Publish date:

El Mejor

In his home precincts, East L.A.'s aspiring Olympic boxer Oscar De La Hoya is known as the best

The resurrection boys club gym in East Los Angeles is jammed, on a balmy afternoon, some three dozen boxers are working out in the dimly lit little building on South Lorena Street, punching the bags, skipping rope, shadowboxing. Once upon a time, the Resurrection was a church. It was built, according to a plaque beside the front door, in 1924. But the pews and the pulpit and the stained glass are long gone. Now a boxing ring sits on the bare plywood floor, and fight posters in Spanish and English cover the walls. The only reminder of a more sacred past is the portrait of Christ, nearly lost under a layer of grime, that looks down from an archway above the ring like a divine referee.

Eighteen-year-old Oscar De La Hoya has been coming to the Resurrection since he was 10 years old. On this afternoon, however, he looks lost. Tall and lean and boyishly handsome, De La Hoya stands beside the ring, his hands encased in enormous white training gloves that hang like marshmallows on the ends of his arms. "No one wants to spar with me," he says. He sounds surprised.

For De La Hoya, the 1991 United States Amateur Boxing 132-pound national champion and the USA Boxing 1991 Boxer of the Year, it is the first day back in the gym after a week of vacation. In another week he will be at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, preparing for a series of summer bouts. Today he hoped for a few easy rounds in his old home ring. But even in the tough and bustling gyms of East L.A., there are few boxers—and no amateurs—who can give De La Hoya a workout. "In L.A., I only spar with pros now," he says.

He spots a prospect, a thickly muscled 140-pounder who looks about 25. De La Hoya hurries over to the fighter and his trainer. After a brief exchange in Spanish, De La Hoya returns with a sheepish smile. "He said he's got a fight on Monday at the Forum," he says. De La Hoya looks like a kid at a high school dance who can't find a partner. "My dad told me never to take it easy sparring," he says. His eyes scan the gym.

De La Hoya has obviously taken the old man's advice to heart. When he spars, the whole gym often stops to watch. The East L.A. fight crowd still talks about the time last year, at the 108th and Broadway gym, when De La Hoya KO'd two sparring partners in one afternoon, a decidedly unamateurish display. "He has no competition here," says Manuel Torres, director of boxing at the Resurrection. "He makes even pros look bad."

When he can find them. After two more rejections, it becomes clear that De La Hoya will get no ring work today, and he goes off to shadowbox. Stripped to the waist, he soon is sweating freely. He moves, in classic stand-up style, in small circles around the crowded floor, snapping the big gloves out in crisp one-twos. The bell sounds. The rest of the gym clatters to a stop. De La Hoya goes on shuffling and punching.

De La Hoya is developing a rep—and not only in East L.A. Many boxing observers consider him the best amateur fighter in the U.S. With less than a year to go till the Barcelona Olympics, De La Hoya may be the country's strongest hope for a gold medal in the sport. In July he won the 132-pound gold medal at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Los Angeles. His career record is a gaudy 209-4, and his victory last March at the U.S. Championships brought him his second straight national title. The year before, he won the 125-pound division and then went on to take the Goodwill Games gold medal.

As he prepares to go to Sydney, Australia, for next month's world championships, De La Hoya is undefeated in international competition. Yet those who have watched him the closest talk less about the numbers and titles than about his style—about the way De La Hoya moves and punches. "He fights like Alexis Arguello," says Torres, referring to the lightweight champion of the early '80s. "He has that great left hook to the liver. How good is Oscar? One in a million."

Says Pat Nappi, coach of the 1976 and 1984 U.S. Olympic squads, "The kid has all the tools. Right now, based on what I've seen, he has the gold medal."

In the face of such acclaim, De La Hoya remains steadfastly low-key. "I've just got to keep my focus," he says.

With the Olympics looming, that will not be easy. In the past year there have been many changes for De La Hoya, the sorts of changes that can throw off a hot young prospect. Last spring, in an awkward and painful parting, he broke with his trainer of nearly two years, Al Stankie. Stankie, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and a gifted if eccentric coach, had previously guided another East L.A. boxer, Paul Gonzales, to the '84 Olympic light flyweight gold medal. Stankie and De La Hoya were close, but Stankie's admitted abuse of alcohol began to get in the way.

"When he's got his act together, he's the greatest trainer in the world," Gonzales has said. "But he's got that other side to him, and you don't even want to be around him then."

Last year Stankie showed up drunk at the national championships in Colorado Springs and was slapped with a three-year suspension by USA Boxing. In April he was picked up after repeated drunken-driving charges and sent to the L.A. County Central Jail for 83 days. De La Hoya talked things over with his father, Joel, a 51-year-old former boxer and now a shipping and receiving clerk for an air-conditioner company, who is the most important influence on Oscar's career.

"It was very hard, but I had to let him go," says De La Hoya of Stankie. "I don't think I let him down. He let me down."

For now, when he is in L.A., De La Hoya trains under Robert Alcazar. A 33-year-old mechanic for Weber Aircraft by trade—and a friend of Joel's—Alcazar has trained only a few young boxers. While De La Hoya says he is happy and learning a lot, it is unclear how long the arrangement will last.

Even before the break with Stankie, the De La Hoyas had been consulting with Shelly Finkel, Evander Holyfield's manager, about Oscar's turning pro. Finkel had seen De La Hoya box on television and liked what he saw. "I told Stankie, 'Look, this kid is very good. I'd like to help make sure he goes to the Olympics and that when he's done and ready to turn pro I have a chance,' " says Finkel.

