LOS ANGELES -- The boyz in the hood of East L.A. watch over boxer Oscar de la Hoya. They're his friends, his ex-classmates and his fans. They follow his career and yell "Rocky" and "Mike Tyson" as he passes by.
But last February, while going to a store near his home, de la Hoya walked straight into a gang roadblock. He was held up at gunpoint by three men, who took his wallet and a camera.
"Two hours later, the wallet came back to my home with nothing missing," he said. "I guess they knew who I was."
By this time next year, de la Hoya's fame may spread far beyond East L.A. He is the brightest star of the U.S. amateur boxing program, a 5-foot-11, 132-pound lightweight who brings into the ring equal parts power and charisma.
Tonight, during the boxing finals of the U.S. Olympic Festival, he'll attempt to take a major career step. The winners of the 12 finals will earn the first right of refusal for World Championship berths in Sydney, Australia, in November, while the losers are likely bound for the steamy, brutal Pan American tournament in Havana.
What Sugar Ray Leonard was to the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, de la Hoya may be to the 1992 Barcelona Games. Already, promoters are circling the 18-year-old who graduated last month from Garfield High School. Fluent in Spanish and English and explosive in the ring, de la Hoya has a broad-based appeal made for the pay-per-view era of professional boxing.
But he plans to stick close to his roots. He talks of winning an Olympic gold medal and then going to college to pursue his passion for drawing and architecture.
"Everyone around East L.A. gives me a lot of support," he said. "They want me to succeed. They want to see a kid from East L.A. make it big."
De la Hoya began boxing as a 6-year-old, forced into street fights by his cousins. His father, Joel, taught him how to punch, and then his strength and imagination took over. De la Hoya has patterned his style after former champion Alexis Arguello, a technician who took apart opponents with controlled, artistic fury.
"I like to think like a man in the ring and outside the ring," de la Hoya said. "When I was 6, my father saw that I had the skill and the power to be a boxer."
De la Hoya's amateur career has progressed steadily. He has a 206-4 record, winning a Junior Olympic title in 1988, U.S. Championships in 1990 and 1991 and the Goodwill Games gold in 1990.
He even sparred against world light welterweight champion Julio Caesar Chavez. Using 18-ounce gloves, he held his own against Chavez, landing four punches at a time to the champion's one. But Chavez packed a wallop on one right that buckled de la Hoya's knees.
De la Hoya's amateur status was nearly scuttled because fans paid at the door to gain entry to the sparring session, but he was absolved of blame by U.S. amateur boxing officials.
"Sometimes, I can't believe I get all this attention and fame," he said. "I never let it get to my head."
De la Hoya said he wants to become a positive symbol for his East L.A. community. He still does his daily road work near his home, although he has stopped pounding the pavement at Resurrection Cemetery, preferring to run on the grass at Belvedere Park. He said members of the MMV gang have shielded him from street violence.
"I've been around drugs and gangs where I've lived," he said. "I've never tried nothing like that. I've had the opportunity to do it. It's very tempting. But it's my choice not to do it. Mostly all of my friends are in gangs and do drugs. I talk to them, and ask them why they don't get off of it."
De la Hoya credits his family for keeping him away from gangs. Now, he fights to win an Olympic gold medal to celebrate the memory of his mother, Cecilia. Ill with breast cancer for more than two years, she died last October at the age of 38. In a final conversation between mother and son, she predicted that he would win the gold in Barcelona.
"Right now, she is my biggest motivator," he said. "She told me the last time we spoke that she was very confident in me and wanted me to win the gold medal."
If he wins the gold, de la Hoya will visit his mother's grave. He is making plans for a private victory celebration.
"I'll say, here it is, here is the gold," he said. "I'll bring the medal back for everyone. Here, I did it."