Whenever a fighter loses, excuses abound. When it is a star like Oscar De La Hoya, who was a 2-1 favorite over Manny Pacquiao, no one wants to accept that the Golden Boy could have lost to someone who began his professional career at 106 pounds.
But, with a record of 3-4 in his last seven fights, should we be surprised that the 35-year-old De La Hoya might have finally hit the wall? Or are over-training, making weight too early or fighting in the wrong weight class legitimate defenses?
In boxing, like wrestling and horse racing, making weight is a fact of life. In each of these endeavors, young athletes are forced to compete well below their natural weight to gain an advantage. The body can excuse this trauma when it is young, but with age the process, which includes yo-yo diets and slowing the metabolism to a snail’s-pace, becomes more difficult and less successful.
It is why we almost always see lighter fighters moving up in weight as their careers progress. It isn’t necessarily the result of fighting less frequently or a diminished hunger to win. The body just can’t do it.
Few have seen all sides of this issue more than James “Buddy” McGirt.
McGirt, now a world-class trainer, began his 80-fight career at junior welterweight (140 pounds) and concluded it at junior middleweight (154 pounds) in 1997. Over a 15-year period, he perpetually struggled with his weight, but believes today’s fighters make the process too complicated.
“A mistake a lot of fighters make is they get these nutritionists, many who were body builders or worked with body builders. They use them as a crutch. A boxer is different than any other athlete. They might look good, they might feel good (following the nutritionists guidelines), but they aren’t able to perform,” McGirt said.
“Boxing is different than baseball and basketball, where the athlete can take time out during a game. They perform in quick bursts while a fighter needs energy over a long period of time.”
McGirt believes that common sense is the key to successful weight control.
“When I was fighting, I didn’t care if it were hot or cold,” he said. “As soon as I was done training I would have hot tea with lemon and honey, put a towel over my head and sweat it out. I was taught you eat until you are content, not full. When we would go out to dinner, my trainer would let me order whatever I wanted. But, when my trainer thought I had had enough, he would take stuff off my plate or pour coffee on the rest (signaling that dinner was over).
“You can’t do that to a fighter today. They get babied by the managers, trainers, and promoters and become prima donnas.”
McGirt said that too many fighters only go to the gym when they have a scheduled fight. The gym becomes punishment, as does maintaining weight. As he or she ages, the average fighter will balloon in weight between bouts; thus, camp becomes a diet farm more than a place to train for the opponent.
For De La Hoya, who has fought as heavy as 160 pounds, the situation was different.
He weighed close to the welterweight limit of 147 a month before the bout, officially weighed in at 145 and then gained only two pounds over night, evidence that he lowered his natural weight significantly. This led to the notion that he over trained and had nothing left by fight time.
Since he only gained two pounds after the weigh-in, he certainly wasn’t dehydrated, yet couldn’t perform at a high level against Pacquiao. Why?
Any fighter can drop his weight. It appears that De La Hoya did it slowly with the help of experts but most likely lost muscle in addition to fat. And remember: Less muscle = less strength.
Age is an important variable. Everyone wants to believe that with proper preparation and hard work a boxer can turn back the clock and fight as he or she did when at 25.
This might not matter against another 35 year old who has lost some of his speed but it does against a fighter as quick and ferocious as Pacquiao.
It might also make a difference if the fighter could adapt his or her style to their ring age, meaning what they’re capable of doing physically. For example, George Foreman barely moved his feet but was still able to knock out former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer in 1994. Foreman understood his limitations and adjusted accordingly.
The most reasonable excuse of all might be that De La Hoya had not competed at welterweight since 2001. He might’ve had more success against Pacquiao if had gradually come down in weight and adjusted to small, but strong opponents. Instead, he fought once at 150 and was taken the distance by light-punching Steve Forbes.
In medically assessing a boxer’s overall fitness, there exists no comparable test to fighting 12 rounds. When you factor in Pacquiao as the opponent, the task becomes impossible. Only the fight itself reveals the truth.
And the truth is that, yes, De La Hoya might’ve had problems with weight but there was more to it than that. The game plan devised by Freddie Roach, Pacquiao’s trainer, and the ability of Pacquiao himself were the keys to fight.
“It wasn’t just the weight. Freddie knew what he saw when he trained Oscar,” McGirt said.
Every boxer has to face the eventual question, “When do I retire?” In most instances, the decision should be theirs alone, not the networks, the cornermen, the commission or the fans who pay to see them. It is always difficult to acknowledge our limitations and recognize it is time to hang them up.
I performed by first pre-fight physical on a 21-year-old De La Hoya in 1994. I remember asking him how many years he would fight. He told me, “I am going to retire at 26.”
OK, perhaps that was a bit premature, but hopefully De La Hoya will look at other former champions like Roy Jones Jr. and Evander Holyfield and make the right decision.