midwest and as a Latino one in the barrios. But his pretty-boy persona can be aggravating to those who like their fighters sweaty and bloody. They see De La Hoya's rise as a case of persona overriding achievement, or else Whitaker, who won an Olympic gold medal eight years before De La Hoya did in 1992, might be the one wearing a milk mustache in the four-color magazine ads.
But this is a new era, and De La Hoya is the future of boxing, like it or not. The fact that promoter Bob Arum has maneuvered him through three divisions, allowing De La Hoya to make his mark against names that had all seen better days, or that some of De La Hoya's business affairs are overseen by the same agent that handles Kerri Strug, does not mean the fighter has been manufactured. Before adding Whitaker's belt to his collection, he had held various lightweight, junior lightweight and super lightweight titles. He has fought often enough, 24 times as a pro without a defeat, that his ring craft and instincts are proven. Anybody who can smile on cue and who can shrewdly cater to both the Mexican-American constituency (a mariachi band played before the Whitaker bout as De La Hoya continued to appeal to fans who once belonged to the declining Julio C�sar Ch�vez) and to Madison Avenue is certain to be cast as a smoothy, at best. Yet he does deliver the goods.
Saturday night he didn't deliver enough of them to quell every little criticism. Whitaker, who has a perverse vanity for someone in a blood sport, was as confounding as he ever was in his prime, though he didn't pull down De La Hoya's trunks, as he did to one opponent years ago. There was probably nothing De La Hoya could have done to look better against such a master of defense; there has seldom been anything anyone could do to Whitaker, except shortchange him on the scorecards (as was done in bouts with Jos� Luis Ram�rez in 1988 and Ch�vez in '93). Bobbing, weaving, dipping and circling, he can be untouchable.