De La Hoya looks to Leonard-Hagler for strategy

Hoping to steal rounds, as Sugar Ray did, he says bout will `define career'


September 18, 2004|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS - Sugar Ray Leonard emerged from a three-year retirement to dethrone undisputed middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987 by tying up and frustrating Hagler as well as flurrying punches to steal rounds and win fans and ringside judges.

Leonard and experts such as Bert Sugar believe Oscar De La Hoya (37-3, 29 knockouts) can use a similar strategy to achieve as monumental an upset over Bernard Hopkins (44-2-1, 31 KOs) tonight before an expected sellout at the MGM Grand's 17,005-seat arena.

Their undisputed middleweight title bout matches Hopkins' International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association crowns against the World Boxing Organization title De La Hoya narrowly won on June 5 from German upstart Felix Sturm.

Taking place five years to the day that De La Hoya lost for the first time in his career to Felix Trinidad (Sept. 18, 1999), the fight has drawn comparisons to Leonard-Hagler.

Like Leonard, De La Hoya looked vulnerable before the biggest fight of his career. Leonard overcame a knockdown to stop journeyman Kevin Howard in nine rounds, and an out-of-shape De La Hoya was hit more often than ever by Sturm.

"One reason I fought Hagler is I saw him against John Mugabi, a total puncher who out-boxed Hagler," said Leonard, whose middleweight debut earned $11 million to Hagler's $20 million. "Being in shape, mentally focused and stable, I could do a better job than Mugabi."

For De La Hoya, 31, who chose Hopkins after he "saw flaws" in Hopkins' 2001 win over Trinidad, "it's about desire to win, ability to reach down and do something unexpected and almost impossible," Leonard said.

Promoter Bob Arum was ringside for Leonard's victory.

"Hagler was supposed to win big, but after three rounds, people around me were saying, `Isn't this great, look what Leonard's doing. Leonard is winning this fight big,' " said Arum, who promoted Leonard-Hagler as well as Hopkins-De La Hoya.

"The expectation for Leonard to lose fueled those reactions," Arum said. "I still think Hagler won the fight, but the parallels are that the two underdogs were gold medalists and lighter guys. If Oscar's real competitive, the officials, consciously or subconsciously, may see him stealing rounds."

Hopkins, 39, hasn't lost in 11 years and is going for his middleweight-record 19th straight defense. He knows two of the judges, Dave Moretti and Paul Smith, gave De La Hoya the last round against Sturm.

"If Oscar doesn't get knocked out, TKO'd or the towel thrown in, the world's glad he made it 12 rounds and he'll get the sympathy vote," said Hopkins, who weighed in at 156 pounds.

"Did you see the expression on De Le Hoya's face when I weighed in at 156 pounds?" Hopkins said. "I've been trying to fight this guy at junior middlewight [154 pounds] for over two years. When we discussed the contract weight [158 pounds] during negotiations, they were like, do you think you can make 158? [I weigh] 156, and I ate breakfast."

At a Wednesday news conference attended by De La Hoya's father, Joel, Hopkins said: "De La Hoya's father, not his trainer [Floyd Mayweather,] will holler and scream, demanding this fight to be stopped. It happened with Trinidad, and I'm predicting it will happen again."

Calling Sturm "my worst performance ever," De La Hoya, who weighed in at a chiseled 155 pounds, said he won't allow fatigue to affect him as it did in losses to Trinidad and Shane Mosley (twice).

"This is the one where I suck it up and let go, the fight that will define my career," said De La Hoya, who has earned about $150 million in the ring. "It's the first time I've been the underdog, which burns me inside. I've never been undisputed champ. I'm won't let no 40-year-old legs wear me down."

A key could be whether De La Hoya can land his left hook over Hopkins' right hand, or vice versa. The Golden Boy's left hook effectively punished or scored knockdowns in wins over Fernando Vargas, Ike Quartey, Rafael Ruelas and Jesse James Leija.

"My left hand will be key in winning this fight - my jab, my left hook, my left uppercut. My right hand is icing on the cake," said De La Hoya, who also sees Hopkins being vulnerable to right hands.

But Hopkins' right hand is also a weapon. It offset Trinidad, whose left hook rivals De La Hoya's. It also flattened Trinidad in the final round and floored Robert Allen in Hopkins' previous fight.

Sugar is picking De La Hoya, who is in only his second middleweight fight.

"Let's say De La Hoya wins rounds jabbing, moving. Now Bernard is behind and has to chase. How will his 39-year-old legs handle it?" asked Sugar. "Bernard's not a one-punch knockout artist, hasn't stopped anybody inside of six rounds since 1996. De La Hoya's never been stopped. I see Leonard-Hagler again."

De La Hoya's guaranteed $25 million could surpass $40 million, and Hopkins' guaranteed $10 million could double if pay-per-view buys surpass $1.7 million, a non-heavyweight record.

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