There reached a point when Oscar De La Hoya couldn’t figure out how to escape the facade he presented for years.
A hailstorm of press coverage was met with his perfect run in 1992 Barcelona Olympics. De La Hoya was the only member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team to return home with a Gold medal, which at the time he insisted was in honor of his departed mother Cecilia who he and his family lost two years prior to breast cancer.
Reporters, sports and general news outlets and late-night talk shows all told the tale of how a 19-year-old boxer from East Los Angeles was inspired by the memory of his mother whose dying wish was for him to win Olympic Gold. De La Hoya ran with that theme throughout his pro career, spending pre-fight stare downs looking away from his opponent and instead to the heavens where his mother watched over him.
The part he left out was the physical pain he endured during an abused childhood, and the emotional toll it has taken on his life as a whole.
In fact, he recalls the first such instance at age five after nearly being struck by a car.
“We were playing stickball and sometimes the ball would just go out into the street,” De La Hoya recalled in ‘The Golden Boy’ two-part documentary on HBO (and MAX® streaming service) chronicling his life. “I swung and missed. I instinctively ran after it. A car was coming so fast and just screeched to a halt. I end up in the bottom of the f-----’ car. For some miraculous reason I was untouched. I could see my mother running down the street. I was waiting for her to give me a hug. First thing she does is just hit me. Beats the crap of out me.
"When I got home (from the Olympics), all I could think about was my mother. I just wanted to have a moment to feel it all but I couldn’t."
De La Hoya hadn’t even begun formally boxing at the time but used those early memories and the many other occasions to come, as fuel for when he eventually entered the ring.
“It’s distorted my lifestyle. It’s distorted my thinking. It’s kind of f----- with my psyche.”
The kind, gentle soul who didn’t live long enough to see her son win Olympic Gold was a storyline that De La Hoya was encouraged to embrace.
Ironically, a physical embrace was what he needed all along but didn’t come to realize decades after his incredible run in the amateurs and a near billion-dollar, Hall of Fame pro career that saw title wins in six weight divisions.
“My soul is out of my f------ body. I hated when she hit me,” stated De La Hoya, who insisted he was the only one of the three kids who was abused to that degree. “She was hitting me so much, she started crying…and she was angry because I wasn’t reacting to it. I was just numb at that point. I f------ hated it. It was the worst. But I had an outlet. When I would step inside the ring, I would picture my mom’s face on my opponent and I would just unleash it. I started to enjoy it. That was the scary part.
“I loved getting hit in the face because I loved the feeling of retaliation. I loved the feeling of paying back. Once that first bell rang, it was game on. Now I had an excuse to get angry. And guess what? I’m going to beat the living sh!t out of you. I was just going to let it all out. Your soul just comes out of your own body. You’re in your own world. Nothing else matters. It’s just about landing that one punch.”
Still, not all the memories were jaded.
Even as De La Hoya felt the need to clear the air in present day, there were still elements of truth to the greater lie he lived for years. Cecilia was in attendance at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle that De La Hoya won in the 125-pound division at just age 17—the youngest fighter in the tournament. She even missed a chemotherapy session to be in attendance, knowing it would be the last time she saw her son in the ring.
Cecilia never had the chance to see her son graduate from Garfield High School the following year, or bring home Olympic Gold from Barcelona the year after that. Regardless of what fueled him to excel at that level, there was also the part that lived with the regret of never fully clearing the air. In particular, the last time he saw her in the hospital.
“I wanted to rip the elevator open and run straight to her and maybe there’s a chance she could see me,” recalled De La Hoya. “But she was gone. I never had the courage to tell her I love her.
“I wish I did.”
De La Hoya further honored his mother in 2000, when he and his siblings opened the Cecilia Gonzalez De La Hoya Cancer Center in Los Angeles.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox