By Jake Donovan
It was 18 years ago – almost to the day – when Oscar de la Hoya last appeared on network TV, scoring a 9th round stoppage over John Avila in Dec. ’94 on CBS. The following year saw the launching of the Oscar de la Hoya Foundation.
Both of those worlds came full circle on Thursday for the highest grossing fighter of all time during his annual Golden Boy Toy Drive in Los Angeles.
This year’s event was tied into the promotion of boxing’s first card to air on CBS in 15 years. Leo Santa Cruz puts his unbeaten record and bantamweight belt on the line against Alberto Guevara in the afternoon’s main event at the Sports Arena in Los Angeles (Saturday, 4:30PM ET/1:30PM PT).
Those who offered an unwrapped, unopened toy valued at $20 or more were rewarded with a gift of their own in return – two free tickets for the loaded card. More than a dozen bouts are scheduled for the day and night, with three separate networks – CBS, Showtime Extreme (9:00PM ET/6:00PM PT) and Showtime (10:30PM ET/7:30PM PT)– airing live boxing action from the venue.
In one fell swoop, boxing was intertwined with the spirit of giving during the holiday season. The afternoon couldn’t have been any more rewarding for one key player in particular.
“This truly feeds my soul,” Oscar de la Hoya stated of the day’s events. “To have boxing back on CBS, to continue to promote the sport on Showtime, collecting toys, giving away tickets – it’s incredible. It feels good and it’s really nice to see all of the people, a lot of them thanking me for bringing boxing back to CBS. It feels so rewarding.”
De la Hoya is no stranger to giving. The sport’s highest grossing athlete of all time has never forgotten his roots – raised in East Los Angeles - and has made it a point to serve as the face of his community, all the way back to when he struck Olympic Gold in the 1992 Summer Games.
He has served as the sport’s most identifiable figure in the 20 years that have passed, at times carrying boxing on his back amidst rumors of its lying on the proverbial death bed.
Those reports were always exaggerated, but there is something to the notion of the sport’s waning popularity. A significant factor has been the absence of the sport’s top fighters showcased in markets beyond pay-cable. Saturday marks Golden Boy’s latest efforts to reclaim some of the sport’s lost relevance among the mainstream.
“This is how fighters generate interest,” notes de la Hoya, who mastered the art of public visibility during his 16-year pro career, as well as during his time now spent as a full-time promoter - 10 years running and growing leaps and bounds by the day.
“You have to interact with the fans, get them involved. You have to be in front of the camera, to allow the fans to get to know you better. As a fighter, I understood that you have to do all of that. It’s what I continue to teach my fighters.”
One fighter who truly gets it is Santa Cruz (22-0-1, 13KO). Mexico-born but now based just outside of the heart of Los Angeles, the unbeaten bantamweight takes tremendous pride in serving as the sport’s leading action hero. His rise to fame made him an obvious choice to usher in boxing’s return to free TV, with this weekend’s showcase the first of what Golden Boy insists will be plenty more to come.
The same can be said of festivities tied into this year’s offering of the company’s annual toy drive. A perfect storm of events lead to Golden Boy presenting everything all at once – simply put, putting to proper use the resources already at their fingertips.
“Me and Richard (Schaefer, Golden Boy CEO) spoke about it,” de la Hoya revealed of the blueprint. “I said, ‘We give away thousands of toys per year to families. Why not combine the events to do one big fan festival, have fighters doing autographs, meeting with fans, making it a whole day of festivities.’
“From there, we discussed tying in the CBS broadcast to a Showtime card, since the two are sister networks. We’ve had past discussions of bringing boxing back to CBS. So when we had the opportunity to present this card, we decided to just have a whole day.”
All told, the Golden Boy Toy Drive saw more than 6,000 toys collected, which will be given away to families in need during the Oscar de la Hoya Foundation Charity Toy Giveaway on Saturday morning. Countless number of fans were rewarded for their generosity with free tickets for the evening portion of the show, since the afternoon session is already free to the public – on air and on site.
At a time when boxing normally worries about waning crowds due to the holiday season, Golden Boy was able to change the way the game is presented.
Of course, it helps when a personable, action-conscious fighter like Santa Cruz is atop the bill.
“It’s a blessing,” de la Hoya acknowledges. “Not only do you have boxing on CBS, but a championship-level attraction in Leo Santa Cruz. It doesn’t just appeal to the hardcore fans, but also to the casual fans who are now being introduced to boxing beyond just when there is a blockbuster event. It sparks a fire for the sport.”
It also establishes a foundation for a tradition for years to come, all while everyone involved can feel good for giving back to those in need.
“I’m being selfish when I say this – but I have to say this is feeding my soul,” de la Hoya states. “This feels fulfilling and gratifying. It makes me look forward to the next one. This fan fest will be the first of many. Boxing on CBS this weekend… will be the first of many.
“Bringing boxing back to the masses is motivational for me. It ultimately completes me.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox.