LAS VEGAS — Get past the heat and hubris, blink away the twinges of empathy for a proud and frustrated boxer, and there is a deeper revelation hidden between the seams of Saturday night's cryptic fight.
Not so much by the strength of his fists but by the power of his presence, Oscar De La Hoya moved through a rite of passage in his tricky, unanimous-decision victory over Pernell Whitaker.
Other fighters sweat, jiggle and bleed for judges' points--even great but defensive-minded champions such as Whitaker, who always finds the scoring system working against him.
At 24, De La Hoya, like Sugar Ray Leonard, Muhammad Ali and Julio Cesar Chavez before him, enters the ring with the benefit of star charisma--and the benefit of the doubt.
"This fight makes me know I can beat anybody," De La Hoya said amid the sound and clatter of his post-fight party early Sunday morning. "Whitaker had a difficult style, and I beat him easily. And I can fight 50 times better than I did, that's for sure."
Judges and fans respect fighters such as Whitaker; they crave the power and pervasiveness of De La Hoya.
"Unfortunately, here in Nevada, the attitude of Las Vegas is money talks," Whitaker's promoter, Dino Duva, said Sunday morning, campaigning hard for a quick rematch. "And the more glamorous fighter, the guy who means more to the future of the local economy, he's going to be, perhaps subconsciously, favored by the judges.
"You could compare it to a couple of Sugar Ray Leonard fights--even he admitted he got the close decisions. Let's face it, De La Hoya's seen as a money machine for this town."
By the measure of anybody who wasn't financially biased toward either fighter, this was a tight fight--a point here or there, and it would be hard to complain about Whitaker retaining his World Boxing Council welterweight title or De La Hoya claiming it.
According to a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll of writers who covered the fight, 14 scored it for Whitaker, 11 for De La Hoya, and The Times scored it as a draw.
But were those who scored it for Whitaker reacting to anything he did--or by their overblown expectations of what De La Hoya, or anybody, could do against an obviously in-shape and extra-motivated Whitaker?
Up close, listening to the roar of the crowd and the WHOOSH of his punches--whether they landed squarely or not--De La Hoya was the dominant player in the ring.
"Our whole game plan was to frustrate him," Whitaker co-trainer Lou Duva said Sunday. "I know De La Hoya, how tense he is, and how he stiffens up when you just talk about him."
But Whitaker didn't pepper De La Hoya with body shots, as he did in his clearly dominant performance over Chavez four years ago (ruled a draw), and he tasted enough De La Hoya power shots to raise a large welt over his right eye.
Despite a flash knockdown in the ninth, De La Hoya won the fight handily on all three judges' cards because he tried to win, while Whitaker's first thought was to survive and elude.
And De La Hoya will probably win a projected rematch the same, untidy way, if a rematch happens.
"Everybody's saying that he couldn't hit Pernell, but Pernell couldn't hit him, either," veteran trainer Emanuel Steward said. "Every time Pernell tried to open up on him, Oscar was too quick. I don't know if I've ever seen a fighter with that kind of quickness, not in a long time."
Will a rematch happen?
Sunday, answering De La Hoya promoter Bob Arum's claims that a rematch is not financially feasible, Dino Duva--who also said he'd ask the WBC to order an immediate rematch--offered Arum a $10 million guarantee (split between Arum and De La Hoya) for a second fight.
"I want to fight him again, because I know I'll beat him. But the price has to be right," said De La Hoya, who made $10 million (and Arum $2 million to $3 million, assuming the fight was purchased by more than 700,000 pay-per-view homes). De La Hoya would be guaranteed less for a rematch on Duva's terms.
How much would Duva have to guarantee to get a rematch? "Twenty million," De La Hoya said.
Said Arum: "If we can make more for [a potential fall date against Hector] Camacho, why fight Whitaker making less? If the fight had been a great fight, one of these real classic Leonard-Hearns battles, then I would certainly think differently.
"But it wasn't--it was a stinky fight. And the public isn't going to buy a stinky fight again."
If there isn't an immediate rematch, Duva said he'd try to pursue a rematch with Chavez, with the winner possibly set up to fight De La Hoya, who has beaten both.
Meanwhile, Arum's schedule has De La Hoya fighting David Kamau in June on HBO, possibly Camacho on pay-per-view in September, then another HBO fight at the end of the year.
"By that time, if they can come up with the money [for a rematch]," Arum said, "that's great."
HBO will rebroadcast the fight Saturday at 10:30 p.m. An in-studio segment, with Jim Lampley as host, will feature interviews with both fighters.