In September, at Finkel's invitation, De La Hoya traveled to Virginia Beach to train with Holyfield's ring mentor, George Benton, and to work with former IBF junior lightweight champion John Molina. "I told Oscar, 'You're a star. You should have a star trainer,' " says Finkel. "Someone with a proven record of developing champions."

Such are the adjustments that must be made in the life of an aspiring champion. Then there are the other, far more wrenching adjustments that must be made at some point by everyone. Last October, Oscar's mother, Cecilia, died of breast cancer. She was 38. Her dying request to her son was that he win the Olympic gold medal for her. "That is my motivation," says De La Hoya softly.

After every bout now he drops to one knee and blows a kiss skyward. "It's like telling her, 'Here's another one for you,' " he says. Often, De La Hoya does his morning roadwork around the cemetery where Cecilia is buried. One day, he says, he will bring her the gold medal.

De La Hoya started boxing at age six. "I was a little kid who used to fight a lot in the street—and get beat up," he says. "But I liked it." He laughs. "So my dad took me to the gym."

His first bout was at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena. With a furious flurry of punches, little Oscar knocked out his opponent in the first round. "I was laughing so hard," recalls Joel. "I thought, Maybe I got something here."

Indeed. By the time he was 15, De La Hoya was the national Junior Olympic champ. The next year he won the national Golden Gloves 125-pound title. The year after that he was the youngest boxer at the Goodwill Games.

De La Hoya lives with his father, his older brother, Joel, his younger sister, Ceci, and his grandmother, Candelaria, in a bright and tidy one-story house five minutes away from the Resurrection. This part of East L.A., with its small, sunny yards dotted with palm trees and rose bushes, is a family neighborhood—but it is still East L.A. "A half mile down that way," says De La Hoya, pointing past a freeway overpass, "it gets real bad. There are killings all the time." He points the other way. "There are lots of drug houses just up the road, too."

And everywhere, it seems, are the gangs. Walking home across Sixth Street, De La Hoya hears the calls from the Boyz on the corner. "Rocky!" they shout. "Tyson!" It is a grudging tribute, acknowledgment that De La Hoya has made something of himself, that he has an identity of his own. "I've been asked to join gangs," says De La Hoya, "but I've never wanted to. I've always had something else."

While his renown as a boxer has given De La Hoya a measure of status in his neighborhood, it is not always enough. One evening last January, he was walking home from a friend's house when a pickup truck screeched to a stop at the curb beside him. Six young men jumped out and surrounded De La Hoya. "Three of them had guns," he says. "They pointed them right at my head."

After a harrowing couple of minutes, the thugs fled with De La Hoya's wallet and a camera he had slung around his neck. They later returned the wallet.

Despite such distractions, and the time he spends training and competing, De La Hoya graduated in May from Garfield High—the school made famous by the movie Stand and Deliver. He did miss his prom, however. That night, he was in Fort Bragg, N.C., outpointing two-time world champion Julio Gonzales in the U.S. Cuba dual meet. De La Hoya is also a talented artist who hopes to become an architect. After the Olympics, he says, he will begin taking college courses while he trains. In the meantime, his caricatures of teammates and coaches are in demand at the Olympic Training Center.

"Oscar's different," says Torres, who has seen too many promising youngsters from the Resurrection lost to the streets. "He knows what he wants."

What he wants, says De La Hoya, is not simply to be a great boxer, but an alltime great. "I want to beat what [Thomas] Hearns has done," he says, referring to the Hit Man's titles in five weight classes.

At 5'11", De La Hoya has the build and the tools to accomplish that goal. By the time he arrives in Barcelona he could weigh 139, maybe 147 pounds, and he could grow into a middleweight (160) as a pro. Smoothly muscled, he has the loose-limbed power of a Sugar Ray Robinson. His style is also well-suited to the pros, with a withering body attack and none of the amateur's tendency to slap or cuff.

He still needs to work on his defense. In recent bouts De La Hoya has exhibited little head movement, a minor flaw for an amateur with his offensive skills, but a potentially serious defect for a pro. De La Hoya had an opportunity to discover just how serious when he sparred two brisk rounds with WBC super lightweight champion Julio Cèsar Chàvez in June at a makeshift ring in a Huntington Park, Calif., restaurant. Though De La Hoya speaks with excitement of outpunching Chàvez four-to-one, those who were on hand or have seen the videotape say Chàvez was taking it easy—at least until the second round, when he threw a quick right hand that deposited De La Hoya briefly on one knee. For an 18-year-old amateur, there is more glory than shame in taking a lick or two from Chàvez.

One rainy weekend last April, De La Hoya was in Biloxi, Miss., for a U.S.-Canada dual meet. There, before a rollicking crowd in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum, he scored an easy third-round TKO over a gallant but outclassed 21-year-old named Gerry Figliomeni. A straight right hand had produced an alarming flow of blood from Figliomeni's nose, and a series of left hooks to the ribs had settled things. Later, showered and dressed, De La Hoya returned to the floor of the arena to watch the remaining bouts of the evening. He was approached by two giggling teenage girls. One clutched an oversized Budweiser towel. "Will you pleeeeez sign this," she said, thrusting it at De La Hoya.

As the fighter bent over a table to sign, the girl turned to her friend. "He's so good-looking!" she whispered. Then, to De La Hoya, she said, "I'm going to keep this for when you're famous."

Chances are, she won't have long to wait.





De La Hoya punished Patrice Brooks en route to winning the 1991 national 132-pound title.



Three generations of the close-knit De La Hoya clan live on the same street in East L.A.