By Cliff Rold (photo by Chris Farina/Top Rank)
It will matter if he loses this Saturday, especially considering the size advantage Oscar De La Hoya takes into the ring with Manny Pacquiao. It just won’t matter forever. Oscar’s surest path to defeat is a calendar only months away from a thirty-sixth birthday more than the man in front of him. In choosing Pacquiao, De La Hoya has selected the available opponent with the biggest name and smallest chances. A loss would be fitting comeuppance for taking the fight at all, but won’t detract much from De La Hoya’s standing in history.
That is, if a place in history can be clearly assigned to the “Golden Boy.”
It is sometimes hard to imagine the smiling star of the 1992 Olympics nearing middle-age but it’s a destination most get to and surpass with reluctance. Turned pro mere months after the Gold Medal win which began his story, De La Hoya has been the biggest star of his time but, sixteen years later, it’s tough to figure how Oscar will be remembered.
He doesn’t categorize well.
Having fought at some point in six different weight divisions, he’s difficult to rate in any of them. Compared to other historical scale jumpers, mixed successes in the last ten years and the immediacy of memory make him difficult to measure as well. Could it be that time will allow the sum of his career parts to take on greater meaning? The question is asked:
How good is Oscar De la Hoya, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2. Competition Faced
3. Competition Not Faced
4. Reaction to Adversity
5. What’s Left to Prove
With that in mind, let’s head to…
The Tale of the Tape
Birth Place: Los Angeles, California
Turned Professional: November 23, 1992 (KO1 Lamar Williams)
Record: 39-5, 30 KO
Record in Title Fights: 25-5, 18 KO
Lineal World Titles: Junior Welterweight (1996-97, 1 Defense); Welterweight (1997-99, 7 Defenses); Jr. Middleweight (2001-03, 2 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: WBO Jr. Lightweight (1994, 1 Defense); WBO Lightweight (1994-96, 6 Defenses); IBF Lightweight (1995, 0 Defenses); WBC Jr. Welterweight (1996-97, 1 Defense); WBC Welterweight (1997-99, 7 Defenses; 2000, 0 Defenses); WBC Jr. Middleweight (2001-03, 2 Defenses; 06-07, 0 Defenses); WBA Jr. Middleweight (2002-03, 1 Defense); Ring Magazine Jr. Middleweight (2002-03, 1 Defense); WBO Middleweight (2004, 0 Defenses)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 5 (Genaro Hernandez, Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Javier Castillejo, Ricardo Mayorga)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 4 (Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley, Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 14 (Troy Dorsey, Jimmy Bredahl, Jorge Paez, John John Molina, Rafael Ruelas, Jesse James Leija, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, Hector Camacho, Ike Quartey, Arturo Gatti, Fernando Vargas, Yori Boy Campas, Felix Sturm, Steve Forbes)
In building superstardom, De La Hoya has amassed one of the greater trophy collections of the modern era. Beginning with the WBO belt at 130 lbs., De La Hoya has collected eight alphabelts across six weight divisions, engaged in unification battles in four weight divisions, and captured three lineal World championships. Less than ten fighters have ever done the last of these and, absurdly split titles or not, no fighter has ever engaged in unification bouts in more weight divisions.
In those four unification bouts, he is 2-2 but could easily be 3-1 had the decision in the Trinidad bout gone his way. The two wins stand out as his greatest to date, knockouts of Rafael Ruelas and Fernando Vargas in ethno-cultural grudge matches, while the clear loss came at the hands of a Hopkins who will likely be recorded as one of the five greatest Middleweights to ever walk Earth.
Not that all accomplishments are equal.
Of the division’s he’s competed and won belts in, two of the six can be dismissed. He weighed 130 or less only twice in his career, both times in title fights contested in an era which allows for day-before weigh-ins. In other words, his Jr. Lightweight run is about as artificial as it gets. His defeat of Jimmy Bredahl at Jr. Lightweight didn’t stand up as much more than a stat in 1994 and the case remains today. Bredahl was a 16-0 featherfist and far below the class of the other reigning 130 lb. titlists of the time (Genaro Hernandez, Azumah Nelson, Tracy Patterson).
