As the late-afternoon sun beat down on his East Los Angeles neighborhood, Oscar De La Hoya walked out of a small street-corner store, munching on a chocolate ice cream bar.
"It's a little treat," De La Hoya said, savoring the snack.
After working hard for years to become an international boxing champion, De La Hoya, 19, now has his eyes on a much bigger treat--an Olympic gold medal.
He is expected to head to Barcelona later this month to compete in the 1992 Olympics, where he will be one of the favorites to win the gold medal in the lightweight division.
Some experts consider De La Hoya, one of a long line of outstanding Mexican-American boxers from Los Angeles, the best amateur fighter in the United States. He certainly is one of the most confident. When he talks, in a sometimes barely audible voice, there is little doubt that De La Hoya believes in himself and his Olympic goal.
The aura that some might perceive as arrogance is nothing more than De La Hoya's attempts to remain in character, to stay focused. De La Hoya says he has to think that way, not only to maintain an edge over his opponent in the ring, but also to honor his mother's memory. Cecilia De La Hoya died of cancer two years ago. She had hoped to see her son become an Olympic champion, and Oscar wants to fulfill that dream.
"I'm ready," De La Hoya said recently, sitting on the front porch of the home where he has lived all his life. A shiny new black Camaro Z28, his pride and joy, was in the driveway. "I've been working 13 years for that goal. Promising the gold medal to my mom is what's keeping me going. The motivation that she's still giving me is definitely part of the drive that keeps me going."
De La Hoya has been hooked on boxing since he wandered into the former East L.A. Boys Club, now the Eddie Heredia Boxing Club, as a 6-year-old. He had seen his older brother, Joel De La Hoya Jr., in organized bouts at the club and thought it would be fun to mix it up with other kids. His opponents soon realized they were no match for the newcomer.
"My first fight, I stopped him in the first round," said De La Hoya, a natural left-hander who was turned into a right-handed boxer by his first coach, who said it was too difficult to train the young prospect as a left-hander. "Back then, I was in it for the fun of it. But when I got that first trophy, I wanted more."
And he got plenty more.
In 1988, De La Hoya won the featherweight classification at the Junior Olympics and one year later became the National Golden Gloves champion in the same division. At the Goodwill Games in Seattle in August, 1990, De La Hoya gained international prominence by winning the featherweight division against experienced fighters from around the world. It was the last major event in which his mother saw him compete.
After Seattle, De La Hoya and his coach, Al Stankie, set their sights on the Pan American Games in Havana in 1991 and the 1992 Olympics. But things did not unfold as planned. De La Hoya fired Stankie, who once trained 1984 Olympic champion Paul Gonzales, after the former LAPD vice officer was sentenced to three months in County Jail for drunk driving. De La Hoya then skipped the Pan Am Games to prepare for the world amateur championships.
At the championships in Australia last November, De La Hoya suffered his first defeat in 39 bouts as Germany's Marco Rudolph beat him in a decision in a second-round match. The loss stunned De La Hoya.
"The guy (Rudolph) is nothing," said De La Hoya, who graduated from Garfield High School last year. "I didn't train well enough for the tournament. My timing was off. I learned a lot from that. It woke me up."
Still, De La Hoya had a successful '91 and was named the amateur boxer of the year by USA Boxing, the sport's governing body in this country. His victories included a decision over world lightweight champion Julio Gonzalez in the U.S.-Cuba match, and he also won his second national lightweight title. De La Hoya said Gonzalez will be his primary concern in Barcelona.
"The only one I'm going to worry about is the Cuban," said De La Hoya, 5 feet 11 and 132 pounds. "He runs a lot in the ring; he moves too much. I'm going to have to chase him."
That he will have to do. There will probably be a gold medal at stake in that one.
It has been eight months since De La Hoya lost to Rudolph in Sydney, but he has not forgotten.
So every morning, when the light of day is creeping over the hills at Calvary Cemetery near his home, De La Hoya gets in his six-mile roadwork on the desolate grounds. He spends five afternoons a week in the gym with trainer Robert Alcazar, sparring--sometimes against pros such as World Boxing Assn. junior-lightweight champion Genaro (Chicanito) Hernandez--hitting the bag, doing whatever is necessary to stay sharp. Barcelona soon will be transformed from dream to reality.
The hard work, Alcazar hopes, will pay off in the Olympics.