His mother sang. Every day, cooking, cleaning, tending the house, she warmed the small home in East L.A. with her voice. Her husband worked in construction, his fingers split and dusty, muscles aching, and had no interest in coddling his sons. Life was hard for a Mexican immigrant; life was hard, period. Joel Sr. used to box at the old Olympic Auditorium, certain he could be a contender if only he could give it all his time. But he had to support his family. His wife gave up something too; Cecilia traveled the Mexican entertainment circuit in the U.S., singing folk songs, and took part in the talent contests at L.A.'s Million Dollar Theatre. "My father basically told her, 'It's me or the music,' " Oscar says. "Of course she picked him."
The father had little use for a five-year-old boy given to crying at every shift in the wind; Joel Sr. focused all his ambition on eight-year-old Joel Jr.'s fitful attempts at boxing. He was supposed to be the family fighter. "I was supposed to be Oscar," Joel Jr. says. Oscar had his skateboard and his mother, and the two of them would sing together. Oscar was good at two things: Loving his mother and listening to his father, and when he began trailing his brother to the gym, Joel Sr. told Oscar to hit a bag, any bag. Oscar was six. His life as a man began then. His dad demanded that he go to the gym every afternoon, and for years Oscar didn't go anywhere else. When, at 15, he broke training by staying out one night, Joel Sr. came down the street in a ratty bathrobe, exposed himself to the other kids and embarrassed Oscar into going home.
"This is a kid who doesn't have the experience of life," Alcazar says. "He didn't grow up like a normal kid; he don't know what it is to pick up the phone and call his friend to go to the movies, to go to the nightclub, to go drive a car. Why? Because it was from school to boxing, and from boxing to bed." Most fighters have seen too much of the street, but when Oscar gets out in the world, "he's lost," Alcazar says. "He's like a blind person."
By the time his mother was on chemo and her hair was starting to fall out, Oscar was a force on the L.A. boxing scene and its prime Olympic dreamer. Moneymen from the pros had begun circling, trying to latch on. Desperate for cash to pay hospital bills in the fall of 1990, Joel Sr. turned to Shelly Finkel, who was managing Evander Holyfield. On the night of the Holyfield-Buster Douglas tide fight that October in Las Vegas, Finkel says, Joel "came to me crying. He said his wife was very sick, and he said, 'You know my son is going to be with you in the future.' " Finkel, who hoped to manage Oscar when he turned pro, says he paid as much as $100,000 of Cecilia's medical bills, though Joel Sr. calls this figure "a lie."
"I took care of her chemotherapy, her hospital, a funeral," Finkel says. But after Oscar kept the promise he'd made to his mother and won the '92 gold medal, becoming the most marketable face boxing had seen in more than a decade, he signed with little-known managers Robert Mittleman and Steve Nelson. Finkel still hasn't gotten over it. Asked what he thinks of Joel Sr., Finkel says, "Oh, he's a horrible person." And Oscar? "Outside the ring, he's a coward."
To this, Oscar shrugs. "I'm very grateful [ Finkel] took care of the expenses at the time; I didn't know he did," he says. "We were fortunate that a man like him would help us. But when it came down to doing business, he wasn't the right businessman for me. Because I feel he's not a businessman. I feel that everyone involved in boxing is a crook."
This would become a familiar pattern. In a sport rife with users, no one proved himself more capable of using and discarding people than De La Hoya. Finkel warned Mittleman and Nelson not to settle in, and within 16 months they too were gone. "They f——- me," Mittleman says of Oscar and his father, "but that's boxing. That's business."
Mike Hernandez, who signed on as Oscar's business manager in 1993 and found that the Golden Boy had less than $20,000 in the bank, lasted six years and left the De La Hoyas financially secure for generations. When Oscar fired Hernandez last June, he claimed that the manager had skimmed money from him. Hernandez calls that accusation "ridiculous" and has sued De La Hoya for breach of contract and defamation of character. Asked about the firing today, Oscar doesn't back away from his claim of theft, but he says his bigger complaint was, "I was stuck at one level. I should've been up here, and the best thing I could do was get rid of Mike Hernandez, get rid of Gil Clancy, get rid of people who were not allowing me to advance in my career."
Clancy, the celebrated trainer who had been with Oscar since 1997, became the latest in a line of old hands jettisoned when their usefulness ended. After De La Hoya's only loss, to Trinidad last September, Clancy found himself out in the cold. He was never told why. He had worked six bouts with De La Hoya, earning $100,000 for the Trinidad fight. But a few weeks before De La Hoya's meeting with Derrell Coley in February, Clancy heard in a phone call from Arum that he would be paid only $25,000, take it or leave it. Even in boxing, that is considered a resounding slap. "I've been in boxing over 50 years, and I've never had anything like that happen to me," Clancy says. He quit.
Then things got stranger. De La Hoya told reporters in February that he'd wanted to keep Clancy but that the four other members of his team (his dad, his brother, Arum and Alcazar) had outvoted him 4-1. Those closest to De La Hoya insist that his ejection of Clancy—leaving only Alcazar as his trainer for the first time in five years—is a sign of a mature fighter claiming full control of his career. But few boxers have been so willing to paint themselves as being so weak in order to protect a good-guy image. Pressed now to say whether he wanted Clancy to stay or go, De La Hoya says, "I would say 50-50: to go because he wasn't showing me anything anymore, and to stay because he's a nice man. I loved him being around—great attitude, great motivator. But I look at everything like a business. If they're not doing anything for you, why have them along?"