Bernard Fernandez

1990s: Bona fide Superstar

Note: This unedited article was lifted from the September 1995 issue of THE RING Magazine for our special 90th Anniversary issue (February 2012).

 

Oscar Is The Boxer Of The ‘90s


Great promoters, by definition, are men of vision. They are able to take the long view and predict what people want before they know they want it.
And so it is for pugilistic prophet Bob Arum, who can see a day, probably years down the road, when boxing fans will want nothing so much as a matchup of Oscar De La Hoya, by then filled out to a robust 160 pounds and well on his way to his stated goal of six world championships in six weight classifications, and Dana Rosenblatt. De La Hoya, the only American gold medalist in boxing at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, presumably will have expanded his already considerable appeal among Hispanic and Anglo fans, and Rosenblatt will have proven himself a worthy successor to such great Jewish fighters as Benny Leonard and Barney Ross. Pay-per-view subscriptions in record numbers, to Arum’s way of thinking, almost certainly will be ordered for a superfight in which so many ethnic bases are touched.
Shortly after De La Hoya solidified his claim to being the world’s best lightweight with a two-round blowout of IBF champion Rafael Ruelas at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and Rosenblatt retained that little bauble known as the WBC Continental-Americas middleweight title with an emphatic one-punch knockout of Chad Parker on the undercard, Arum allowed himself the luxury of thinking out loud.
“The dream fight for the biggest money of all-time is Oscar and Rosenblatt,” Arum said with the enthusiasm of P.T. Barnum announcing the first American tour under his promotional banner by Tom Thumb or Jumbo the Elephant. “That’s what I think about when I go to sleep at night.”
Not everyone’s dreams are made of this, of course. But only a visionary like Arum is capable of taking a leap of faith large enough to project Rosenblatt, a southpaw with commendable skills, as a latter-day melding of Benny Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
No one, however, can say that Arum is a recent jumper onto the De La Hoya bandwagon. Nearly everyone predicted great things for “The Golden Boy” since—and in many cases, before—he became the Olympic 132-pound champion by decisioning Germany’s Marco Rudolph. And no one was heaping  out praise in larger doses than Arum, who figured De La Hoya’s fluency in English and Spanish, matinee-idol good looks, appealing personality, and, oh, yes, vast array of ring abilities made for a box office attraction of unfathomable dimensions.
“He’s got it all going for him right now,” Arum said early in De La Hoya’s professional career. “The Olympic thing, the punch, the looks: The package is good. He looks special, don’t you think? I think he’s going to be bigger than Sugar Ray Leonard or Marvin Hagler… he’ll be the biggest in boxing history, except for Ali.”
Oscar the (Money) Pouch has been the basis of many comparisons, not all of them as glowing as those outlined by Arum. Several actual or would-be managers have told tales of an ungrateful and callous lout, a Judas in padded gloves whose loyalty can be bought by whomever brings the largest suitcase filled with high denomination currency. Still others point to flash-knockdowns suffered against the undistinguished likes of Narciso Valenzuela and Giorgio Campanella and recall the wasted potential of Paul Gonzales, the 1984 Olympic champion who, like De La Hoya, was a product of the East L.A. barrio. Gonzales’ pro career never came close to living up to the impossibly high expectations set by others. Talent is one thing, but it takes an especially strong individual, a Muhammad Ali or a Michael Jordan, to flourish under the hot glare of a spotlight that never shuts off. Recalling their sparring sessions before De La Hoya went to Barcelona, Ruelas figured his mental toughness, hewn by an up-by-the-bootstraps approach to life and boxing, would prove the difference once the punches started flying for real.
“I learned he’s not very strong up here,” said Ruelas, tapping his heart. “I learned that he doesn’t like pressure, which is what he’s going to get. He’s always gotten it from me, and he’ll get it again. Things came a lot easier for him. Maybe they came too quickly, too sudden.
