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He Says He's A Gladiator, But Oscar De La Hoya Has Yet To Give A Definitive Ring Performance That Proves He Has The Heart Of A Great Champion


Even the dead want to keep him close. Of this Oscar De La Hoya
is sure: When he wakes in the clear, thin air of the mountains
at Big Bear Lake, Calif., there's a whispering in the house, a
vibration he can't place. He knows his mother is there. She
brushes past him, like someone easing out of a crowded elevator.
Or she touches him so lightly on the arm, the neck, the face. He
doesn't move. "It's always her," he says. "I feel her. She's
looking after me." Didn't she always? He was the classic mama's
boy, crying hot tears when his older brother smacked him around,
when his cousins bullied him, when his father kept demanding
more, and she would shield him, give him the love he craved. All
that is fading memory now. So much has happened. His mother,
Cecilia, died of breast cancer in 1990 at age 39 and missed
everything--his 1992 Olympic gold medal, his world championships
in four weight classes, his emergence as the richest and most
attractive professional boxer of his generation.

This is an odd slot to occupy, nothing like "toughest man in the
world" or "pound-for-pound best." Yet it brings more than its
share of rewards, the first of which is the upending of the
universe as we know it: A popular boxer today is a rare and
wondrous thing, more so a boxer who can speak charmingly in
English and Spanish and grin like a boy-band hunk and bring
women in massive numbers to the TV set. And so, by the powers
vested in him by HBO, the WBA, WBC and WBO, promoter Bob Arum,
rival fighter Felix Trinidad and all others seeking purchase on
the titanic sums of money that only De La Hoya can generate, he
has been ceded the right to believe, in a fit of Copernican
arrogance, that everything from here to the heavens revolves
around him.

"You want to hear the goods?" he asks. Thus begins training on
this sun-washed May afternoon. His shirt is off, his stomach
flat. A disc is placed in a CD player, and an instant later De
La Hoya's high, sweet voice pours through the small gym he has
built for himself in Big Bear. He cut this album a few weeks ago
in Miami, and as he trains for his June 17 welterweight
championship bout against Shane Mosley, everyone has noticed a
huge difference in the man: At 27, De La Hoya is working with a
focus he hasn't had in years, ignoring all chances to party,
thirsting for the next day's training. Why? "Because now he is
working out with his own music," says his trainer, Roberto
Alcazar. "His own singing."

De La Hoya sits on the edge of the ring as Alcazar unwinds
strips of tape to wrap the fighter's hands. Now, over the
speakers, comes De La Hoya's cover of Run to Me, the Bee Gees'
saccharine ballad: Am I unwise to open up your eyes to love me?
De La Hoya sings along loudly, then stops when he sees his
14-month-old daughter, Atiana, flinging golf balls around his
putting green outside the gym. She is a dead ringer for her
father, broad-faced and dark despite the blond features of her
mother, former Miss USA Shanna Moakler. This is satisfying to
Oscar: He calls Atiana his Mini-Me, and when she plops another
ball over his fiancee, who is lying on the green, he shouts,
"Good girl!" Then he resumes the duet with himself: Run to me
whenever you're lonely....

A huge ego is central to any boxer's survival, but the stroking
needed by a champion of De La Hoya's stature can verge on the
embarrassing. So many people depend on his success that in his
camp sucking up is as vital as breathing. Yet De La Hoya's place
in the sport has never been just a matter of fistic excellence;
it has been as much about his charisma and good looks, about the
personality that seems sure to endow his life after boxing with
possibilities well beyond those of the typical punchie. Everyone
in his entourage, from his father and manager, Joel, to Alcazar
and Moakler, agrees that Oscar's album will shock the world,
that he will cross over into movies someday, because, well, who
wins by telling him otherwise? Dead or alive, they are all here
to make sure he feels right.

So he is everywhere: Oscar's face on the walls of the gym and on
the water bottle and on his daughter, Oscar's voice on the
speakers, Oscar's image on everyone's shirt. A mock street sign
stands on the corner outside his gated house in Big Bear Lake
reading GOLDEN BOY AVE. and DE LA HOYA ST.; Oscar's people tried
to have the street names changed officially, but a neighbor shot
down the notion.

