On one level this may be the most reasonable statement in boxing history; the floor is littered with the carcasses of skinned ex-champs. But if anyone figures Oscar for a pure mercenary—or worse, Chicken De La Hoya, as Trinidad put it—he's got it wrong. Down in the deepest hole of his career, against Quartey in February '99, De La Hoya emerged from his corner in the 12th round a thoroughly committed man. He blasted Quartey with one savage hook after another, knocked him down and kept coming, battering him into the corner, tasting the battle and giving himself up to it in one final, furious exchange. De La Hoya hammered Quartey with more than two dozen shots to the head because he hated to lose, fought his best because he couldn't lose. It was a magnificent finish. "Because he did care," says veteran trainer Teddy Atlas. "Because underneath it all, beneath the singing and the money and the movie-star looks, is a fighter's pride. But with success, it gets harder and harder to call on that all the time."
Nothing pointed to that more than the loss to Trinidad. Through the first nine rounds De La Hoya had easily kept his more powerful adversary at bay, swelling his left eye, bloodying his nose, making him appear confused and outgunned. Then, sure that he had the fight in hand, De La Hoya gave it away. He allowed Trinidad to chase him, to dictate, and he put the fight in the judges' hands. The best boxers, no matter how rich, fight as if they are starving. De La Hoya fought the last three rounds as if his pockets were full. "There are moments when he's hesitant, when he's hoping it'll be a certain way rather than making it that way," Atlas says. "When the fight's still in doubt, he doesn't trust his talent enough to put it at risk. He makes the choice to believe it's his inherent right [to win], that if he just boxes, it will be enough. But for the great ones, it was never enough. There was no inherent right. There was no guarantee."
Boxers are not a happy breed. They do not smile much. No one ever talks about childlike joy in the fight game, not as in baseball; no one ever expects to hear a fighter proclaim, like Ernie Banks, "Let's fight two!" This is a world of somber men growing surer with each passing day that someone, somewhere, is taking advantage of them. But De La Hoya is different. He carries himself lightly, laughs often, seems content. It's as if he knows he has already won the biggest fight of all, that he will leave boxing with his money and face and brain intact, that those individual clashes the journalists and promoters get so excited about are not as important as the con he has pulled on the dirtiest con men on the planet.
Still, his reaction just after the Trinidad defeat was startling. De La Hoya laughed and hugged Trinidad twice. He smiled this huge grin, a grin so tight at the corners that it made him look like Jack Nicholson's Joker. He declared himself "hurt" but acted like a man gone giddy at his own birthday party. "Look at us: We can go to dinner right now!" he said of himself and Trinidad. There was only one moment, just after he'd said that he and Trinidad were both great fighters, that the smile fell and his face registered something resembling anguish. His eyes flicked up toward the rafters, and he looked puzzled, like a man trying desperately to remember the words to a song once known by heart.
But the moment passed, and he forced his cheeks upward, and the smile returned to De La Hoya's face. He'd just made $15 million. No loser ever looked happier.