“People also say Oscar’s chin is questionable. His chin is not questionable. It’s already been shown his chin is not the greatest. When he went down from those guys who can’t punch, it removed the question.”
Ruelas is normally the most gracious of fighters, as incapable of snarling insults as he is of carrying on a conversation as in, say, Mandarin Chinese. But there has always been something about Oscar that has raised his hackles. It might have been something to do with irritation at the red carpet that has been put down since the beginning for De La Hoya, who was paid $75,000 for his first pro bout. That’s a rate slightly in excess of the $400 Ruelas, then 17, received for his pro debut in 1989.
Class envy, like racial, ethnic, national, and geographical differences, is the backdrop for the most widely anticipated fights. Fans, and often the fighters themselves, are compelled to draw a line that neatly separates protagonists. Boxing’s tension is derived from the anticipation of one man crossing that line and operating successfully in his opponent’s zone.
On the surface, the pairing of De La Hoya and Ruelas appeared to lack any significant conflict. De La Hoya, 22, is an American citizen of Mexican descent; Ruelas, 24, is a green card carrying Mexican national who has lived in the USA since age seven. With Las Vegas hotels jammed with Mexican and Mexican-American tourists who made the fight the focal point of a weekend Cinco de Mayo celebration, a most unlikely point of contention arose.
Golf.
De La Hoya acknowledged sneaking off from training to a nine-hole course at his training camp in Big Bear for the occasional round. It is his newest passion, a means of escaping the pressures of the gym.
“I think all boxers should get into golf,” De La Hoya said. “Boxers have great hand-eye coordination. It’s there. The timing, everything, is there.”
To Ruelas, golf is not so much a leisure activity as it is a preserve for rich Anglos. Ruelas is not a golfer, nor does he expect to become one, and he cited De La Hoya’s fondness for putters and pitching wedges as proof that “The Golden Boy” somehow drifted from his roots.
“After this fight, Oscar might want to take a rest and consider a career in golf,” Ruelas said. “His heart obviously is not in boxing. It’s just something he does for money. He’d rather be out hitting golf balls.”
None of the prefight comments from either man surprised  Arum, who said the golf thing was merely a stitch in a wider social fabric.
“The same sort of things were pointed out when Sugar Ray Leonard fought Thomas Hearns the first time, in 1981,” he noted. “Leonard was the Olympic gold medalist with national television contract. He was the media darling. Tommy was the kid who came up the hard way. Of course there was friction between them.
“None of this is manufactured, but I wouldn’t categorize it as dislike. These guys have known each other since they were kids. The first time they sparred, they were, like, 11 and 13 years old. There’s always been a rivalry between them, but I would say it’s a rivalry in the best sense. Each one just wants to prove he’s the better fighter.”
Whatever the reasons, De La Hoya-Ruelas attracted almost unprecedented pay-per-view interest among Hispanic fans, contributing to an overall buy rate that exceeded even that for Roy Jones-James Toney. De La Hoya, who cracked the traditional seven-figure barrier for superstars when he took home $1.25-million for his previous outing, a 12-round unanimous decision over former IBF junior lightweight titlist John-John Molina, continued to soar toward megabucks territory with a $1.75-million payday, while Ruelas became the newest member of boxing’s millionaires club by pocketing $1-million.
“If he hadn’t won the gold medal,” Ruelas said, “there’s no story.”
Perhaps he was merely trying to hype interest in the bout, or maybe he was just giving his honest opinion, but De La Hoya fired the first shot in the war of words immediately after he got past Molina. Of Ruelas, against whom he was already contracted to face, De La Hoya said matter-of-factly, “I view Ruelas as awkward. He has bad balance, always jungling with his punches. With that bad balance, when I catch him with some good shots, he’ll fall over.”
Ruelas seemed to be taken aback by De La Hoya’s put-downs, reacting at first with quiet dismay, and later with an increasingly strident air of indignation.
“If he’s trying to get to me, it won’t happen,” Ruelas said several weeks before the fight. “I don’t know his reason for doing it, but Oscar’s been talking a lot of trash. If he wants to elevate himself in his own mind by putting me down, that’s his way of doing it. I’ll give my answer in the ring.”