Bredahl was not the least of his titles. At Middleweight, a division he also competed in only twice, De La Hoya ‘defeated’ Felix Sturm to build towards the Hopkins fight. The quotation marks are there for a reason. De La Hoya looked chubby and fought like it against Sturm, lucky to escape with a win where a draw or loss would have been more fitting. Besides that, Hopkins was the Middleweight champion of the world when he defeated Sturm. Period. He proved it stopping De La Hoya in nine rounds. Like Bredahl, it was a stat struggling for merit and little more.
De la Hoya’s accomplishments from Lightweight to Jr. Middleweight come with plenty of merit, no struggle at all.
His Lightweight title days started soft with a dwarfed Jorge Paez destroyed in two for the WBO Lightweight belt. They peaked strong with unification against a perceived-live Rafael Ruelas to add the IBF strap, again in two rounds. At Jr. Welterweight, he knocked off, old or not, one of the division’s greatest champions ever in Julio Cesar Chavez for the Lineal (#1) and WBC crowns and was the first man ever to stop the Mexican great via a cut. His Welterweight accolades came via disputed decision versus Lineal (#2) and WBC champion Pernell Whitaker on the last great night of Whitaker’s career and, following the Trinidad defeat, a win over the game Derrell Coley led to his being awarded a then-vacant WBC strap. At Jr. Middleweight, he picked up the Lineal (#3) and WBC crowns versus Javier Castillejo and added the WBA strap by stopping Fernando Vargas in an underrated classic. His last title was won versus Ricardo Mayorga in 2006, a sixth round detonation for yet another WBC crown.
From 1995-2004, he was regarded almost universally as one of the ten best fighters in the sport and, from 1997-99, had Ring Magazine, among others, heralding him as the very best.
(#1) Traceable to Chavez-Meldrick Taylor
(#2) Traceable to Donald Curry-Milton McCrory
(#3) Traceable to Terry Norris-Paul Vaden
Pound for pound has been often more important in the modern era than divisional dominance. It’s one of the elements being used to sell this weekend’s Pacquiao fight. Pacquiao is seen right now as the pound-for-pound king, a distinction that allows many to ignore the three weight divisions between De La Hoya and Pacquiao in their most recent bouts. That criticism aside, it is not the first current or former king of the scales De La Hoya has faced.
Over the course of his career, Chavez, Whitaker, Trinidad, Mosley, and Hopkins join Pacquiao as men who were, had been, or would be argued as the sport’s premiere fighter. With Pacquiao, they represent the cream of the pound-for-pound field not named Roy Jones across a ring generation. They are the spear of the iceberg.
Prior to Bredahl, he offed former Featherweight titlist Troy Dorsey in 1993 in his 8th fight. At Lightweight, De La Hoya defeated arguably the best Jr. Lightweight in the world, a then-undefeated Genaro Hernandez, forcing the more experienced man to quit. One fight prior, he had defeated no worse than the second best active Lightweight of the day in Ruelas. Sandwiching those wins were still very good versions of Molina and Leija, the former in a tough, learning decision, the latter by devastating knockout. All of this was done before his 20th professional bout and the four-fight stretch was accomplished all inside of 1995. He was named Fighter of the Year.
De La Hoya’s best division may well have been 140 lbs. if he’d stayed there. The stoppage of Chavez in the summer of 1996 was followed that year with a relatively easy decision over a then-undefeated, ten-defense former Lightweight titlist in Gonzalez and it was onwards and upwards from there.
Given his height, Welterweight always appeared to be the ultimate destination for De La Hoya and it was where he arrived in his fourth full year. It was also where he began to discover adversity for the first time. The April 1997 Whitaker fight, regardless of how one scored it and there remain two very vocal sides of the debate, was a strategic nightmare for the then 24-year old De La Hoya but he followed it with a title reign that, by its end, looks strong in retrospect.
It didn’t start out strong. De La Hoya followed Whitaker with a pair of gimmes against David Kamau and an old Camacho before stopping a rugged Wilfredo Rivera who had given Whitaker hell on two occasions and would provide similar heat to Mosley and Vargas later in his career. 1998 started with a woeful challenge from Patrick Charpentier, made more to show off Oscar’s drawing ability by filling the Texas Sun Bowl than it was to provide an actual fight. A rematch with Chavez followed, ended with another stoppage in one of Oscar’s more forgettable years.
