LAS VEGAS -- Call it "Oscar Mania."
Everybody seems to be catching it.
Teen-age girls swoon in Oscar De La Hoya's wake. Fight fans, seeking a new idol, hail the charismatic boxer as the next Sugar Ray Leonard. And now even boxing judges appear to have jumped aboard the bandwagon.
The three Nevada officials assigned to his World Boxing Council welterweight title match with champion Pernell Whitaker on Saturday night seemed to be swayed as much by De La Hoya's reputation as his ring skills.
Even the Los Angeles native's supporters -- the vast majority in the crowd of 12,200 at the Thomas & Mack Center -- seemed surprised by the lopsided margin that gave De La Hoya, 24, his fourth title in as many weight classes -- 130, 135, 140 and now 147 pounds.
Two judges, Dalby Shirley and Jerry Roth, voted 116-110, and Chuck Giampa scored it 115-111.
Losing for the second time in 43 professional bouts, Whitaker out-jabbed his taller rival, 160-45, and won the total punch count, 232-191. But the officials gave him only two of the 12 rounds -- the fifth and the ninth, when he scored the fight's only knockdown.
Obviously, the judges put more weight on power than finesse. De La Hoya landed 146 power punches to 72 by Whitaker, whose right eye was closed by the blows. It raised the age-old boxing question: Is one hard punch worth more than three light jabs?
Or were the judges influenced by the highly vocal crowd?
Most of the ringside reporters polled after the final bell said Whitaker, who vowed to take his younger rival to school, had done just that.
Bobbing and weaving out of a low crouch and feinting and punching from all angles, Whitaker repeatedly frustrated De La Hoya, who had dominated his previous opposition in winning his first 23 pro bouts, all but one by knockout.
"I believe you've got to really beat a champion to take his title away," said Roy Jones, the former middleweight and light heavyweight king who was doing ringside commentary. "De La Hoya didn't do that tonight."
When someone informed De La Hoya that reporters from CNN, ESPN and ABC had voted for Whitaker, he flashed a winning smile and said: "Yes, but I have the belt right here," holding it aloft.
But he would soon admit to having spent 36 uneasy minutes trying to solve Whitaker's perplexing, left-handed style and defensive ploys.
"You can never look good fighting a southpaw, especially one as good as Whitaker," De La Hoya said. "You look bad, and they make you miss punches.
"With 13 years' experience as a pro, he knows all the tricks of the trade. Our feet kept getting tangled, and I was off balance when he knocked me down. And then he stepped on top of my leg. Plus, he kept brushing my eyes with the stitching on his gloves. He's just very smart."
Whitaker had looked vulnerable in his previous fight with Diobelys Hurtado, getting off the floor twice before scoring an 11th-round knockout. But Saturday he turned back the clock to the days when he dominated the lightweight division.
"This was the Whitaker of old," he said. "Critics called me finished. But tonight I showed everyone the legs of a 21-year-old.
"Tomorrow, I'll feel like 33 again. But I'll still believe I'm the best in the world. If Oscar had really beat me, I'd be the first to say he's the best, pound-for-pound. But I couldn't have performed better than I did. I saw it, the whole world saw it. Now I want a rematch."
It won't be that easy. Bob Arum, who promoted Saturday's match and rewarded De La Hoya with a $10 million guarantee, will try to negate such a plan.
"Whitaker's style makes for a stinking fight," Arum said. "I can't afford to pay $15 million for a fight and lose half my audience."
De La Hoya seemed more willing to give Whitaker a shot at regaining his crown.
"I'll give him a rematch anytime he wants," De La Hoya said. "It's just a matter of sitting down and agreeing to terms."
Pub Date: 4/14/97