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After all the championship belts won and all the millions upon millions earned, after all the accolades and all the sometimes unruly acclaim, even after all the successes in boxing and business, the first victory remains the golden one and the last – the victory over himself – remains the most important for Oscar De La Hoya.
The year 2013 was a mixed blessing for a tarnished Golden Boy. It is the year he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame on the first ballot and the year another relapse into the fog of alcoholism sent him back into rehab only days before his fighter, Canelo Alvarez, was to face Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a bout that would break the record De La Hoya and Mayweather set for gross pay-per-view income six years earlier.
Yet 2013 was more than a familiar pattern of ups and downs, of boxing triumphs and real-life defeats. It was the year De La Hoya did what he'd been trained since he was 5 years old never to do.
It was the year he surrendered.
For an alcoholic or anyone ravaged by the demon of addiction, that is the only chance you have. Only in admitting defeat is there a shot at victory. But what fighter can admit such a thing? What champion ever had his hand raised who hadn't denied the soothing voice of defeat whispering to give up? Who can be a successful fighter if he is willing to admit the fight is lost?
That was the conundrum Oscar De La Hoya sparred with for years before he finally accepted that in one part of his life defeat was actually victory.
“This is the fight of my life,” De La Hoya said during a lengthy two-day interview recently. “I've finally surrendered to it. I kept going in and out and in and out [of rehab], hurting my family, hurting myself, doing these things that are not me. How can I stop? I finally realized I don't have no bottom. Addicts talk about their bottom all the time. My bottom was death. But surrender? That was impossible.
“My whole life was training myself NOT to surrender. I didn't understand this is a different fight. This is a fight where I have to lace up the gloves every day knowing you never win this fight. It never ends. It's not like getting in with [Julio Cesar] Chavez or [Shane] Mosley or [Felix] Trinidad. No one raises your hand. You have to admit in this fight you don't have the power to win. All my life I thought I had that power. I don't know how it happened, but it finally became clear to me my ego is not my amigo."
De La Hoya chuckled at those final words. He had, he says, through a power greater than himself, finally learned the truth. “My ego is not my amigo!” It sounds simple but when all the successes in your life have been fueled by a lethal combination of fear, fire and first-person thinking, it is not.
“I was tired,” De La Hoya said of his recent acceptance of the sobering realities of addiction. “I didn't want to be this athlete-celebrity who people shake their heads at and say ‘How can he let this happen?’ I finally had to see who I was. I wasn't the boxer. I wasn't the celebrity or the owner of a powerful promotional company. I was an alcoholic. I'd done all those other things. I accomplished a lot in boxing but I also have a disease.
“If you're blessed, you just say one day, ‘OK.’ You don't deny it no more. I had to let my guard down and admit I cannot do this on my own. How do you do that? You give in. I'd been knocked down before. Now I'd been knocked down harder. Now what?”
Less than five days before Mayweather-Alvarez the answer became clear when he issued a press release saying he had voluntarily checked himself into a treatment center again. It was not the first time but the hope is it will be the last. He attends almost daily AA meetings, some as early as 5 a.m., to try and make that reality, to try and win the fight you can never win but cannot afford to lose.
“All these resentments from the past I'd carried for so long,” he said. “I was a volcano way overdue to erupt. I was a volcano that needed to erupt. I didn't know how to express my feelings to my father (Joel, a stern taskmaster who first pushed his son into boxing). I couldn't share my emotions with my family. So I escaped. I was very good at it.”
For years, he said, boxing was his release. Inside the ring he was free from the fears that enveloped much of the rest of his life. Free from emotional pain he could not shoulder nor face. Free from the normal rules of society, too. Free, frankly, to punch someone in the face and make them feel the pain he was carrying.
Those emotions, plus his own hard-earned skills and tremendous punching power in his early years as a junior lightweight, lightweight and welterweight, made him an 11-time world champion in six weight divisions. Those skills, plus Hollywood good looks and a dramatic back story of the kid from East L.A. who carried his sport on his back for a decade, made him wealthy – at one point, in the estimate of Forbes magazine, he was worth $175 million. He was also a fighter who, with Mayweather as the B-side, set the all-time pay-per-view sales record of over 2.5 million buys on May 5, 2007.
That night would end with Mayweather winning a split decision in a fight that shattered the previous pay-per-view buy rate of 1.99 million set by the Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson rematch. It is believed De la Hoya grossed $52 million that night, the highest purse in boxing history at that time.
None of that stopped him from drinking. None of it stopped him from being an occasional cocaine abuser. None of it stopped his problems. Yet boxing did allow him one escape.
“I was pretty fortunate to be free to beat somebody up in the ring,” said De La Hoya. “It was a way of letting out my frustrations. That's why I lasted so long. If I didn't have boxing, who knows where I'd be? I know I wouldn't be here.”
