Chavez roadblock for De La Hoya Riches, reputations on line as L.A. fighter faces legend

June 06, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS -- Without a trace of embarrassment, Oscar De La Hoya removes the crumpled food stamps from his wallet to show a group of boxing writers here for tomorrow night's super lightweight showdown with Julio Cesar Chavez at Caesars Palace.

"These stamps remind me of the days I was growing up in East Los Angeles and it was very difficult for us to always have food on the table," De La Hoya said.

"It was a constant struggle. Now that I have everything -- money and fame -- it might be easy to get sidetracked. But keeping these stamps helps me to keep my feet on the ground and my head on my shoulders."

Looking even younger than his 23 years, De La Hoya will gain even greater wealth and glory if he defeats Chavez.

An Olympic gold medalist in 1992, De La Hoya has earned an estimated $14 million while winning all 21 of his pro bouts and capturing the World Boxing Organization and International Boxing Federation lightweight titles.

According to promoter Bob Arum, the greening of Oscar De La Hoya is just beginning.

"He is on the threshold of becoming one of the wealthiest fighters in history," said Arum. "In this fight alone, he has an $8.9 million guarantee and the potential to raise that to $12 million to $15 million from his 35 percent of pay-per view receipts.

"He's truly unique in that he appeals to both Anglos and Latins. He's making commercials in both English and Spanish. He's very smart for a kid with only a high school education, but he has a tremendous thirst for knowledge. He's always asking me questions about investing in stocks and bonds."

But the Chavez fight means much more than a bursting bank deposit.

Because he has won almost all of his fights with relative ease, he challenges the stereotype of the macho Latin fighter who is willing to risk everything to have his hand raised in victory.

"There is a lot of jealousy involved, and I understand that," he said. "Chavez has been a great champion for a number of years, and the Mexican fans love him and his aggressive style.

"But I'm not only fighting for the Latin fans. I fight for everyone. I'm extremely proud of my Mexican blood, but I'm also proud of being born an American. When I won my Olympic gold medal, I waved both the American and Mexican flags. If I'd had more arms, I would have waved all the flags in the world."

Being a bilingual champion has worked to the advantage of De La Hoya, who serves as a spokesman for Mennen and Budweiser and soon may add adidas as a sponsor.

He said he learned a valuable lesson in watching the downfall of another East Los Angeles hero, flyweight Paul Gonzales, who won an Olympic gold medal in his hometown in 1984.

"Paul betrayed his people," De La Hoya said. "He'd go around the barrio saying, 'I'm not Hispanic, I'm an American.' The fame went to his head. He was cocky and rude. I'd never be like that."

De La Hoya had considered early retirement, saying his many years as an amateur and pro had made him bored with boxing. He began considering alternative careers as an architect or actor, but now says that without continued success in the ring, all his aspirations quickly could vanish.

"There are other things I want to do with my life. I need an education and something to fall back on. I've [studied] architecture and designed my home on Big Bear Lake. But if I don't keep fighting and winning, a lot of things will instantly go away. Boxing can give me everything I want."

And what he wants now is to dispel the legend of Chavez.

"Beating Chavez would be the ultimate in boxing," he said. "He has been the people's champion. If I win, my popularity [with Latins] will increase considerably, and the people will start truly believing in me."

Boxers often play mind games and try to intimidate their rivals before the opening bell, but De La Hoya treated Chavez with the utmost respect as they made a pre-fight, 23-city publicity tour.

"Even after 99 fights, Chavez is still dangerous," he said. "That's why I've trained for him like I was fighting the Chavez of five years ago. I see this match as two true warriors trying to knock each other out. If I were to lose, I'd be losing to a great champion."

Asked to assess Chavez, 33, who was fortunate to get a draw against Pernell Whitaker in 1993 and temporarily lost his World Boxing Council 140-pound crown to a quicker Frankie Randall in 1994, De La Hoya said: "You can't dismiss his experience, and Julio's power will always be there.

"But he doesn't have the same hand speed. I learned a lot watching his fights with Whitaker and Randall. They both out-quicked him. But Chavez has never fought a complete fighter like me, someone who can take him out with a single punch."

All but two of De La Hoya's 21 victories have been by knockout.

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