And then there was 1999, the year which largely defines and haunts him.
He started the year trading knockdowns, two for and one against, with an Ike Quartey who should still have been the WBA titlist but for one of Boxing’s many strippings. The decision is still debated but it was Oscar with the final round knockdown and assault. He followed with an Oba Carr who had been defeated officially only twice (pause to remember Livingstone Bramble and the Tuseday night heist) by Quartey and Trinidad. He gave Oscar a long night before succumbing to the left hook in round 11.
Trinidad, then-IBF titlist, followed and the controversy is a legend all its own.
There is a vocal majority who still feel De La Hoya deserved the decision and a healthy minority who felt otherwise. Regardless, it is the hinge De La Hoya’s career still swings on and it will discussed in greater detail below.
After a quick vacation, De La Hoya returned in 2000 and found more tough competition laced with adversity. He began by stopping a Coley in February who’d earned a chance to find out if he had the stuff for the next level (he didn’t) and then in June took on an undefeated Shane Mosley in what turned into a modern classic. Unlike the Trinidad fight, the only controversy at the end of Mosley-De La Hoya I was that a split decision for “Sugar” was not unanimous.
Another vacation followed before Oscar made what, until this Saturday, would be his last appearance at 147 against ticket seller Arturo Gatti; five one-sided rounds later and Oscar was looking for gold again in a new weight class. He found it in dominating Castillejo over twelve rounds which included a last-second knockdown and then it was more time off.
Over a year would pass before Oscar would return in September 2002 for a long awaited grudge match with local rival and performance-enhancer assisted Fernando Vargas. The two traded rounds until Vargas’ chin couldn’t take the trade with the De La Hoya left hook any more in round eleven. Another lengthy layoff was followed with more vacation in the form of a bout with a faded Yori Boy Campas in May 2003 and then a rematch with Mosley which, like the Trinidad fight, remains hotly debated. Mosley picked up a much closer decision than he had the first time with loud cries of robbery from creditable corners. Later evidence of use of performance enhancers by Mosley prior to the bout further darkens the cloud which hangs over this one.
He’s fought only five times since with mixed results. The 2004 Middleweight excursion was a bad year in the ring but both Sturm and Hopkins are clearly quality opponents and then some in the case of the latter. Mayorga was perceived as less so in 2006 but was still a recent lineal Welterweight champion at that point. Mayweather and Forbes round out his most recent opponents.
As almost an addendum, De La Hoya was slated to face the best Jr. Middleweight on the 1990s, Terry Norris, in 1998 but Norris was knocked out by Keith Mullings on the undercard of De La Hoya-Rivera and never won another fight. Had Norris’ body held up just one more cold December night, De La Hoya would likely have had one more prized scalp and gotten heavy credit for it at the time.
Scan through the names one more time. Oscar’s quality of opposition rates closer to black and white legends than almost any of his modern day brethren, and that includes all of the men who would post official victories over De La Hoya in his time. He didn’t fight them all though.
Competition Not Faced
Noted in the first edition of “Measured Against All-Time,” this section is not concerned with why fights didn’t get made. It simply embraces their lack of existence.
At Lightweight, he missed two prominent titlists in WBC beltholder Miguel Angel Gonzalez and WBA titlist Orzubek Nazarov. The former he would face one division later. The latter should be considered a serious miss as he, not Ruelas, was arguably the best Lightweight in the World in 1995, fully in the midst of an almost five year reign.
At Jr. Welterweight, there are two notable misses. While Chavez was the strictly lineal champion of the division, the man who gave him his first official loss, Frankie Randall, held the WBA title for a portion of the time De La Hoya was in the division. Former Amateur legend Kostya Tszyu was in his first IBF reign well over a year before De La Hoya arrived at 140 and had notched three defenses by the time Oscar got there. De La Hoya-Tszyu was all the hardcore buzz in 1996 and likely would have happened at Welterweight but a loss to Vince Phillips in 1997 put the fight off-track and it never happened.
