Oscar De La Hoya - Beginning Of The End

13.07.04 - By Patrick Corcoran: A bit like assuming interest rates will remain low forever, we’ve all gotten used to Oscar De La Hoya competing at the top of this game. It just kind of grows on you, watching De La Hoya flash left hooks on HBO every few months, and we’d prefer that this pattern remain in place. But just like with those low rates, an end to the Golden Boy as an elite fighter is inevitable. It simply can’t go one forever, much as we might like. However, while interest rates will be hiked up only a quarter or half percentage point at a time and drawn out over a number of years, De La Hoya’s demise will likely be much more sudden, most likely occurring over the space of twelve rounds on September 18.

As most of you know, that is the date when De La Hoya is to come before his own personal Alan Greenspan, Bernard Hopkins, and logic dictates that the man who blasted Tito Trinidad and William Joppy into oblivion will have a similar impact on Oscar. After years of taking on all comers in every division, big bullies and smooth slicksters alike, Oscar has finally signed on for a fight he can’t handle, or so goes the common view.

But if a De La Hoya defeat is the eventual outcome, it won’t be as sharp a decline as it may seem. De La Hoya has been fighting the toughest guys on the block ever since his lightweight days in 1995, and signs of his deterioration have emerged in recent fights.

De La Hoya’s latest scrap, a gift wrapped decision over unheralded but perhaps underestimated German prospect Felix Sturm on June 5, is a clear reminder that the Golden Boy is well into boxing middle age. After opening the fight on the offensive, throwing scores of punches to the Sturm’s midsection and head, De La Hoya faded fast. De La Hoya’s hand and foot speed were nonexistent, and consequently he was entirely unable to mount an attack in the fight’s second half. After weathering De La Hoya’s best shots early without being hurt, Sturm did his best Larry Holmes impression down the stretch, cracking his jab into Oscar’s face time after time.

The De La Hoya fade is not a new phenomenon, but never before has his mid-fight decline been so pronounced. Since this was Oscar’s first bout at middleweight, it is easy to point to the added pounds as the reason for his lackluster output in the latter stages of the Sturm fight. Many in the De La Hoya camp have said that a lack of conditioning is to blame for his diminished output, and indeed the softness of Oscar’s belly seems to support this theory. But merely pointing to conditioning as the culprit masks the more pressing problem, which is that De La Hoya is several years past his prime.

A fighter simply cannot take on the level of competition that De La Hoya has taken on since the mid-1990s without losing something. Back when De La Hoya was a brand new champion, when to most people he was still just the guy who dedicated his gold medal to his deceased mother, the Golden Boy made his bones as a pro by stepping between the ropes with very dangerous
opponents. After winning the lightly regarded WBO junior lightweight belt in just his twelfth pro fight, De La Hoya jumped up to lightweight in February of 1995 and knocked around incumbent champ John-John Molina, taking his WBO belt in a unanimous decision. He followed that performance by taking on Rafael Ruelas, Genaro Hernandez, Jesse James Leija, Darryl Tyson, and Julio César Chávez, chopping them all down before twelve rounds was through.

De La Hoya was just barely 22 years old when he fought Molina, and 23 when he carved up Chávez in their first bout sixteen months later. With the exception of Tyson, who was still a crafty veteran who’d fought many top fighters, each of these men has been a champion. After such a demanding stretch at such a young age, De La Hoya could have been excused for being selective about his opponents, but he did not do so. Nor has he since, at least not for very long. If you select at random any three-fight series of De La Hoya’s since 1995, chances are that two of those opponents were champions at one time.

De La Hoya manages himself, and Oscar-the-manager has had great success in lining up marquee matchups for Oscar-the-fighter. Now 31 years old, De La Hoya has been fighting his division’s best for nine years, with very few cream puffs mixed in. Such a philosophy has made De La Hoya a star and a rich man, but it also has taken its toll on the Golden Boy. You don’t fight the likes of Chávez, Ruelas, Leija, Ike Quartey, Fernando Vargas, Tito Trinidad, Shane Mosely, Oba Carr, Pernell Whitaker, and Arturo Gatti without losing something.

No boxer has a nine-year prime, and De La Hoya is not an exception. He probably reached his athletic peak during a one year period in 1998 and 1999, when he destroyed Chavez for a second time, gutted out a split decision against Quartey, stopped Carr, and then gave away a fight he had dominated by running from Trinidad the last three rounds and dropping a majority decision.

Since 2000, De La Hoya has shined at times, but against top-flight competition he is no longer as invulnerable as he once seemed. Against Vargas in 2002, De La Hoya looked brilliant as the fight ended, but he was in serious trouble at several points in the bout. Fading down the stretch has become a disturbing trend, particularly against Sturm in June and in the Mosely fights in 2000 and 2003. His left hook, while still among the most beautiful punches in boxing, has lost its devastating impact. The Ferrari-like hand speed of De La Hoya’s youth is now no more than an Infiniti.

Jumping up in weight has certainly compounded these issues, which all seemed to crystallize for De La Hoya in the Sturm fight. But such problems never appear overnight, and after nine years of battling it out with some of boxing’s biggest bangers, De La Hoya appears to be on the down side of a great career.

None of this bodes well for De La Hoya as he prepares for the September showdown with Hopkins. A would-be Hopkins conqueror would need to be at his best to beat the Executioner at 160 pounds, especially a man who doesn’t naturally carry such weight. Hopkins is the Iceman, and just as Goose warned Maverick, he doesn’t make mistakes. To beat Hopkins, De La Hoya has to make
his punches count, and it remains to be seen if De La Hoya can do so at 160. To get to Hopkins, De La Hoya needs to utilize his natural edge in speed, which now seems less imposing. De La Hoya needs to make Hopkins respect his punching, which he was unable to do with Sturm. And Oscar needs to fight the entire twelve rounds, a task that may prove impossible.

Regardless of the outcome, De La Hoya deserves enormous respect for taking the fight. Oscar should be remembered not as a part-time singer or the man who ran a victory over Trinidad into a loss, but as a classy fighter who fought the best. Challenging Hopkins is a task almost as daunting as Ray Leonard coming out of retirement to defeat Marvin Hagler. Like Sugar
Ray did in 1987, De La Hoya has a great opportunity to prove us all wrong and cement his legacy as one of the elite fighters of this generation.

Article posted on 13.07.2004

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