Oscar De La Hoya has been dismissed as a dilettante, a dabbler, someone who'd rather be doing something—maybe anything—other than boxing. Three years ago, before the biggest fight of his career, against Felix Trinidad, he was taking singing lessons. And before that he toyed with architecture, golf, just about whatever came to mind. His dabbling was put down to lack of commitment, lack of resolve, perhaps even lack of passion. How could you not wonder where his career was going? It was as if De La Hoya, not having the courage to risk failure at a game in which he was so gifted, chose to distribute his talents helter-skelter so that he could dilute eventual disappointment.
But in considering his gritty and surprisingly bloody destruction of Fernando Vargas last Saturday in their 154-pound title bout in Las Vegas, it's necessary to reevaluate. What De La Hoya had last weekend, and what he's always had, now that we think about it, is a profound professionalism, which too often has been mistaken for detachment and a lack of interest. He does something much harder than what the average hothead does: He fights when he doesn't want to, he beats opponents he doesn't hate, he takes punishment he doesn't need to take. He elevates payday—"another day at the office" is what he said before the Vargas fight—to event.
In a way this makes him the noblest athlete out there. Unlike Vargas, who nursed a grudge until it became highly volatile (plexiglass had to be rigged between the two opponents at their press conference), De La Hoya didn't have much in the way of inspiration for this fight. Vargas meant little to him besides a $14 million guarantee. Only circumstances of geography and ethnicity goaded him into the match. If he didn't answer Vargas's challenge—who was the true representative of Southern California's Mexican-American culture, machismo and all?—De La Hoya's championships in five weight classes, his gold medal in the 1992 Olympics, would be discounted by his Latino fan base. Except for that, what Vargas amounted to in De La Hoya's eyes was just...work.
If De La Hoya has any ambition left after a decade of professional boxing—and he says he does, though not always convincingly—it's to remedy his two losses and then retire into history. The Trinidad debacle, during which he needlessly pussyfooted to defeat, may never be avenged. Trinidad insists that he's retired. A rematch with Sugar Shane Mosley may be easier to arrange, Mosley having just been beaten twice by Vernon Forrest. How Vargas insinuated himself into De La Hoya's plans is testament more to Vargas's promotional skills than his boxing, but it's admirable all the same. Vargas made himself an unavoidable obstacle in De La Hoya's path. He became a job that had to get done.
And look how De La Hoya did it. He outboxed Vargas, of course. Vargas had expected as much. But De La Hoya, who was fighting at 154 pounds for only the second time (and who was fighting at all for only the second time in 15 months), did more than use his jab to build up points against a stronger and younger opponent. Placing himself in more jeopardy than he'd faced in any previous fight—he wasn't roughed up as much, combined, in his two defeats—De La Hoya defused Vargas's fury with a near reckless game plan: He invited his offense, "the objective being to brush a lot of his punches," says De La Hoya, "to lure him in, make him tired," before systematically dismantling him.
It was a braver plot than De La Hoya was used to constructing. Ordinarily he eschews the suffering of violence, preferring to peck away behind his jab. Before this fight he said, "If I have to be aggressive, I'll do it very carefully." That's Oscar, all right. Except he wasn't being particularly careful in the early going. Vargas, who put his WBA title into play along with De La Hoya's WBC version, battered the Golden Boy into the ropes almost immediately. And his supporters, or De La Hoya's detractors (hard to tell one from the other), must have been cheered by an ugly red abrasion on De La Hoya's right cheek after the first round. First round! Where could this be headed?
It appeared this little character study would play out in the most obvious way. Vargas, 24, might have been less talented, but he was hungrier, more determined. His perceived slights at the hands of De La Hoya (which the latter was unaware of) were only part of his motivation. He was all Aztec warrior to De La Hoya's crossover crooner. (A Grammy nomination? C'mon!) Vargas was, in the Hispanic culture that produced both fighters, proudly (perhaps stubbornly) unassimilated; De La Hoya, 29, grown rich and overcautious and American (he wore a red, white and blue robe into the ring), was a comparative sellout.
Of course, if Vargas could hijack De La Hoya's life, it appears he would. "He copies everything!" complained De La Hoya at one point. And it's true, even beyond the copycat bus that the Vargas entourage piloted into Vegas. Vargas, rough-hewn fury and all, finds himself moving closer to De La Hoya's suburban lifestyle than he seems to realize. He's long since left the barrios of Ox-nard, where he roamed fatherless and unmoored, and now raises his kids ("my two beautiful cubs") in a gated community 10 miles east of Oxnard overlooking the strawberry fields in which many of his fans labor. "It's called Spanish Hills," he said, laughing at his own uppityness, "though I'm the only one there who speaks Spanish."
The contrast between the two fighters was, then, largely illusory. They were more alike than, apparently, Vargas would admit. About all that differentiated them, really, was talk. Vargas had said, "I'd rather die in the ring than lose." And De La Hoya, incredulous, replied, "Who wants to die in the ring? That's ridiculous." That Vargas seemed so theatrically passionate and De La Hoya so annoyingly realistic—"I ask myself why I do this," he admitted—certainly seemed a setup for upset.
But as the rounds went by, with De La Hoya sticking that jab into Vargas's face, taking hard right hands and then returning to jab some more, it appeared that the character study was getting turned on its head. Suddenly using his right hand in the seventh round (he fought one-handed up to then), De La Hoya drew blood under Vargas's right eye. Uncharacteristically the Grammy nominee said, "I wanted more."