De La Hoya steps into the ring and begins shadowboxing, quick
jabs and uppercuts slicing the air. Moakler rises, picks up the
baby and walks toward the ring. "Next year, after I get my body
back, I'll try again for a little Oscar," she says. "All the
psychics tell me it'll be a boy."

She hands the baby to one of De La Hoya's staffers, backs 25
feet from the ring and lights a cigarette. De La Hoya stops
shadowboxing and turns to his daughter. "Atiana? Hi," he coos.
"What're you doing?" He waits for her to wave, then unleashes a
few casual combinations. Abruptly he stops and shouts to
Moakler, "I can smell it from here. Really. Please." She
exhales, takes another 10 steps back. De La Hoya shakes his head
and resumes his workout. He bounces on his toes, picks up the
pace of his punches, hissing with the effort--Tst! Tst!
Tst!--and watching himself in the full-length mirror, above
which are replicas of five of the championship belts he has won,
over Jimmi Bredahl, Jorge Paez, Rafael Ruelas, Julio Cesar
Chavez and Pernell Whitaker. De La Hoya growls to no one in
particular, "I'm a gladiator!"

His brother, Joel Jr., calls time on the rounds. A small stain
of sweat grows between Oscar's shoulder blades. No one is in the
ring with him yet, and soon Alcazar will be there, cursing and
absorbing all of De La Hoya's force--that stabbing left hook,
that whippet speed--in the flat of his hand pads. After a while
Alcazar, who is 43 years old, will be leaning over the ropes
between rounds, heaving for breath while De La Hoya sings,
seemingly unwinded, I'll be good to yoooooouuu....

But first De La Hoya walks to the ropes and leans over with his
face as close as possible to the mirror. He extends his neck,
turns his head this way and that, never taking his eyes away
from his reflection. He looks good.

His mother sang. Every day, cooking, cleaning, tending the
house, she warmed the small home in East L.A. with her voice.
Her husband worked in construction, his fingers split and dusty,
muscles aching, and had no interest in coddling his sons. Life
was hard for a Mexican immigrant; life was hard, period. Joel
Sr. used to box at the old Olympic Auditorium, certain he could
be a contender if only he could give it all his time. But he had
to support his family. His wife gave up something too; Cecilia
traveled the Mexican entertainment circuit in the U.S., singing
folk songs, and took part in the talent contests at L.A.'s
Million Dollar Theatre. "My father basically told her, 'It's me
or the music,'" Oscar says. "Of course she picked him."

The father had little use for a five-year-old boy given to
crying at every shift in the wind; Joel Sr. focused all his
ambition on eight-year-old Joel Jr.'s fitful attempts at boxing.
He was supposed to be the family fighter. "I was supposed to be
Oscar," Joel Jr. says. Oscar had his skateboard and his mother,
and the two of them would sing together. Oscar was good at two
things: Loving his mother and listening to his father, and when
he began trailing his brother to the gym, Joel Sr. told Oscar to
hit a bag, any bag. Oscar was six. His life as a man began then.
His dad demanded that he go to the gym every afternoon, and for
years Oscar didn't go anywhere else. When, at 15, he broke
training by staying out one night, Joel Sr. came down the street
in a ratty bathrobe, exposed himself to the other kids and
embarrassed Oscar into going home.

"This is a kid who doesn't have the experience of life," Alcazar
says. "He didn't grow up like a normal kid; he don't know what
it is to pick up the phone and call his friend to go to the
movies, to go to the nightclub, to go drive a car. Why? Because
it was from school to boxing, and from boxing to bed." Most
fighters have seen too much of the street, but when Oscar gets
out in the world, "he's lost," Alcazar says. "He's like a blind

By the time his mother was on chemo and her hair was starting to
fall out, Oscar was a force on the L.A. boxing scene and its
prime Olympic dreamer. Moneymen from the pros had begun
circling, trying to latch on. Desperate for cash to pay hospital
bills in the fall of 1990, Joel Sr. turned to Shelly Finkel, who
was managing Evander Holyfield. On the night of the
Holyfield-Buster Douglas title fight that October in Las Vegas,
Finkel says, Joel "came to me crying. He said his wife was very
sick, and he said, 'You know my son is going to be with you in
the future.'" Finkel, who hoped to manage Oscar when he turned
pro, says he paid as much as $100,000 of Cecilia's medical
bills, though Joel Sr. calls this figure "a lie."

