Even the dead want to keep him close. Of this Oscar De La Hoya is sure: When he wakes in the clear, thin air of the mountains at Big Bear Lake, Calif., there's a whispering in the house, a vibration he can't place. He knows his mother is there. She brushes past him, like someone easing out of a crowded elevator. Or she touches him so lightly on the arm, the neck, the face. He doesn't move. "It's always her," he says. "I feel her. She's looking after me." Didn't she always? He was the classic mama's boy, crying hot tears when his older brother smacked him around, when his cousins bullied him, when his father kept demanding more, and she would shield him, give him the love he craved. All that is fading memory now. So much has happened. His mother, Cecilia, died of breast cancer in 1990 at age 39 and missed everything—his 1992 Olympic gold medal, his world championships in four weight classes, his emergence as the richest and most attractive professional boxer of his generation.
This is an odd slot to occupy, nothing like "toughest man in the world" or "pound-for-pound best." Yet it brings more than its share of rewards, the first of which is the upending of the universe as we know it: A popular boxer today is a rare and wondrous thing, more so a boxer who can speak charmingly in English and Spanish and grin like a boy-band hunk and bring women in massive numbers to the TV set. And so, by the powers vested in him by HBO, the WBA, WBC and WBO, promoter Bob Arum, rival fighter Felix Trinidad and all others seeking purchase on the titanic sums of money that only De La Hoya can generate, he has been ceded the right to believe, in a fit of Copernican arrogance, that everything from here to the heavens revolves around him.
"You want to hear the goods?" he asks. Thus begins training on this sun-washed May afternoon. His shirt is off, his stomach flat. A disc is placed in a CD player, and an instant later De La Hoya's high, sweet voice pours through the small gym he has built for himself in Big Bear. He cut this album a few weeks ago in Miami, and as he trains for his June 17 welterweight championship bout against Shane Mosley, everyone has noticed a huge difference in the man: At 27, De La Hoya is working with a focus he hasn't had in years, ignoring all chances to party, thirsting for the next day's training. Why? "Because now he is working out with his own music," says his trainer, Roberto Alcazar. "His own singing."
De La Hoya sits on the edge of the ring as Alcazar unwinds strips of tape to wrap the fighter's hands. Now, over the speakers, comes De La Hoya's cover of Run to Me, the Bee Gees' saccharine ballad: Am I unwise to open up your eyes to love me? De La Hoya sings along loudly, then stops when he sees his 14-month-old daughter, Atiana, flinging golf balls around his putting green outside the gym. She is a dead ringer for her father, broad-faced and dark despite the blond features of her mother, former Miss USA Shanna Moakler. This is satisfying to Oscar: He calls Atiana his Mini-Me, and when she plops another ball over his fianc�e, who is lying on the green, he shouts, "Good girl!" Then he resumes the duet with himself: Run to me whenever you're lonely....
A huge ego is central to any boxer's survival, but the stroking needed by a champion of De La Hoya's stature can verge on the embarrassing. So many people depend on his success that in his camp sucking up is as vital as breathing. Yet De La Hoya's place in the sport has never been just a matter of fistic excellence; it has been as much about his charisma and good looks, about the personality that seems sure to endow his life after boxing with possibilities well beyond those of the typical punchie. Everyone in his entourage, from his father and manager, Joel, to Alcazar and Moakler, agrees that Oscar's album will shock the world, that he will cross over into movies someday, because, well, who wins by telling him otherwise? Dead or alive, they are all here to make sure he feels right.
So he is everywhere: Oscar's face on the walls of the gym and on the water bottle and on his daughter, Oscar's voice on the speakers, Oscar's image on everyone's shirt. A mock street sign stands on the corner outside his gated house in Big Bear Lake reading GOLDEN BOY AVE. and DE LA HOYA ST.; Oscar's people tried to have the street names changed officially, but a neighbor shot down the notion.
De La Hoya steps into the ring and begins shadowboxing, quick jabs and uppercuts slicing the air. Moakler rises, picks up the baby and walks toward the ring. "Next year, after I get my body back, I'll try again for a little Oscar," she says. "All the psychics tell me it'll be a boy."
She hands the baby to one of De La Hoya's staffers, backs 25 feet from the ring and lights a cigarette. De La Hoya stops shadowboxing and turns to his daughter. "Atiana? Hi," he coos. "What're you doing?" He waits for her to wave, then unleashes a few casual combinations. Abruptly he stops and shouts to Moakler, "I can smell it from here. Really. Please." She exhales, takes another 10 steps back. De La Hoya shakes his head and resumes his workout. He bounces on his toes, picks up the pace of his punches, hissing with the effort—Tst! Tst! Tst!—and watching himself in the full-length mirror, above which are replicas of five of the championship belts he has won, over Jimmi Bredahl, Jorge Paez, Rafael Ruelas, Julio C�sar Ch�vez and Pernell Whitaker. De La Hoya growls to no one in particular, "I'm a gladiator!"
His brother, Joel Jr., calls time on the rounds. A small stain of sweat grows between Oscar's shoulder blades. No one is in the ring with him yet, and soon Alcazar will be there, cursing and absorbing all of De La Hoya's force—that stabbing left hook, that whippet speed—in the flat of his hand pads. After a while Alcazar, who is 43 years old, will be leaning over the ropes between rounds, heaving for breath while De La Hoya sings, seemingly unwinded, I'll be good to yoooooouuu....
But first De La Hoya walks to the ropes and leans over with his face as close as possible to the mirror. He extends his neck, turns his head this way and that, never taking his eyes away from his reflection. He looks good.