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U.S. OLYMPIC FESTIVAL : LOS ANGELES--1991 : The Final Frontier : Highly Regarded Oscar de la Hoya Finally Gets a Chance to Display His Skills in Front of Friends and Family

July 10, 1991|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Oscar the Boxer, it's countdown time. Two summers to go. Trouble is, when you're 18 and anxious, two summers sounds like two decades.

The other afternoon, as he lazed on his couch and watched the fights on TV, it was 390 days until the opening day of the Barcelona Olympic Games.

"I can't wait," he said, ruefully. "Sometimes it seems like a long ways away."

Oscar the Boxer, his father Joel, 51, and his brother, Joel Jr., 21, live in a small house on South McDonnell street in East Los Angeles. Oscar's sister, Ceci, lives with Joel de la Hoya's brother next door.

It's largely a Latino neighborhood, but the nearby mini-malls seem to have as many Chinese restaurants as Mexican.

While he watched the fights from Mexico on the Spanish-language station, an ice cream truck stopped outside, blaring recorded calliope music from loudspeakers. Down the street, near Rosy's Bakery and Market, a man sold watermelons from the back of a truck.

Oscar de la Hoya of East Los Angeles wants to win a boxing gold medal at the Olympics, turn pro, then make millions winning professional championships. Be a pay-per-view superstar for the mid-1990s. And a lot of people who have followed his amateur career will be surprised if none of that happens.

De la Hoya, who was graduated from Garfield High School last month, is regarded as America's best amateur boxer, its best bet to win an Olympic championship. He's a lithe, graceful athlete, a 5-foot-10 lightweight (132 pounds) whose sharp, powerful punches belie his sunny smile and good looks.

He's a heavy favorite in this week's Olympic Festival four-team boxing tournament, which begins Saturday at 1 p.m. in Gersten Pavilion at Loyola Marymount University. Semifinals at Loyola are Sunday afternoon, finals Tuesday evening at the Forum.

The Olympic Festival might seem like small potatoes to some, but if you're Oscar the Boxer, it's a very big deal.

"This will be the first time I've ever boxed in front of my friends and neighbors," he said, recounting years of amateur boxing events held all over the United States and overseas, yet never in Southern California.

"I'm excited about it, I really am," he said. "All my friends see me box only on TV. Now they'll be there, cheering for me. Finally, boxing fans in Southern California will get to know me better."

Those who know him best, amateur boxing coaches around the country, rate de la Hoya with the very best of recent Olympians.

"He's as good as any Olympic kid we've had since 1984," said Roosevelt Sanders, an assistant coach of the 1984 U.S. Olympic boxing team. Sanders is head coach of the U.S. Marine Corps team.

"I compare him to Meldrick Taylor (1984 featherweight gold medalist) because of how quickly Oscar has developed in the last year, year and a half. Meldrick was 17 when he went to the L.A. Olympics, but he came out of nowhere a year before the Olympics.

"Oscar's a natural--no other way to describe him. He's so fluid, he makes it look easy. And he's very cool under fire, never gets rattled. And with everything else he has going for him, he's a tremendous body puncher."

He's also a lightweight, a year after his agony of the Seattle Goodwill Games. He won the Goodwill Games featherweight (125 pounds) title last summer, encountering more opposition from the scales than opponents.

"We were weighing in the morning of every bout, and I was barely making 125," he said. "I was in the sauna every day. One day, I trained but didn't eat anything. At 132, I'm much stronger, training very hard and eating anything I want."

His first bout as a lightweight came in the USA-South Korea dual meet in Hawaii last January. He weighed in at 127 that day. Result: De la Hoya, KO-1.

Then there's his match against Julio Cesar Chavez. . . .

Three weeks ago, de la Hoya participated in an outlaw sparring exhibition with the world professional light-welterweight champion, Chavez, at a Huntington Park restaurant. Some call Chavez the world's greatest fighter, pound for pound.

Amateurs aren't supposed to spar with pros, but it happens every day in gyms, and the rule is generally winked at. However, without sanctioning by the California Athletic Commission, admission was charged for the de la Hoya-Chavez workout.

Afterward, the commission stepped in to investigate. It is expected the district attorney's office will be asked to bring charges against those who organized the sparring session.

As for the session itself, both boxers wore headgear, de la Hoya wore 18-ounce gloves and Chavez 16-ouncers. By all accounts, Chavez--who outweighed de la Hoya by more than 10 pounds--had much the better of it, although Oscar the Boxer got in one good shot.

"He told me afterward that the right hand I put on his jaw gave him a little bruise," de la Hoya said, grinning. "He nailed me, too. He buckled my knees with a right to my jaw.

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