"I took care of her chemotherapy, her hospital, a funeral,"
Finkel says. But after Oscar kept the promise he'd made to his
mother and won the '92 gold medal, becoming the most marketable
face boxing had seen in more than a decade, he signed with
little-known managers Robert Mittleman and Steve Nelson. Finkel
still hasn't gotten over it. Asked what he thinks of Joel Sr.,
Finkel says, "Oh, he's a horrible person." And Oscar? "Outside
the ring, he's a coward."

To this, Oscar shrugs. "I'm very grateful [Finkel] took care of
the expenses at the time; I didn't know he did," he says. "We
were fortunate that a man like him would help us. But when it
came down to doing business, he wasn't the right businessman for
me. Because I feel he's not a businessman. I feel that everyone
involved in boxing is a crook."

This would become a familiar pattern. In a sport rife with
users, no one proved himself more capable of using and
discarding people than De La Hoya. Finkel warned Mittleman and
Nelson not to settle in, and within 16 months they too were
gone. "They f----- me," Mittleman says of Oscar and his father,
"but that's boxing. That's business."

Mike Hernandez, who signed on as Oscar's business manager in
1993 and found that the Golden Boy had less than $20,000 in the
bank, lasted six years and left the De La Hoyas financially
secure for generations. When Oscar fired Hernandez last June, he
claimed that the manager had skimmed money from him. Hernandez
calls that accusation "ridiculous" and has sued De La Hoya for
breach of contract and defamation of character. Asked about the
firing today, Oscar doesn't back away from his claim of theft,
but he says his bigger complaint was, "I was stuck at one level.
I should've been up here, and the best thing I could do was get
rid of Mike Hernandez, get rid of Gil Clancy, get rid of people
who were not allowing me to advance in my career."

Clancy, the celebrated trainer who had been with Oscar since
1997, became the latest in a line of old hands jettisoned when
their usefulness ended. After De La Hoya's only loss, to
Trinidad last September, Clancy found himself out in the cold.
He was never told why. He had worked six bouts with De La Hoya,
earning $100,000 for the Trinidad fight. But a few weeks before
De La Hoya's meeting with Derrell Coley in February, Clancy
heard in a phone call from Arum that he would be paid only
$25,000, take it or leave it. Even in boxing, that is considered
a resounding slap. "I've been in boxing over 50 years, and I've
never had anything like that happen to me," Clancy says. He quit.

Then things got stranger. De La Hoya told reporters in February
that he'd wanted to keep Clancy but that the four other members
of his team (his dad, his brother, Arum and Alcazar) had
outvoted him 4-1. Those closest to De La Hoya insist that his
ejection of Clancy--leaving only Alcazar as his trainer for the
first time in five years--is a sign of a mature fighter claiming
full control of his career. But few boxers have been so willing
to paint themselves as being so weak in order to protect a
good-guy image. Pressed now to say whether he wanted Clancy to
stay or go, De La Hoya says, "I would say 50-50: to go because
he wasn't showing me anything anymore, and to stay because he's
a nice man. I loved him being around--great attitude, great
motivator. But I look at everything like a business. If they're
not doing anything for you, why have them along?"

De La Hoya says he has never done anybody wrong. He believes he
is often viewed as the sack of money that slipped away. "I
realize how powerful the name De La Hoya is around the world,"
he says. "There are times I'll go places, let's say in Europe.
They'll give me a hard time, and I'll mention 'De La Hoya.' Oh,
my god. They recognize the name. Sometimes they don't recognize
my face, but the name is a brand. People want a piece of it.
Anybody who talks bad, they're just people who are not happy
that I didn't stay with them or sign with them. They were so
close!" He holds up a forefinger and thumb, an inch apart. "They
were that close, cigar."

