At first glance, Oscar De La Hoya looks like the type of guy you could pelt with sand at the beach.
With only 125 pounds spread over a 5-foot, 11-inch frame, the soft-spoken 17-year-old from East Los Angeles is not exactly rail-thin like the character in the old Charles Atlas body-building ads, but he is no All-American gladiator either.
However, here's a bullies-beware warning presented as a public service announcement: Don't mess with him. . .
De La Hoya is a highly touted boxer who in August won the gold medal in the featherweight class at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, the latest in a series of important conquests for the reigning U.S. amateur champ. He did it with a 4-1 decision over fellow American Ivan Robinson in the final bout after disposing of two other tough foes in the preliminaries.
All of which he did in front of partisan crowds that included his parents, brother, sister and about seven other relatives cast in a support role that De La Hoya's coach, Al Stankie, credits partially with his pupil's success.
"He's got that wonderful family behind him, which a lot of kids in his position don't have," said Stankie, the former police officer who helped mold Paul Gonzales into the 1984 Olympics light-flyweight champion. "He's got uncles who even come to his workouts."
The three victories in Seattle increased De La Hoya's victim count to 30 in that same number of amateur fights since age 16 and moved him closer to four more personal goals--a world amateur title, a Pan American Games gold medal in 1991, an Olympic gold medal in 1992 and a championship belt in the professional ranks.
Stankie is among those who believe De La Hoya can reach those goals.
"In my opinion, he is going to be one of the best fighters of our time," Stankie predicted. "He has desire and determination . . . He analyzes his opponents very well and he's got tremendous punching power."
Most of that devastation is produced by a potent left jab and hook from the naturally left-handed De La Hoya, who was turned into a right-handed boxer by his first coach as a 7-year-old at the East L.A. Boys Club, now the Eddie Heredia Boxing Club.
"My coach (Joe Minjarez) said that it was too hard for him to train me as a southpaw, so he switched me. It took me about a week to adjust," commented De La Hoya, who fights out of the Kop & Kids Athletic Academy founded by Stankie and Gonzales.
His opponents, obviously, have not adjusted to him. They didn't at the Junior Olympics in 1988 nor at the National Golden Gloves in 1989 or at the U.S. Championships this year, all tournaments in which he was named the "outstanding boxer."
But to keep that kind of streak alive, De La Hoya knows he must make sacrifices other teen-agers would quiver just thinking about. Things like rising at 5 in the morning to run at the hilly Calvary Cemetery near his home, attend classes and afterward hone his skills at the gym. That's six days a week, practically year-round.
To De La Hoya, these are simply the necessary steps on the road to stardom.
"The Pan Am Games and the Olympics are my main goals right now. I'm ready," said De La Hoya, who figures he'll move up a notch to the 135-pound lightweight division by the time the 1992 Barcelona Olympics roll around. "If I move up, I don't think it'll be a problem."
De La Hoya makes no effort to camouflage his pride, fueled a bit more each time his arm is lifted by a referee. His face radiates self-assurance when he is discussing his meteoric rise to the international boxing scene.
"What I like the most right now is the challenge of beating men older than me," explained the Garfield High School senior, who hopes to study architecture someday, a task his father, Joel, would like to see accomplished.
"Oscar is very talented in the ring; very clever. But he needs an education. His school work should not lag behind," the boxer's father said.
For now, the ones truly getting a crash course in boxing are De La Hoya's opponents.