The resurrection boys club gym in East Los Angeles is jammed, on a balmy afternoon, some three dozen boxers are working out in the dimly lit little building on South Lorena Street, punching the bags, skipping rope, shadowboxing. Once upon a time, the Resurrection was a church. It was built, according to a plaque beside the front door, in 1924. But the pews and the pulpit and the stained glass are long gone. Now a boxing ring sits on the bare plywood floor, and fight posters in Spanish and English cover the walls. The only reminder of a more sacred past is the portrait of Christ, nearly lost under a layer of grime, that looks down from an archway above the ring like a divine referee.
Eighteen-year-old Oscar De La Hoya has been coming to the Resurrection since he was 10 years old. On this afternoon, however, he looks lost. Tall and lean and boyishly handsome, De La Hoya stands beside the ring, his hands encased in enormous white training gloves that hang like marshmallows on the ends of his arms. "No one wants to spar with me," he says. He sounds surprised.
For De La Hoya, the 1991 United States Amateur Boxing 132-pound national champion and the USA Boxing 1991 Boxer of the Year, it is the first day back in the gym after a week of vacation. In another week he will be at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, preparing for a series of summer bouts. Today he hoped for a few easy rounds in his old home ring. But even in the tough and bustling gyms of East L.A., there are few boxers—and no amateurs—who can give De La Hoya a workout. "In L.A., I only spar with pros now," he says.
He spots a prospect, a thickly muscled 140-pounder who looks about 25. De La Hoya hurries over to the fighter and his trainer. After a brief exchange in Spanish, De La Hoya returns with a sheepish smile. "He said he's got a fight on Monday at the Forum," he says. De La Hoya looks like a kid at a high school dance who can't find a partner. "My dad told me never to take it easy sparring," he says. His eyes scan the gym.
De La Hoya has obviously taken the old man's advice to heart. When he spars, the whole gym often stops to watch. The East L.A. fight crowd still talks about the time last year, at the 108th and Broadway gym, when De La Hoya KO'd two sparring partners in one afternoon, a decidedly unamateurish display. "He has no competition here," says Manuel Torres, director of boxing at the Resurrection. "He makes even pros look bad."
When he can find them. After two more rejections, it becomes clear that De La Hoya will get no ring work today, and he goes off to shadowbox. Stripped to the waist, he soon is sweating freely. He moves, in classic stand-up style, in small circles around the crowded floor, snapping the big gloves out in crisp one-twos. The bell sounds. The rest of the gym clatters to a stop. De La Hoya goes on shuffling and punching.
De La Hoya is developing a rep—and not only in East L.A. Many boxing observers consider him the best amateur fighter in the U.S. With less than a year to go till the Barcelona Olympics, De La Hoya may be the country's strongest hope for a gold medal in the sport. In July he won the 132-pound gold medal at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles. His career record is a gaudy 209-4, and his victory last March at the U.S. Championships brought him his second straight national title. The year before, he won the 125-pound division and then went on to take the Goodwill Games gold medal.
As he prepares to go to Sydney, Australia, for next month's world championships, De La Hoya is undefeated in international competition. Yet those who have watched him the closest talk less about the numbers and titles than about his style—about the way De La Hoya moves and punches. "He fights like Alexis Arguello," says Torres, referring to the lightweight champion of the early '80s. "He has that great left hook to the liver. How good is Oscar? One in a million."
Says Pat Nappi, coach of the 1976 and 1984 U.S. Olympic squads, "The kid has all the tools. Right now, based on what I've seen, he has the gold medal."
In the face of such acclaim, De La Hoya remains steadfastly low-key. "I've just got to keep my focus," he says.