It is the oddest of qualities, this crowing calculation combined
with a need to ingratiate himself, but De La Hoya's train has
always traveled on two rails: his father's cold ambition and his
mother's sweetness. Many people, including Oscar himself,
believe he'd be a different person had Cecilia lived; he'd be
educated, he'd be happier, he'd be a better man. This is why,
even as he has publicly yearned for just one approving word from
his dad, Oscar has refused to let his mother die. In May he
contributed $350,000 to place her name on the East L.A. cancer
center where she was treated. During ring introductions for
every fight, he stands, hooded, with his head craned back,
staring at the ceiling and begging for Cecilia's blessing. This
is why he has thrown himself so urgently into his singing, into
the CD that will be released in September. "He's got more of his
mother in him by singing," says Joel Sr.

"It's something he has to do so he can feel her," says Joel Jr.
The father has softened lately. After the Trinidad defeat, he
went into the dressing room and told his son, for the first time
since he was six, that he'd fought a great fight. "The very
first time--when I lost," Oscar says. "I was shocked, like, 'Was
that you? Say that again, please....'"

But there will always be a presence standing between the men,
there but not there. In 1995 Joel Sr. remarried, and while Oscar
doesn't begrudge his dad happiness, he can't say he likes the
match. The woman's name is Cecilia, too, but she's "the total
opposite of my mother," Oscar says. Thinking that "weird," he is
barely able to acknowledge her. "We hardly even talk," he says.

He reveals this quite casually, as if discussing the night's TV
schedule. He is sitting on the porch of his house in Big Bear,
darkness falling fast, the mountain wind chilling his hands. He
says, "After my mother passed away, when my father started
dating three years later, he would bring around beautiful women
who would talk to us and be very charismatic. Then he married
this...woman. I was like, 'Man. Why'd he marry her?' I don't
dislike her; I respect her a great deal. But he could've done
much better."

Being Oscar means never having to buy a drink. It means never
having to worry about bad breath or other men or trying to keep
a flimsy conversation alive. Women want him. It is easy. For
almost a decade, it has been too easy. "I always had the most
beautiful woman in high school, but women were not like,
Ohmigosh! about me," De La Hoya says. "I knew how to talk to
women back then. I had to kind of lure them in, you know? I had
the rap. Now I don't have to use it. Now it's a combination of
money and fame, and I'm not going to say I'm a bad-looking guy.
I say nothing and they...come to me." For a long time, he didn't
worry about controlling himself. "I was like a kid in a candy
store with a pocketful of money," he says. "I could get whatever
I wanted."

Hernandez, the fighter's former business manager, says their
relationship "started deteriorating on the basis of his personal
life" rather than money issues. "If you want to be a champion or
a role model, you've got to be a role model in the right way,
and I just didn't agree with his behavior. I discussed with him
that I didn't want anything to do with his personal life, and he
kept dragging me into it."

In August 1997 De La Hoya got engaged to an 18-year-old woman
named Cassie Van Doran and announced proudly, "She's a virgin."
Less than two months later, another woman claimed that she was
pregnant by De La Hoya, and he immediately admitted
responsibility. (She would deliver a boy, Jacob, who has regular
contact with De La Hoya.) The engagement to Van Doran curdled,
and during the next two years De La Hoya would father another
child, his daughter by Moakler; see a supermarket tabloid
publish purported legal papers detailing his $2.5 million payout
to a woman who claimed she began a sexual relationship with him
when she was 15 (De La Hoya's lawyers deny that any payment was
made); and fend off a sexual assault claim that the Los Angeles
Police Department dismissed due to lack of evidence. "I was no
angel, let's put it that way," De La Hoya says.

According to Hernandez, however, his relationship with De La
Hoya really began to fray when a lawsuit was filed against the
boxer in November 1998 by a Santa Barbara woman, Nicole Rao, who
claimed that De La Hoya had raped and imprisoned her at his
condominium in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, during a high school trip
there in June 1996, when she was 15. De La Hoya and his camp
claim that Rao's long delay in filing the suit proves her to be
a gold digger, and they expect the case to be settled and placed
in the thick file labeled, in Arum's words, "the cost of being

No physical evidence links De La Hoya to the acts alleged by
Rao. Yet, for De La Hoya, any court proceeding promises
embarrassment. A motion by Rao's lawyers dated May 15 contains a
statement by former De La Hoya bodyguard Eric Purvis, who worked
for the boxer in 1995 and was later arrested and sentenced to
two years in prison for impersonating a police officer. Purvis
described an incident in which De La Hoya and a male friend
"were trying to take [a] girl's jeans off and she was saying
'no, no.' She seemed scared." Another time, Purvis stated, he
was "awakened in the middle of the night by a girl who was
yelling 'stop, stop' to De La Hoya, who was attempting to have
sex with the girl in the same room [in] which I was sleeping."
Purvis also said, "Among De La Hoya, his friends and his brother
Joel, these incidents of De La Hoya meeting younger girls at
nightclubs and getting them drunk and having sex with them were
not kept secret, but were actively made jokes about."

