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The Not-so-sweet Science Of Selling Oscar De La Hoya

May 09, 1993|MICHAEL LEAHY | Santa Monica-based Michael Leahy is the author of "Hard Lessons: Senior Year at Beverly Hills High School." His article on the Colorado Rockies appeared last week in this magazine

Many in the crowd chuckled approvingly. Up in the ring, De La Hoya, unusually tall for a lightweight at 5 foot 11 and blessed with the broad, powerful frame of a man 15 pounds heavier, toyed elegantly with three sparring partners. "The matador," one smitten woman sighed, holding a baby in her arms and dreamily swaying to a salsa tune pulsating through her headphones. Most in the enraptured crowd surged toward the fighter when the workout ended. He signed autographs for half an hour and did three interviews for Spanish media outlets. Bilingual, he generally spends as much time at press conferences answering questions in Spanish as in English.

He basked in the adulation, even while grieving privately. He thought of his mother, Cecilia, who had not lived to see her 39th birthday, the victim of breast cancer to which she succumbed two years before Oscar would drive to the grave to say that his promise to her had been fulfilled: He'd brought home a gold medal from Barcelona and would hang it on the mantel at home, next to her picture. What happened to his mother offered evidence to him that life was not a storybook, not in the absence of security.

His father, 51-year-old Joel De La Hoya Sr., briefly a professional lightweight in his 20s, worked until last year as a shipping clerk at an air-conditioner manufacturing plant, and, while the modest work had afforded his family a hard-won, respectable existence in an apartment, his dreams of big money and a beautiful American home had gone unrealized. Nearly all of his hopes became projected onto his second son, upon whom, at the age of 7, he had laced boxing gloves for the boy's first fight, and in the years would swiftly help convert from a southpaw to a right-hander. The transformation left the young De La Hoya with a frighteningly powerful left hook, though some question, to this day, whether he has real power in his right, whether he is in fact a one-handed fighter.

By 1984, as a thin and awed 11-year-old, the boy was watching television as another pint-sized and handsome East Los Angeles hero, Paul Gonzales, capture a gold medal in the light-flyweight division at the Los Angeles Olympics. Many observers had predicted that Gonzales would go to the top, but he has been reduced to a lightly regarded journeyman, a fall from grace hastened, believes De La Hoya, by arrogance and a betrayal of East Los Angeles. "He'd tell everybody he wasn't Mexican," De La Hoya recalls, shaking his head incredulously. "He'd go around saying, 'I'm not a Mexican; I'm an American.' Why did he have to say that? He's Hispanic and he's American. All the fame went to his head, I think. He was cocky and rude. I'll never make a mistake like that."

Instead, he assiduously seeks to please. On one winter Sunday, he served as grand marshal of the East Los Angeles Christmas Parade in the morning, then participated in the Hollywood Santa Claus Parade that night, afterward squeezing in a TV interview. The exposure and the marketing of his personality have paid off: Endorsement deals with MCI, B.U.M. sportswear and Champion will bring him more than $1 million. "But I know that only my boxing can give me everything I want," the fighter says. "If I don't win, a lot of things would go away instantly for me. I know that. I gotta become champion. I gotta win every time."

The word can't has motivated him since he was a skinny 14. Can't make a mistake. Can't lose, he thought to himself last summer, or his family might be stuck in a small apartment for another five, 10 years. All top-flight athletes crave winning, but the fiercest are usually haunted by the prospect of defeat's toll upon their egos, by the suspicion that, having defined themselves as champions, a crushing defeat might strip away their identity. About two years ago, at 18, De La Hoya sparred two rounds with Julio Cesar Chavez who, possessing a 10-pound weight advantage, briefly stunned him with a hard right hand, knocking him to the canvas. He quickly recovered and, according to most witnesses, held his own against his idol for the remainder of the session. "One day I think Chavez and I will fight, and I'll beat him," he declares. "When that happens, it could be the biggest money fight of all time. I want to fight the big fights soon. I'm not planning to be in boxing when I'm old. I'm gonna be out as a young man . . . at 25 or 26. Start a whole new life. Do what I want. . . . Maybe be an architect."

It is something he dwells upon often. Since the day he first showed precocious power in his 7-year-old fists, his life has been the project of others. "I've always told him," explains his father Joel, "that I wanted him to be somebody; not like me, working for eight to 10 dollars an hour. He was a little boy, but he always obeyed me--went to school, then straight to the gym. No messing up. Come home and do schoolwork. No booze or girl problems. Get good food and lots of sleep. He did everything right. I asked a lot."

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