The contentious nature of the decision in the 1997 Whitaker fight, Whitaker’s standing as one of the true proven greats of his time, and the to-then record non-Heavyweight pay-per-view revenue should have meant a rematch. Whitaker deserved it, earned it, didn’t get it. Great boxing writer Michael Katz coined the nickname “Chicken De La Hoya” in honor of Oscar not demanding the rematch. It remains a stain, particularly because even those who felt Oscar won would be hard pressed to explain the wildly lopsided scoring in his favor.
To a lesser degree, De La Hoya could have at some point faced 1992 Olympic teammate Vernon Forrest at 147 or 154, but has not as of yet. Eventually, it would be Forrest who would put the defeats on Mosley’s record twice which De La Hoya could not. De La Hoya also was perceived, fairly or unfairly, as avoiding a Mosley rematch until Mosley had been shown vulnerable against Forrest, but the rematch happened and was a good fight so it’s not too big a deal.
Finally, at Jr. Middleweight, only one name stands out: Winky Wright. Most of Boxing’s best avoided Winky for the better part of his career and Oscar was no different. Oscar may have been the lineal champion, but he never faced the best Jr. Middleweight of his time. As was the case with Forrest, Wright holds two Mosley wins where only “L’s” can be found on the record of De La Hoya.
Reaction to Adversity
The competition of Oscar is largely exemplary but it also produced the moments that generate the lingering questions about who and what he’s been as a fighter. In the fights with Mosley, and against Trinidad and Mayweather, he coughed up early leads on the cards. Fatigue, or fear of fatigue, has been cited as a rationale but there’s something more.
De La Hoya, blessed with power and speed, lacks improvisational skills.
Against ‘just’ world class fighters like Vargas, he didn’t need them. The game plans were right and the opponents didn’t have the extra bit of athletic intellect to force him off plan even if they could push him physically. Still, he’s never been a fighter remarkable for his ability to readjust as adjustments are made to him. He’s almost robotic in that sense; he comes into fights programmed and glitches when confronted with variables.
The worst of the glitches is the career hinge that is the Trinidad loss.
Following the bout, trainer Gil Clancy was released, blamed in part for Oscar’s capitulation over the final four rounds of the bout, begun perhaps not as much in the corner, as legend has it, but off a Trinidad right hand during the ninth round. While the former trainer of Emile Griffth certainly told De La Hoya to “box” late in the bout, tape of the fight never reveals a moment where De La Hoya was told to run. That’s what Oscar did, taking a close first four rounds for granted as in the bag after an almost perfect fifth through eighth. What made the marathon so appalling was that the fight had been built into the “Leonard-Hearns” of its time and yet Oscar never went for the close. Had he, there is a chance Trinidad catches him late and wins anyways; there was a great chance the reverse could have happened as well. On his biggest day, the day all the career hype, marketing, and increasingly tough opposition had been built towards, Oscar found a way to lose.
And after he did it once, it’s been an 8-4 mark since. No one ever had an easy night with Oscar, not even the great Hopkins who needed some rounds to seriously figure De La Hoya out, but when faced with talent equal to his own Oscar didn’t close. It says a lot that he didn’t…but to be fair it says a lot that it took Hall of Fame locks like Mayweather or Mosley to put him in such a position in the first place.
Finally, some hold against Oscar his reactions to adversity outside the ring. His rants against the decisions in the Trinidad bout, the Mosley rematch (more and more justified as the BALCO connections become concrete) and even the Mayweather fight, most recently in an interview with Ron Borges in Boxing Monthly, are scoffed at by those who remember the odd scoring of the Whitaker, Quartey and Sturm fights and hear a hint of the spoiled superstar. The rants can be looked at positively though, an indication of the pride and pressure which comes with being the biggest target in the game for close to two decades. Boxing followers know that fighters with lots of close fights win some and lose others; few are ever happy with the close ones that got away or all that willing to acknowledge the close ones they got as being so.
