Oscar De La Hoya has been a vaporous personality throughout his public life, hard to pin down. Is he a well-groomed marketing machine, a brutish brawler, a cautiously programmed prodigy or a reckless and arrogant champion who fights from the heart? In winning five titles since he turned pro in 1992, De La Hoya has been all of these things and more. He has been so susceptible to influence—from his trainers, his promoter and his father—that he has become boxing's Sybil, not so much somebody without character as someone with too many of them.
"All I wanted to do was please people," De La Hoya said during training recently, acknowledging the scattershot approach to his career—to his life—that has been monumentally successful but confusing all the same. Sitting on a deck beneath whispering pines at Big Bear Lake, Calif., he promised that in his fight with fellow welterweight champion Felix (Tito) Trinidad he'd be standing on his own two feet, more independent than he'd ever been. "Finally," he said, "I am my own man."
It may be that, finally, De La Hoya is his own man. But last Saturday night, by insisting on displaying skills that nobody was particularly interested in seeing, he lost his WBC title. That now goes to Trinidad, a man far less complicated and interesting than De La Hoya but one more concerned with the commercial interests of boxing than with his own aesthetic ambitions for the sport—and better rewarded for it.
De La Hoya's consolidation of character may have been ill-timed. Trinidad, plodding through 12 rounds as he chased a dazzling but defiantly defensive De La Hoya, scored a majority decision at Las Vegas's Mandalay Bay without scoring a knockdown or even landing many punches. It was not a fight that Trinidad won; it was a fight that De La Hoya perversely handed over.
"My plan tonight was to box," De La Hoya said after the fight. "I've proved I can stand in with anybody, but this time I wanted to put on a boxing show. I think I gave the boxing lesson of my life."
De La Hoya had determined that Trinidad was no match for him on his feet. So Oscar circled left and then, to mix it up, circled right, jabbing all the while and landing the occasional right hand. It seemed to be his easiest fight ever; he bloodied Trinidad's nose in the second round and generally seemed to neutralize the Puerto Rican's hard right hand. Trinidad's most effective punch came after the bell in Round 7, when, frustrated, he threw a left that landed as De La Hoya was turning toward his corner. Most of Trinidad's other punches didn't connect—they just whizzed by. It was indeed a boxing lesson, although De La Hoya became an indifferent teacher in the championship rounds, when, having decided that the fight "was in the bank," he simply circled without jabbing or doing anything else risky to his plan. "I had it won," he explained later.
But Trinidad, and the judges, understood that this fight, perhaps the richest non-heavyweight bout ever, would not be decided by such arbitrary guidelines as De La Hoya's, regardless of his drawing power and Las Vegas clout. When a fighter is guaranteed $15 million, as De La Hoya was, there is some expectation of violence. You can't conjure what may prove to be one million pay-per-view buys—a record for a non-heavyweight fight—out of anything less. De La Hoya had proved that he was not afraid to mix it up, to wade in, to bleed, to fall down, to get up. Failure to do so this time would result in severe penalty. De La Hoya was clearly the better man inside the ring, but his style ran so contrary to expectations that the judges reacted wildly against it.
Many at ringside, not to mention promoter Bob Arum, thought the punishment was stiff. In fact, a lot of the ringside press scored the fight for De La Hoya, though most had it so close that any decision would have been acceptable. There was certainly no outrage after the announcement of Trinidad's victory, as there had been last March when Evander Holyfield received a dubious draw after taking a beating from Lennox Lewis. Even De La Hoya's strongest supporters were baffled by his decision to coast through the last three rounds—Trinidad won all three on two of the judges' cards—giving away his lead and then some in his determination to dance instead of fight.
The event was supposed to have been one of those megafights that is as much about meaning as money. These two boxers, undefeated and 26 and controlled by domineering fathers, had been on a collision course for some time. De La Hoya was the larger attraction, having been headlined by Arum his entire career, schooled for just this kind of attention. Trinidad, fully as concussive in the ring as De La Hoya, had been hampered by language problems and by poor promotion. Don King had kept the Spanish-speaking Trinidad hidden on Mike Tyson under-cards, stewing in his neglect (and going to court repeatedly to get out of contracts).
Despite their differing profiles, the two fighters were regarded as comparable talents. De La Hoya, who had begun his pro career as a pampered Olympic gold medal winner, overcame his cautious approach to the game (which had made him much reviled among Hispanic fight fans) to become a regular tough guy. In fights in which brawling wasn't necessary—against out-classed athletes such as Julio Cesar Chavez and Ike Quartey—De La Hoya charged in like some desperate palooka, seeming to enjoy the frenzy as much as his fans did.