Worse, the May 15 motion includes sections of depositions taken
from De La Hoya, his brother and the boxer's friend Joey
Gonzalez that seem to give differing accounts of what happened
in Cabo on the night of June 26, 1996. Oscar's version is that
he and Rao and a group of 10 to 20 people left a bar after
midnight and went back to party in Oscar's condo, that he had no
sexual relations with Rao and that she was escorted by someone
else into a guest bedroom, where, he assumed, she passed out
from drinking. Joel states that he remembers no such party being
held at the condo after midnight. Gonzalez states that there was
a party but Rao did not get so drunk that she had to be put in
the guest bedroom.

Being Oscar means never acting concerned. Although the Cabo case
is still in discovery, he says his lawyers have already made it
"disappear." His day in the ring at Big Bear is done, his hair
is wet and clean; he wears only a thin shirt against the cooling
mountain air. Asked if he knew Rao, he says, "No, no." Then,
"Wait. I met her...." Reminded that a photograph of the two of
them was taken that night, De La Hoya says, "Oh, yeah, of
course. We met in Cabo. Oh, my god. Nothing happened." You
didn't sleep with her? "Zero happened. It's false allegation,
all the way down the board." His daughter toddles across the
porch to his left leg. Oscar blows her a Bronx cheer. "It
frustrated me at first," he says, "but then I said, 'What do I
have to hide?' I'm going to pay legal fees, headaches, but I'm
not worried.

"People who know me--my family, my fans, the general
public--know I would never, ever do anything like that. You can
round up the few girlfriends I have had, and you can ask them,
'Is Oscar like that?' They'll say, 'Oh, Oscar is such a
pussycat.'" He stops, babbles at Atiana: AHH-pap-pap-pap-pap! "I
respect women too much."

Moakler says what everyone around De La Hoya says: "Oscar
doesn't have to rape anyone." Moakler can be walking down the
street with De La Hoya, and women will run up and kiss him as if
he were some athletic Elvis. She'll go to the bathroom at a
restaurant, and by the time she returns to their table he's
holding 20 phone numbers. Once, a woman brushed by her and began
rubbing herself against De La Hoya. Moakler broke in, "Excuse
me, but we're together?" The woman ignored her.

Now, though, De La Hoya insists, "I'm like a kid in a candy
store with no money. I want it, but I can't have it." He will be
faithful to Moakler, he promises, yet his experience with women
has made him wary even of her. "To this day, I ask myself, 'Why
is she with me?'" he says. "'s real love." He turns to
his daughter, banging on his knee with her little fist. "Hi, you
little s---," he says softly.

One is tempted to believe he can keep himself out of trouble,
but the women will always be out there, and Rao is still
looming, and some of the testimony in that May 15 motion leaves
a chill. Two of Rao's schoolmates tell of seeing her and De La
Hoya together that night in 1996, of seeing him ply her with
beer at a nightclub and dance with her later at another club, of
seeing her personality darken and her weight drop in the days
and weeks after. Both friends also remember seeing De La Hoya
and Rao leave the first club together, and both remember the
cries of others in their crowd as he led her to his sports
utility vehicle.

"Oscar, what are you doing?" one of the schoolmates yelled,
according to his testimony. "She's only 15 years old."

Several other people yelled the same thing, according to the
statements in the motion. One girl said it in Spanish just as he
walked past her: "Oscar, quince anos!"

De La Hoya gave the people a smile, according to the testimony,
and then he and the girl stepped into the car.

