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Last Saturday's double-header featuring Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins wasn't even a tournament, just a twofold teaser meant to pique pay-per-view interest in a Sept 18 showdown between those two marquee fighters. It was a marketing device, a road show meant to prove that Hopkins wasn't too old, at 39, and that De La Hoya wasn't too small to face middle-weights. And that, yes, their eventual fight would make history, money (the expected $35 million purse could be a record for a nonheavyweight match) and, certainly, sense.
But De La Hoya's surprisingly close win over Felix Sturm—unless his odd performance was meant to ensure Hopkins's participation—seemed strange advertising for a $35 million bout. And that's if you agree that De La Hoya won on Saturday, which not everybody does.
Hopkins had done his part earlier in the evening, although without his usual �lan. Even he admitted, after he'd outlasted Robert Allen in a rugged and not particularly satisfying fight, that the allure of a $10 million paycheck in the fall mitigated his usual recklessness. "I was safer than usual," he said. "But with so much on the line, and knowing what happened to Roy Jones [his May 15 loss to Antonio Tarver ruined a proposed matchup against Felix Trinidad], well, I wanted to make sure [the De La Hoya fight] wasn't something I torpedoed."
It's full speed ahead for Hopkins, who made his 18th middleweight title defense. Maybe he didn't look great, but he still doesn't look 39. "Genetics," he explains. "I'll box until I'm 42, and you'll still see my razzle-dazzle."
It's De La Hoya, fighting at 160 pounds on Saturday for the first time (he began his pro career at 135), who looks most dangerous to the promotion, which is supposed to enrich him by $25 million. He is keen to hold major world titles in six divisions (the WBO belt he wrestled from Sturm hardly counts), a remarkable feat, to be sure. Saturday night's sampling—bringing in a European fighter with no big-fight experience—was supposed to be a painless preview for the September fight, but it created more questions than excitement
Didn't De La Hoya look a little fleshy? Didn't he look defenseless? Would he truly try to slug it out with Hopkins the way he did with Sturm? De La Hoya fought hard and bravely—pulling out a decision only by winning the final round on the three cards—but he hardly fought well, or wisely. His idea of breaking down Sturm with body shots was never going to work. Furthermore, hanging his mug out there for Sturm to pepper with every jab he threw was poor preparation for the payday of a lifetime.
De La Hoya and his camp hinted at physical problems, namely a back injury that required chiropractic care. Or perhaps it was a sore hand. Or shoulder. "Everything went wrong tonight," De La Hoya said immediately afterward. "Everything."
Later in the evening he was more cheerful, back on his promotional talking points, rapping about history and Hopkins and even doing some selling, finishing his stand at the podium by insisting, "This fight will happen."
It'll certainly happen—that's not the question any more. The two biggest names remaining in boxing, whatever their age or infirmities, guarantee attention when so much money can cajole them into the ring together. The question after De La Hoya's desperate struggle with Sturm is, Does it still matter?