BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. – They flew in Angelo Dundee, the legendary, 87-year-old trainer, put him in a black Chevy Suburban and hairpin-turned him 6,700 feet up a mountain. At the end was Oscar De La Hoya's training camp for his Dec. 6 welterweight fight against Manny Pacquiao.
It was also De La Hoya's fraternity house – if early mornings, quiet nights, dropping weight, small meals, long altitude runs, sobriety, celibacy, seclusion and a lot of old guys hanging around can be called such a thing.
De La Hoya thinks it can. This is fun, he keeps claiming. "Once in a big while we go out for sushi," he offered. On this day, Veterans Day, De La Hoya said he would shake things up by baking a cake in honor of Joe Chavez, who tapes his hands, and Dundee, both veterans.
"People ask me, 'Civil War?'" Dundee said.
De La Hoya gets asked every single day why someone with so much money and so much fame continues at 35 to retreat to the hinterlands for months of monotony so some young guy has the opportunity to break one of his orbital bones or something. At least, that's what happened last time. And that was a fight De La Hoya won.
The main reason is you can never have too much money and De La Hoya is expected to earn nearly $40 million for fighting the 29-year-old Pacquiao. So let's not kid anyone.
The frat house is the other part, though. There are times when it isn't just De La Hoya's smile that seems so youthful. It's him.
He's still that 6-year-old in East Los Angeles just learning to jab who can't quite comprehend that he can pick up the phone and get Angelo Dundee, no less than Muhammad Ali's trainer, to climb a mountain and hang around and offer up one liners and sage advice.
"We have all these characters," De La Hoya said. "Boxing has so many of them. It's the guys hanging around that make this so much fun."
He was referring to Dundee, and the comedian George Lopez, and his brother, and Chavez, and the guy who holds the mitts, who's a Hall of Famer, and his official trainer, Nacho Beristain, who grew up in a Mexico City orphanage and talks, according to De La Hoya, a lot like Yoda, only if Yoda spoke Spanish. Then there are the various friends that show up, and the support team and the television crew and the sparring guys (who De La Hoya likes when they aren't darkening his eye).
It sounds like a big crowd but it's relative: "Ali used have 200-300 people at camp," Dundee said. "I'd have to hide him out in a log cabin to get him a couple hours sleep."
Training for a boxing match is pretty dull. How many times can a person hit a speed bag? At this point, De La Hoya can do it with his eyes closed. Literally.
You might as well train with everyone laughing and busting chops and getting the old men to tell jokes so old perhaps everyone forgets they've heard them before. De La Hoya has already made weight and looks spry. He's doing the work; there's no sense in hating it.
"When I'm retired I can picture myself in a suit, in an office, with serious people," said De La Hoya, who runs Golden Boy Promotions, Inc. "Here, when I come to the gym it's all joking around, everyone saying anything. It's, 'Ah, (expletive) you.'"
So, aside from the $40 million, this is why Oscar De La Hoya continues to risk that pretty face of his – the frat house. As jobs go, it's a great way to avoid adulthood.
He even returned to the top of this mountain above San Bernardino, in an old gold rush town turned ski resort. It's sort of a reunion tour. He trained here up until six years ago, when he shifted to Puerto Rico, from which his wife hails. He sold his house to Tito Ortiz and Jenna Jamison.
Now he's back, working out in a new place called The Summit. The owner took a big house, converted the three-car garage into a modern gym and the upstairs into a pseudo hotel. Some of the guys stay there. De La Hoya rents nearby. Everyone gathers just after sun up, the air crisp and clean.
Since there's no snow yet, the town is kind of desolate. At times it feels like they have the tall pines all to themselves.
"It's our little hole in the wall," De La Hoya said. "I love it. I missed it."
He couldn't stop smiling a couple months ago when he first drove again up that winding road originally laid out for horse and carriage, when the gold rushers needed two days to make it.
"It's kind of like when you're a little kid and they're going to take you to Disneyland," he said.
He admits that the adrenaline rush of camp, of avoiding that suit and tie, of being able to invite a bunch of friends to go off to the middle of nowhere, is addictive. It makes him want to train, and fight, forever. He knows that's not possible. Time ticks. Reflexes fade. He's soaking it up while he still can.
"If I stay in this too long, something serious can happen."
Nothing serious happened last week, other than De La Hoya nailing the double end bag with such precision Dundee started saying he's never seen anyone better on it, other than Jimmy Ellis and Sugar Ray Leonard, of course.
The Dundee experiment was working well. Nacho is his trainer, but Dundee motivates De La Hoya just by shuffling around. Besides, he's an endless supply of boxing advice. Like something out of a movie, he sat to the side and spit out phrases while De La Hoya sweated.
"The jab: It opens doors, it closes doors."
"You've got hands like a pianist."
"Back at the Fifth Street Gym."
"I taught Russell Crowe that."
"You can't let them be first, you've got to be first. Always first."
"When a guy steps like that, throw the right hand cross. Forget the hook. The hook will come."
Soon Dundee was asked for advice on, well, more esoteric matters. "What's the deal with women, Angelo?" Dundee stopped and considered it. De La Hoya was done training for the morning. Everyone was just standing around, shooting the breeze. They'd do more work after lunch.
The old boxing adage says relations with a woman can kill a fighter's legs or take his wind. Or something like that. No one is certain exactly what calamity will befall a fighter, just that women are no good for camp. Two months with no women before a fight, right, Angelo?
"It doesn't matter," Dundee said. "Depends on the guy."
Doesn't matter? Depends on the guy? De La Hoya was listening closely now. Forget "catch, counter," Ali's trainer said it doesn't matter? Could De La Hoya be "the guy"? Oscar looked ready to bake him two cakes.
Why in certain cases would a woman not tire a fighter out, Angelo?
"It's not the act," the old man said. "It's the chase."