Everything he touches turns to money. De La Hoya has earned more
than $150 million since he began his pro career in 1992, and he
has made his family rich too. His brother reportedly gets 4% of
every purse, and Joel Sr.'s career earnings, based on his 10%
take as Oscar's manager, are approaching $20 million. When Oscar
turned pro, HBO broadcast 10 fight cards a year; this year the
network will broadcast close to 30. "He's our biggest star,"
says Lou DiBella, until last month HBO's boxing czar. Aside from
the sideshow that is Mike Tyson, no boxer--not the perceived
pound-for-pound champ, Roy Jones Jr., not heavyweight champion
Lennox Lewis--is bigger than De La Hoya. Muhammad Ali said,
"Small guys can't raise any hell," but De La Hoya has shattered
that notion.

"There are usually two types of boxing: boxing and heavyweight
boxing," DiBella says. "But in terms of image, Oscar's a

In the language of pay-per-view, De La Hoya's loss to Trinidad
registered 1.3 million buys--the most ever for a nonheavyweight
bout. In De La Hoya's upcoming fight against Mosley, says Arum,
"with what I've guaranteed him, Oscar cannot make less than $15
million. That $15 million is more than Lewis and Michael Grant
made together [in April] for the heavyweight championship of the
world." As one TV executive put it, De La Hoya could rack up
300,000 buys for a mere exhibition.

Yet for all his earning power, De La Hoya is an oddity: a
fighter whose appeal is calculated mostly in the Weimar currency
of celebrity--looks, riches, charm. His hold on the public
imagination has little to do with his boxing. He should be the
era's defining fighter, but his resume has about as much
solidity as a fistful of smoke. He has had no epic battle on the
order of the great welterweight bouts of the 1970s and '80s,
nothing approaching Hagler-Hearns or Leonard-Duran. He has
fought 33 times, knocked out 26 opponents, left the aging legend
Chavez with a face streaming blood the first time they met and
helpless on his stool the second, narrowly decisioned Whitaker
and lost to Trinidad only after tossing away a masterly
performance by running for the final three rounds. Great is the
cheapest word in sports, and De La Hoya has been called great by
so many people--"He's in the class with Ali, Louis and
Robinson," says former light heavyweight champ Jose Torres--that
plenty have started to believe it.

"No, no, no," says Steward, the trainer who worked with De La
Hoya for two fights in 1997. "He's not had a real decisive
victory over a big-time fighter. When he's fought Trinidad,
Whitaker, Ike Quartey, it has always been controversial. He's
just skimmed by."

What is undeniable is De La Hoya's talent: fierce intelligence,
great speed, a cracking left hand, deceptive power. "I had some
days in training when he would do things, and I'd say, 'Oh, my
god,'" Steward says. "I have been in boxing 48 years and worked
with many great fighters, and for him to make me want to jump
and scream with the combinations and moves he would do was such
a thrill. But I have not seen him do that in a fight."

Mostly De La Hoya's career has been a series of makeovers: One
night he's a light-footed artist prancing defensively; the next
he's a slugger wading forward in a fit of machismo. In this
pastime that, come the bell, cuts through hype and unmasks each
man to himself and the world, De La Hoya remains uniquely
undefined. By the time Leonard and Robinson were 27, they were
past the clashes that defined them. People talk about De La Hoya
as if he were 18, with everything still before him. "It's kind
of late," Steward says, "but if he ever does become the fighter
he's capable of being, man, look out. He could be the greatest
thing we ever see in boxing."

De La Hoya isn't all that concerned with his pugilistic legacy.
He is already counting down his remaining time, says he can't
see himself boxing beyond 30. He seems as excited by his singing
as by work in the ring. He also proved himself a political
thunderbolt when he stumped for Nevada Democrat Harry Reid in
his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1998. Reid won by 428 votes.
"I got a huge percentage of the Hispanic vote," Reid says, "and
I owe it all to Oscar. I guarantee he was worth more than 428
votes." De La Hoya's camp denies it, but Reid says, "Oscar wants
to go into politics someday. He'd be great: terrific speaker,
handsome, smart--he's a good guy."

All this, naturally, doesn't sit well with boxing purists,
who've long doubted De La Hoya's commitment. "The deep-down
fight guys? They pretty much despise him," Arum says. "To them,
if you're a fighter, you're a fighter, period."

