If this was a parting gift, it was a dandy. Oscar De La Hoya, who'd helped keep boxing going for the past dozen years with a dazzling smile and a nice jab, will be leaving sooner rather than later after suffering a ninth-round knockout last Saturday in Las Vegas. But at least he stuck around long enough to help confirm the stature of a far less celebrated fighter, perhaps even elevate Bernard Hopkins to the same pantheon the Golden Boy will always occupy. Poor De La Hoya (well, not poor; he made $30 million to Hopkins's $10 million) had to suffer a paralyzing blow to the liver to deliver that validation, which just illustrates a boxing reality: It hurts to distribute so much greatness.
De La Hoya is not much diminished by his failure to gather Hopkins's middleweight titles unto himself. He came into this game as a 130-pounder and finessed his way up six weight classes during what amounts to a slam-dunk Hall of Fame career. The kind of popularity that has generated ring earnings of well more than $200 million will not be diminished by this defeat. (It never has been before; losses to F��lix Trinidad and Shane Mosley were minor rebukes to his image.) Rather he is enlarged by his decision to share the grand stage with a fighter who has always been too independent for his own good: He manages himself, out of the clutches of big-name promoters and, of course, big-money fights.
Hopkins, who improved to 45-2-1 while rather casually making his 19th consecutive title defense on Saturday, was not quite boxing's best-kept secret going into the fight. But for a guy going on 40, with a career of such sustained excellence, he was surely among its least rewarded. Even after he beat Trinidad three years ago, he was unable to translate the feat into money or press. He was very recently fighting for sub-million-dollar purses, even as De La Hoya was making pay-per-view fights for millions with the likes of Luis Campas. It was only De La Hoya's decision to move up to 160 pounds and ultimately challenge Hopkins--a brave stunt by any measure--that put Hopkins within reach of a piece of PPV immortality.
"What I've done," said Hopkins afterward, "maybe nobody will ever do [again]." He was speaking of his run of defenses, but he might as well have meant his ascent to fame, after a career of contrariness that kept him along the margins. Thanks to De La Hoya's decision to challenge him, Hopkins not only earned that $10 million but also will now get the attention he deserves in a sport focused on the middleweight classes.
The fight that brought him to this new position of ring authority was easy. He was wary of De La Hoya in the early rounds but had loosened up sufficiently by the seventh that not even the judges in an Oscar-friendly town could score more than an occasional round for De La Hoya. What happened in the ninth round was odd--who gets dropped by body shots?--but it was not surprising by then to see De La Hoya on his knees, pounding the canvas in frustration.
Poor Oscar. A left hook to his liver had him whooshing like a ruptured air bag. Hopkins remembered hearing it. "I was stuck, just stuck," said De La Hoya, still mystified at the blow's effect. "You want to get up, you just can't."
At 31 De La Hoya is not yet done, but it's clear he needs to confine his ambitions to moneymaking bouts of less challenge. As for Hopkins, thanks to De La Hoya, he's just getting started.
Promoter Bob Arum was disappointed that the comically frugal Hopkins made a point of carrying cards for two different discount warehouse chains, Sam's Club and Costco. "If he'd just mentioned the one," said Arum, "I could have done him a deal."