All that Glitters: The Fractured Legacy of Oscar de la Hoya

Eric FleuryContributor IAugust 15, 2008

“On the whole, it is much better to be feared than loved.”

Machiavelli may have intended those famous words for the aspiring prince, but a boxer seeking greatness would be wise to remember them.  The adulation of the crowd or press, while desirable, cannot replace a terror-stricken opponent, whose mind is halfway to the canvas before the first bell even sounds. 

This brings us to the Golden Boy of the fight game, Oscar de la Hoya, the most visible and beloved face of boxing.  Since his emotional victory at the Barcelona Olympics, he has been both a championship fighter and an enduring celebrity, diligently cultivating a rosy, All-American image in order to balance, or perhaps mitigate, the inherent brutality of his trade. 

He seems to have it all: a Hall of Fame career, a powerful promotion company, and most importantly, his broad smile intact as his final fight, tentatively scheduled for December, approaches.  He is adored and highly respected, a true ambassador of the sport.  But he is certainly not feared.  He is an icon, but not the warrior that fans so eagerly crave. 

This of course does not mean that he is somehow weak or cowardly-he remains a superbly talented athlete who rarely shies from top-flight opposition.   But on the threshold that separates star from bona fide legend, De La Hoya definitely chose the former, and has spent the past decade hoping that his riches and popularity are enough to pass him off as the latter. 

During his meteoric rise in the early 90s, De La Hoya’s Olympic gold, slew of victories and crossover appeal justified comparisons to Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard as a boxing megastar, equal parts teen heartthrob and world champion.   He ascended the scales with stunning ease, and while Hispanic fans chafed at his Hollywood antics, he was poised to inherit the mantle of childhood hero Julio Cesar Chavez. 

And then, after seven years at the top, he lost, in the highly touted ‘Fight of the Millennium’ against Puerto Rican great Felix Trinidad.  Simply losing, of course, does not necessarily damage one’s legacy.  In a sport where few leave undefeated, the first loss is just another turning point in a career, and may indeed be beneficial.  For the fans, it places a human face on a larger-than-life figure, and for the fighter himself, refocuses attention on the rigors of training and off of accolades, money, and temptation.  A loss can be a singular opportunity for a fighter to prove that the spoils of victory did not sap his heart or dedication.  Joe Louis may have lost to Max Schmelling in 1936, but the Brown Bomber was never more terrifying than when he dealt the Nazi hero a vicious payback two years later.

De La Hoya’s loss to Trinidad was neither violent nor particularly decisive, and he may have had grounds to dispute the judges’ conclusion as bitterly as he did.  But this loss could have elevated both his career and the sport as a whole.  Firstly, a great boxer needs a nemesis, and by opting for a twenty-month hiatus instead of a rematch, or at least a rapid re-entry into the junior middleweight ranks, he denied himself the chance to secure such an adversary, and also amplify the drama of the sport by renewing the classic feud between Mexico and Puerto Rico.  Instead of regrouping and seizing back his crown, he essentially became a ‘money’ fighter, taking rare, if high-profile fights with high PPV revenue, losing to every first-class opponent that he faced. 

Although he remained both talented and popular enough to sustain his reputation as the face of boxing, he took the loss to Trinidad as a chance to further diversify his celebrity, fighting on a roughly annual basis while building his business and recording a Latin pop album.  He essentially commissioned a 10-year retirement plan, gradually condensing his work into a sort of hobby.

De La Hoya has been a credit to boxing, and will continue to be one as a promoter after this year.  But as his career draws to a close, it is difficult to regard it as anything but unfulfilled potential.  Boxing is a dirty business, requiring an all-consuming level of commitment, especially once the glories of early victory have faded and one seeks lasting greatness rather than instant fame.  But as De La Hoya searches for his final opponent, this is not the last stand of a mighty champion, but rather one more chance for the Golden Boy to take the money and run.