What’s Left to Prove
At 35 years old, Oscar is in a position where the bulk of the evidence is in on his career. He’s not going to go down as the best fighter of his generation, and unlike the end of so many of his biggest fights, he won’t finish a close second either. That does not mean he cannot further his legacy.
Furtherance will not begin this weekend should he win as expected. Pacquiao’s size detracts from victory; after all, would Pacquiao be competitive with anyone in the Welterweight top ten right now? With an Antonio Margarito, Miguel Cotto or even an older Mosley? Of course not, and beating Pacquiao at welterweight is better business than accomplishment. A loss and proof is clear that Oscar is better off ending his part time fighting career and turning full-time to his promotional and publishing endeavors.
Let’s assume he wins.
Should Oscar choose to stay at Welterweight he does have fights available. A discussed bout with Ricky Hatton would be huge business as would a rematch with Floyd Mayweather if the “Pretty Boy” returns. None would do for him what Margarito could. One place Oscar’s resume remains flawless is in his head-to-head matches with fellow Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Against that core of fighters, he is undefeated.
Margarito would be perceived as the most dangerous he’s ever faced and, should he defeat Mosley in January, also be fully recognized as the true Welterweight champion of the World. Regaining the crown he held from 1997-99 against a younger, violent foe would be big business and big-time Boxing. It would also be a sizable statement in the most significant of his weight classes.
Measured Against History
Return now to the original question: How good is Oscar De La Hoya, measured against all-time?
In terms of star power, and the importance of his star relative to his era, there may never have been a greater figure. Other eras found stars in a sport which easily made the front page. Oscar on the other hand has almost single handedly kept Boxing relevant. He has been consistently capable and, outside the Sturm fight, in shape through it all. While his persona is not everyone’s favorite, he has been a professional under a microscope none of his peers came close to experiencing.
Any fistic evaluation starts with competition. Stacked side by side, the competition faced outweighs the competition not faced as a body of work. No one really ever fights everyone; ask some old timers and they’ll tell you even the best to ever lace gloves, Ray Robinson, ducked Charley Burley. De La Hoya missed some quality, but he made up for it in quantity.
The problem with rating De La Hoya against the best of all-time is that he suffers in the easiest categories where greatness can be confirmed. He never cleaned out a weight class and dominated it for a sustained period of time like a Bernard Hopkins or Michael Spinks. And while he played the pound-for-pound game of working the scales, he lost enough of his biggest fights that he doesn’t rate well with other notable scale jumpers like Thomas Hearns or Henry Armstrong.
In three of the four divisions where he did his best work (Lightweight, Jr. Welterweight, Jr. Middleweight), strong cases can be made that he did not face the single best opponent in the class. It is hard even to argue against the cases at 140 and 154 lbs. Factor as well that his overall body of serious work is limited to handfuls of fights in each class and his historical merits in all three are difficult to determine. He looked like he could have been great at Lightweight and Jr. Welterweight, but speculation is no substitute for results and he doesn’t merit mention with the top ten all-time in any of the three classes.
At Welterweight, there is no doubt that he faced the very best and not just singularly. De La Hoya fought the five of the six best foes available in Whitaker, Quartey, Carr, Trinidad and Mosley. He defeated only Carr without doubters at the final bell. Welterweight might be the toughest top-ten…heck, top twenty-five…to crack in all of Boxing. It is the home of Robinson, Napoles, Leonard, Griffith, Walcott, Walker. Oscar didn’t prove to be of that stature. In battling to parity he is closer to men like Marlon Starling and Simon Brown, former champions with excellent competition and mixed results. It is not an insult; those were damn good fighters. It’s just a shade off from the greats. A win over Margarito, at by then the age of 36, would shake it up a bit but probably still not enough.
To his credit, Oscar De La Hoya has carried the sport economically for years and his willingness to face high levels of competition almost from his professional infancy can never be disregarded. He made Boxing big and made his opponents bigger than they ever would have been without him. When all is said and done, Boxing has been better off by his presence.
Verdict on Oscar De La Hoya: Not an All-Time Great, but Still Easily Hall of Fame
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Previous Mesaurements: Joe Calzaghe
Next up: James Toney prior to his 12/13 Heavyweight fight with Tony Thompson
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org