“Here” encompasses many places, including next June in Canastota, N.Y., the home of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He fought his way there just as he's fighting his way to a sober life. Yet of all those world titles the one that counts the most is the first one. The golden one.
The pure one.
“Oh, the gold medal!" De La Hoya says immediately when asked if he could only retain one victory, which would it be. “That one was for glory, for honor, for my mother. That's the one that started it all. That silhouette in the Golden Boy Promotions logo is me, and the gold edge around it is that gold medal."
The Golden Boy's story was always tinged with sadness as well as success. A boxer since the age of 5, De La Hoya was born into a fighting family. His grandfather, father and brother all boxed but none as well as he did. He was 234-6 as an amateur and by the age of 17 winner of the 1990 U.S. Nationals and the Goodwill Games. But the luster of those successes that year was dulled by learning his mother, Cecilia, was terminally ill with breast cancer. Always his strongest supporter, she died that October but not before telling her 17-year-old son that her dream was that he would win Olympic gold.
Less than two years later, their story now the backdrop for his growing popularity, De La Hoya stood sweaty and wet-eyed in the middle of a ring in Barcelona, Spain, his hand raised after defeating German Marco Rudolph for the gold. Later that day he gathered with family and friends to eat lunch not far from the arena. It was hosted by Hall of Fame boxing trainer Lou Duva, who believed he had signed De La Hoya. He was wrong, but that day the Golden Boy was born.
“When we got home, there were thousands of people waiting for us at the airport,” De La Hoya recalled. “I couldn't believe it. I was a kid. What did I know? It really was about the glory. I think that was maybe the last pure Olympic team we had. We weren't fighting for contracts. We were fighting for pride. That's all gone now. Now all these kids think about at the Olympics is signing pro contracts.
“I said I would go home and go to college but the truth was I was afraid. I was always afraid. I didn't fight in the street. I was afraid of getting beat up. When I thought about college, I was afraid to go. The only thing I wasn't afraid of was boxing. I was never afraid in the ring. It was the only place I wasn't. When I would lace up those gloves, I felt I was in control of my life. If you hit me in the face, it was on. I was going to hit you back.
“I have a picture of myself on my wall boxing when I was 5½. I have the same look of determination on my face I had later. I was going to win.”
Soon he knew he was also going pro, an idea that began to dawn on him after returning from the 1992 Olympics and taking that gold medal to his mother's grave. When he returned, there were always messages waiting.
“I started getting phone calls from people, and I didn't know how they got my number," De La Hoya said. “They were all talking about money.”
De La Hoya made his pro debut three months later, on Nov. 23, 1992, at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., then the home of the Lakers. Sixteen years later they would erect a seven-foot statue of him outside the new home of the Lakers, the Staples Center. It would stare back at one of Magic Johnson. In a sense, both were magic and tragic, their private lives at war with their public personas.
De La Hoya's success was immediate and spectacular. By his 12th fight, he was a world champion, stopping WBO junior lightweight titleholder Jimmy Bredhal in the 10th round. He had been a pro less than a year and a half.
Two more fights and he was lightweight champion. And by May 1995 he had unified the title by crushing Rafael Ruelas in two rounds. Thirteen months later he would stand across the ring from his boyhood idol, challenging Julio Cesar Chavez for the junior welterweight title at Caesars Palace. He was 23 and a rock star.
The two fighters made a 13-city, seven-day pilgrimage across America on two Caesars' jets to hype what was at the time the biggest non-heavyweight title fight in history. Chavez was 96-1-1 with more than three times as many stoppages (74) as De La Hoya had fights (22). He wore his crown with a champion's arrogance.
De La Hoya would defeat him in four bloody rounds, learning in the months leading up to the fight that meeting your idol is not always what you hoped. He also learned that defeating Chavez would cause a segment of the Latino boxing audience to turn on him.
“It wasn't what I expected it would be, but I have always respected Chavez as a fighter," De La Hoya said. “I still do. I idolized him. When I beat him the first time, he got cut in the first round and said he'd been cut in training. I guess so. The second time I beat him (two years later) he was bleeding again. He didn't say nothing.
“It wasn't difficult to fight my idol. I'd been trained to do it. I'd been trained to take all the emotion out of it. Boxing was my job. My business was to hurt guys. You didn't think about any other emotion.”
Despite his growing success after winning the lineal welterweight title with a hotly disputed but unanimous decision over Pernell Whitaker two fights later, De La Hoya had become a lightning rod as well as boxing's biggest draw. He opened up an entirely new fan base that included women in droves, but also garnered the enmity of a portion of hardcore Latino fans.
His pay-per-view numbers were astounding, he was undefeated and had twice faced down Chavez, the epitome of Latino machismo, and beaten the unhittable Whitaker (40-1-1 at the time), yet to some he had become a symbol of nothing they understood or appreciated.
“I was a pretty boy to them,” De La Hoya said. “I didn't look like a fighter. I didn't have my nose flat. I didn't bleed enough in the ring. I'd beaten Chavez, but I couldn't please them.”
One such person was De La Hoya's father, with whom he had a prickly relationship for years. The father, it seemed, was never able to be just a father. Boxing is a hard place devoid of emotion. It is the hurt business, and for years it hurt the son to never hear his father's praise.
That didn't come until after the oddest of nights: Sept. 18, 1999. De La Hoya was in Las Vegas to face his greatest challenge, undefeated IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad, in a unification showdown between undefeated stars. It set a pay-per-view record for non-heavyweights and was dominated by De La Hoya for the first nine rounds.
Then, inexplicably, he stopped fighting, taking literally his corner's instruction to “box, move." The more he did, the harder Trinidad attacked and the more De La Hoya looked like he was running, giving away the final three rounds.
He outlanded Trinidad, 236-116, giving him the kind of boxing lesson Bernard Hopkins would use to develop the plan that allowed him to destroy Trinidad, yet somehow Trinidad was awarded a majority decision, leaving De La Hoya enraged and stupefied.
“When I got back to the locker room I went berserk,” he said. “I punched a locker. I started crying. I couldn't believe they could do that to me. I was devastated. Then my father told me I'd fought a beautiful fight. I finally lose, and that's when he tells me I'm a great fighter? That felt really good, but I resented that decision for a long time.
“I don't have any anger about it anymore. Only recently was I able to feel that way. I let that resentment go. It's in the past. You can't change it.”
De La Hoya badly wanted a rematch, but it never happened, and in less than a year he was awarded the WBC title after Trinidad relinquished it rather than face him. De La Hoya then chose to take on lightweight champion Shane Mosley, an old nemesis from their amateur days.
Mosley had inflicted two of De La Hoya's six amateur losses, and moving up two weight classes posed a considerable problem De La Hoya understood then and accepts today.
“Shane Mosley was a very difficult opponent," De La Hoya said. “He was a great fighter. For a few years he may have been the best in the world. He was fast. He was strong. He could punch. I knew Mosley was a difficult opponent, but those were the fights I wanted. I wanted to fight the best, and he was the best."
He was soon also the winner of a split decision, appearing to carry the night in the final two rounds, and De La Hoya doesn't dispute the outcome. What was more debatable was the rematch three years later, two fights after De La Hoya faced an old rival, Fernando Vargas, to unify the junior middleweight title.
“I still can't believe Vargas hated me so much," De La Hoya said. “How could he hate me when to the best of my knowledge I never did anything to him? I have to believe he was just trying to motivate himself."
Vargas once claimed De La Hoya laughed at him after he fell into a snow drift when both were training in the mountains east of Los Angeles. Whatever the truth of that, by the time De La Hoya returned from a 15-month layoff, there was nothing between the two of them but bile. At one point, De La Hoya said he would never fight Vargas because he'd been so blatantly disrespectful, but they finally faced off on Sept. 14, 2002. The promoters dubbed the event “Bad Blood." No one could quarrel with that.
The bout was surprisingly even after six rounds, but De La Hoya took over in the second half of the fight, badly wobbling Vargas with a left hook in the 10th and dropping him in the 11th before the bout was stopped after a salvo of unanswered punches. Two fights later, De La Hoya was back in with Mosley, and this time lost a unanimous decision. Even though CompuBox stats had De La Hoya outlanding him 221-127, Mosley was a 115-113 winner on all three cards, an announcement that seemed to stun even Mosley.
That was the beginning of an odd pattern. De la Hoya would win one and lose the next, going 3-4 in his final seven fights. That included losing an ill-advised challenge for the middleweight title to Hopkins after being handed what he now says “was probably a gift" in outpointing Felix Sturm to win the WBO 160-pound title to become the first boxer to win championships in six separate weight classes.
“I was confident in training camp,'” De La Hoya said. “I thought I was faster and I could beat Hopkins. But when I got in the ring with him and I had to look up at him, I thought 'Uh, oh!' He was so much bigger than me. I thought I was holding my own until he hit me with that body shot in the ninth round. I was all right after 11 seconds, but for 10 seconds I couldn't breathe. Those 10 seconds are all that count in boxing.”
He would not fight for 20 months before coming back to dismantle Ricardo Mayorga and set up the Mayweather fight. Many wondered why he abandoned his jab halfway through the latter at a time when he was controlling the tempo with it. Only De La Hoya knew why.
“I got old in the middle of that fight," De La Hoya said.
With time running out and his problems outside the ring growing, De La Hoya didn't fight for a year before winning a tune-up and then announcing he would face boxing's hottest commodity, Manny Pacquiao, on Dec. 6, 2008. Pacquiao was boxing's pound-for-pound champion but was moving up from 135 to 147, a jump De La Hoya felt would be too much for him.
What he didn't realize was moving down from 154 for the first time in seven years would be even more daunting for him.
“I thought there was no way he could beat me," De La Hoya recalled. “He was too small. But I hadn't been 147 in seven years. I went on this weird diet. I was eating only kangaroo meat and venison. Someone said it matched my blood type. I lost so much weight, I was down to 142 a month before the fight. Lightweights were beating me up in the gym. You look back and wonder what you were thinking.”
Whatever he was thinking he knew once the fight began that Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, had been right when he said he was shot. Unable to pull the trigger and his legs all but gone, De La Hoya took a harsh beating for eight rounds before retiring on his stool, his head bowed.
He was 35 and well aware he was finished as a boxer. But he had already insured his future. Six years earlier De La Hoya founded Golden Boy Promotions, which has become a driving force in the sport. Originally his own fights were the backbone of the enterprise, but as his career wound down, he and CEO Richard Schaefer began to sign a vast array of talent, including partnerships with Hopkins and Mosley.
By then he also had two children (adding a third in January) with his wife Millie Corretjer, a former Puerto Rican pop star; a Grammy-nominated CD; and growing real estate holdings that included the office building that housed GBP in downtown L.A. But as he continued to battle his demons, De La Hoya gradually became less and less involved in his company.
Over time Schaefer became more the face of Golden Boy than the Golden Boy. In recent years Schaefer and rival promoter Bob Arum, who promoted De La Hoya in his early career, became involved in a very public rivalry that has led them to do no business together since 2009 despite the prominence of their companies.
De La Hoya is ready to change that, he says, and is ready to reassert himself to put his company back in line with the values for which it was established 12 years ago. And it will be without Schaefer, who announced on Monday that he was leaving the company.
“Boxing gave me everything,” De La Hoya said of both the sport and the company that bears his image and name and once also bore his belief that doing what was best for boxing and its fans was good business.. “When I started Golden Boy, it was a bold move, but I approached it the way I approached boxing – being aggressive and believing in myself. I believed Golden Boy would be successful, and it has been. It gave me something to be involved with, but not making a comeback [to the ring] was very difficult. I didn't have to come back for money or because I had something to prove. I just loved the challenge. I loved the fighting spirit. It's in my DNA.
“Many mornings I’d wake up thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this today.’ The problem was then I'd run five miles and couldn't get out of bed for two days. My joints were aching. My ankles were flaring up. They were indications my time had passed, but I kept finding excuses to make that comeback. I was searching for it.
“Sitting ringside at our fights, I'd think, ‘I can beat that guy.’ I could beat anybody sitting at ringside, but I finally came to realize it was OK to accept I'd had my time. I'm working on that every day, to feel at peace with myself.”
One thing he does seem at peace with is reasserting himself as the driving force behind Golden Boy Promotions. Formed at the height of his own boxing powers, Golden Boy has grown to become arguably the No. 1 promotional company in the sport. And now a new chapter begins.
“I started Golden Boy to help boxing, and I'm not even close to accomplishing that goal," De La Hoya said. “… I've seen many people start in boxing with good intentions, but things happen. I believe you can be successful in this business without pettiness. I believe everybody can co-exist. If it's done right, everybody can make money and be successful. But you have egos. Pride gets in the way. If you have two elephants fighting, everybody around them suffers. Unfortunately it happens. …
“Being a promoter is very difficult, but I have to go back to my roots with the fighters. Golden Boy Promotions is a business, but it's not a business of screwing the fighters. It's promoting the best fighters and the best fights. It's why I got into this. My motivation has always been, ‘let's be fair.’ Greed is a bad thing. It's not good for nobody.”
De la Hoya always said his company would be transparent, letting his fighters know exactly what a promotion earned and what was left after expenses. He says fighters asking questions doesn't bother him because he asked questions himself as a fighter and feels they are entitled to answers.
Most importantly, with his personal fight ongoing but now under control, De La Hoya says he's back.
“Golden Boy Promotions is me," he said. “Golden Boy Promotions is my company. I'm awake again. I'm clear-minded. I'm motivated. I finally feel grateful for so many things. I feel alive. I'm not going nowhere. Somebody woke up the sleeping giant. I'm going to be involved like never before. Promoters and managers never laced up the gloves. They don't know what it's like. I know what a fighter is feeling. I know when they are happy and when they're sad. I think like a fighter. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
“I feel at peace with myself. I just started to feel that. When I was a kid, I was angry all the time. That was part of those bottled up emotions. I've finally let those go. I'm making amends to a lot of people. I feel very positive. I want to use boxing as a vehicle to be of service, to impact people with the same disease I have. The sky's the limit for Golden Boy Promotions."
And, one hopes, for the Golden Boy, too.