A few days before fight night, however, Ruelas angrily denounced De La Hoya’s assertion that he would “take Ruelas’ heart.”
“How’s he going to take my heart?” Ruelas said. “If he really believes that, he is fooling himself.” Of their 1992 pre-Olympic sparring sessions, Ruelas added, “He asked to spar, but after two days he didn’t want to come back to the gym. It was too tough for him.”
Ruelas’ excitable trainer, Joe Goossen, was even more unforgiving in his recollections. “Oscar left because he got his ass whipped,” said Goossen, who allowed that Ruelas would be “all over Oscar like a soup sandwich. Molina had the right idea. He just didn’t have the skills … Rafael does.
The prefight heat was turned up a few notches when, at the final press conference, De La Hoya and Ruelas were seated on opposite sides of a long dais. On De La Hoya’s side of the stage was a large Mexican flag; on Ruelas’ side was a large American flag. The placing of the flags was coincidental, but intentions were unmistakable when it was Ruelas’ turn to speak. He switched the flags before stepping to the podium, as if to say he is more Mexican than De La Hoya.
Give Ruelas credit for winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the majority of the 10,118 spectators in Caesar’s Palace’s outdoor stadium. Ruelas, who went off as a 5-2 underdog, was cheered much more loudly upon entering the ring than was De La Hoya, the golfing insider.
But words and images meant nothing more once the bell sounded, and it was immediately evident that De La Hoya’s observations about Ruelas’ balance were as on-target as his punches would prove to be. Rushing from his corner, Ruelas, 135, Sylmar, California, uncorked a wild hook that missed badly and sent him lurching off to the side. De La Hoya, 134½, East Los Angeles, California, moved laterally and won the round by scoring with a couple of hooks to the body and some right hands.
Ruelas’ sense of balance became further impaired when, a minute or so into the second round, he attempted to throw a right and was countered by a well-timed hook to the jaw. The IBF champion crashed to the canvas, and although he beat the count of referee Richard Steele (USA), he arose on wobbly legs.
De La Hoya wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. He quickly put Ruelas down again, this time with a short right, and he was landing freely with both hands along the ropes when Steele leaped in and signaled a halt to the bout at the 1:43 mark.
“He knew I’d be coming after him,” Ruelas said. “I tried to get things started a little faster than I normally do, and he just caught me with a clean shot. He caught me before I caught him.”
Alternately pompous and penitent, De La Hoya strives to appear humble even as his arrogance bubbles to the surface. Asked if his quickie demolition of Ruelas had put him on a par with WBC welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker, who is widely perceived as boxing’s best pound-for-pound practitioner, De La Hoya said, “Oh, no. Too tough for me. I’ve only had 18 fights. I’m still a little Chihuahua in with all these pit bulls.” Moments later, the cautious Oscar gave way to the defiant Oscar, who allowed that “in my heart, I am the best fighter.”
Next up for De La Hoya will be WBA 130-pound champion Genaro Hernandez in September, which will also make for a battle of Los Angeles. The bucks and the rave reviews figure to keep on pouring in.
Arum, meanwhile is left to wonder whether boxing’s answer to Jumbo will continue to swell to elephantine proportions.
“He’s going to be huge, the biggest thing in boxing,” Arum said of De La Hoya. “I’m not saying he is or will be a better fighter than Roy Jones or Pernell Whitaker, but he’ll be bigger at the box office. There’s an element of charisma that comes into play. Sugar Ray Leonard had it. This kid has it, too.
“Leonard provided us with the map we’re going to follow. The map traces a route from a big fight to a bigger fight to an even bigger fight after that.”
Only time will tell if the route goes past the Ruelas brothers and Rosenblatt and maybe Julio Cesar Chavez, and all the way to that place where Ali and a precious few others reside. All of us can’t see the entire map. But the trajectory being followed does seem to be heading up. Way up.
Bernard Fernandez covers boxing for the Philadelphia Daily News. 

Around the web