As a sop to these people, De La Hoya has declared this his year
of the knockout. In February he stopped Coley in the seventh
round, and he promises another KO if he gets Trinidad back in
the ring come September. He still pays lip service to his old
ambition of winning championships at 154 pounds and 160 pounds
and retiring with titles in six weight classes, but, he says,
"What truly matters is what you have in the bank account at the
end. Yeah, I'm fighting for the people and giving them great
shows and risking my life for them, but at the end who's going
to pay my bills? Who's going to take care of me?"

On one level this may be the most reasonable statement in boxing
history; the floor is littered with the carcasses of skinned
ex-champs. But if anyone figures Oscar for a pure mercenary--or
worse, Chicken De La Hoya, as Trinidad put it--he's got it
wrong. Down in the deepest hole of his career, against Quartey
in February '99, De La Hoya emerged from his corner in the 12th
round a thoroughly committed man. He blasted Quartey with one
savage hook after another, knocked him down and kept coming,
battering him into the corner, tasting the battle and giving
himself up to it in one final, furious exchange. De La Hoya
hammered Quartey with more than two dozen shots to the head
because he hated to lose, fought his best because he couldn't
lose. It was a magnificent finish. "Because he did care," says
veteran trainer Teddy Atlas. "Because underneath it all, beneath
the singing and the money and the movie-star looks, is a
fighter's pride. But with success, it gets harder and harder to
call on that all the time."

Nothing pointed to that more than the loss to Trinidad. Through
the first nine rounds De La Hoya had easily kept his more
powerful adversary at bay, swelling his left eye, bloodying his
nose, making him appear confused and outgunned. Then, sure that
he had the fight in hand, De La Hoya gave it away. He allowed
Trinidad to chase him, to dictate, and he put the fight in the
judges' hands. The best boxers, no matter how rich, fight as if
they are starving. De La Hoya fought the last three rounds as if
his pockets were full. "There are moments when he's hesitant,
when he's hoping it'll be a certain way rather than making it
that way," Atlas says. "When the fight's still in doubt, he
doesn't trust his talent enough to put it at risk. He makes the
choice to believe it's his inherent right [to win], that if he
just boxes, it will be enough. But for the great ones, it was
never enough. There was no inherent right. There was no

Boxers are not a happy breed. They do not smile much. No one
ever talks about childlike joy in the fight game, not as in
baseball; no one ever expects to hear a fighter proclaim, like
Ernie Banks, "Let's fight two!" This is a world of somber men
growing surer with each passing day that someone, somewhere, is
taking advantage of them. But De La Hoya is different. He
carries himself lightly, laughs often, seems content. It's as if
he knows he has already won the biggest fight of all, that he
will leave boxing with his money and face and brain intact, that
those individual clashes the journalists and promoters get so
excited about are not as important as the con he has pulled on
the dirtiest con men on the planet.

Still, his reaction just after the Trinidad defeat was
startling. De La Hoya laughed and hugged Trinidad twice. He
smiled this huge grin, a grin so tight at the corners that it
made him look like Jack Nicholson's Joker. He declared himself
"hurt" but acted like a man gone giddy at his own birthday
party. "Look at us: We can go to dinner right now!" he said of
himself and Trinidad. There was only one moment, just after he'd
said that he and Trinidad were both great fighters, that the
smile fell and his face registered something resembling anguish.
His eyes flicked up toward the rafters, and he looked puzzled,
like a man trying desperately to remember the words to a song
once known by heart.

But the moment passed, and he forced his cheeks upward, and the
smile returned to De La Hoya's face. He'd just made $15 million.
No loser ever looked happier.


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Beltway crunch At his Big Bear training camp, De La Hoya works his abs under replicas of his championship belts.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Fight and flight De La Hoya tagged Trinidad early and often, but gave away the last three rounds--and the decision.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Mini-Me Atiana (with Moakler) is a pint-sized female Oscar.

COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE DE LA HOYA FAMILY Prelims In his first bout, six-year-old Oscar (left) already showed classic form.

COLOR PHOTO Court date Rao (foreground) was 15 when, her lawsuit alleges, De La Hoya (right) imprisoned and raped her in his Cabo condo.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Image is everything At Big Bear Lake, De La Hoya doesn't need a mirror to see himself in the ring.