Everything he touches turns to money. De La Hoya has earned more than $150 million since he began his pro career in 1992, and he has made his family rich too. His brother reportedly gets 4% of every purse, and Joel Sr.'s career earnings, based on his 10% take as Oscar's manager, are approaching $20 million. When Oscar turned pro, HBO broadcast 10 fight cards a year; this year the network will broadcast close to 30. "He's our biggest star," says Lou DiBella, until last month HBO's boxing czar. Aside from the sideshow that is Mike Tyson, no boxer—not the perceived pound-for-pound champ, Roy Jones Jr., not heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis—is bigger than De La Hoya. Muhammad Ali said, "Small guys can't raise any hell," but De La Hoya has shattered that notion.
"There are usually two types of boxing: boxing and heavyweight boxing," DiBella says. "But in terms of image, Oscar's a heavyweight."
In the language of pay-per-view, De La Hoya's loss to Trinidad registered 1.3 million buys—the most ever for a nonheavyweight bout. In De La Hoya's upcoming fight against Mosley, says Arum, "with what I've guaranteed him, Oscar cannot make less than $15 million. That $15 million is more than Lewis and Michael Grant made together [in April] for the heavyweight championship of the world." As one TV executive put it, De La Hoya could rack up 300,000 buys for a mere exhibition.
Yet for all his earning power, De La Hoya is an oddity: a fighter whose appeal is calculated mostly in the Weimar currency of celebrity—looks, riches, charm. His hold on the public imagination has little to do with his boxing. He should be the era's defining fighter, but his r�sum� has about as much solidity as a fistful of smoke. He has had no epic battle on the order of the great welterweight bouts of the 1970s and '80s, nothing approaching Hagler-Hearns or Leonard-Dur�n. He has fought 33 times, knocked out 26 opponents, left the aging legend Ch�vez with a face streaming blood the first time they met and helpless on his stool the second, narrowly decisioned Whitaker and lost to Trinidad only after tossing away a masterly performance by running for the final three rounds. Great is the cheapest word in sports, and De La Hoya has been called great by so many people—"He's in the class with Ali, Louis and Robinson," says former light heavyweight champ Jos� Torres—that plenty have started to believe it.
"No, no, no," says Steward, the trainer who worked with De La Hoya for two fights in 1997. "He's not had a real decisive victory over a big-time fighter. When he's fought Trinidad, Whitaker, Ike Quartey, it has always been controversial. He's just skimmed by."
What is undeniable is De La Hoya's talent: fierce intelligence, great speed, a cracking left hand, deceptive power. "I had some days in training when he would do things, and I'd say, 'Oh, my god,' " Steward says. "I have been in boxing 48 years and worked with many great fighters, and for him to make me want to jump and scream with the combinations and moves he would do was such a thrill. But I have not seen him do that in a fight."
Mostly De La Hoya's career has been a series of makeovers: One night he's a light-footed artist prancing defensively; the next he's a slugger wading forward in a fit of machismo. In this pastime that, come the bell, cuts through hype and unmasks each man to himself and the world, De La Hoya remains uniquely undefined. By the time Leonard and Robinson were 27, they were past the clashes that defined them. People talk about De La Hoya as if he were 18, with everything still before him. "It's kind of late," Steward says, "but if he ever does become the fighter he's capable of being, man, look out. He could be the greatest thing we ever see in boxing."
De La Hoya isn't all that concerned with his pugilistic legacy. He is already counting down his remaining time, says he can't see himself boxing beyond 30. He seems as excited by his singing as by work in the ring. He also proved himself a political thunderbolt when he stumped for Nevada Democrat Harry Reid in his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1998. Reid won by 428 votes. "I got a huge percentage of the Hispanic vote," Reid says, "and I owe it all to Oscar. I guarantee he was worth more than 428 votes." De La Hoya's camp denies it, but Reid says, "Oscar wants to go into politics someday. He'd be great: terrific speaker, handsome, smart—he's a good guy."
All this, naturally, doesn't sit well with boxing purists, who've long doubted De La Hoya's commitment. "The deep-down fight guys? They pretty much despise him," Arum says. "To them, if you're a fighter, you're a fighter, period."
As a sop to these people, De La Hoya has declared this his year of the knockout. In February he stopped Coley in the seventh round, and he promises another KO if he gets Trinidad back in the ring come September. He still pays lip service to his old ambition of winning championships at 154 pounds and 160 pounds and retiring with titles in six weight classes, but, he says, "What truly matters is what you have in the bank account at the end. Yeah, I'm fighting for the people and giving them great shows and risking my life for them, but at the end who's going to pay my bills? Who's going to take care of me?"