LOS ANGELES – When the end came, it was the real Oscar De La Hoya who said goodbye, shorn of the bravado inherent in every boxer and the business persona which is his future.
As he stood in the chic surrounds of the Nokia Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, a few miles but a world apart from his humble East Los Angeles beginnings, the fight game's Golden Boy waged a losing battle with tears as he wrenched himself away from his career.
The great and the good of the City of Angels came out in force to bid farewell to a beloved son, to celebrate a charismatic man with the touch of Midas who rose from streets addled with social decay to piece together one of boxing's most remarkable stories.
For nearly two decades, the 36-year-old's easy demeanor fueled his immense popularity, and his emotional departure on Tuesday afternoon may have been the hardest part of the journey.
"Boxing is the love of my life," said De La Hoya, standing at a podium just yards away from a recently unveiled statue of himself. "It is my passion; it is what I was born to do."
More than that, it was what he was born to do to an exceptional standard. An Olympic gold medal and 10 world titles in six divisions is first ballot Hall of Fame material in its own right. He fought on HBO pay-per-view 19 times, generating $696.4 million in revenue and leaving boxing as its all-time leading pay-per-view performer.
But De La Hoya has always been about more than statistics. The public associated with his manner, his history, and the way he fought.
On a sad night last December it was brought into sharp focus that he couldn't fight any more, at least not to a level worthy of his legacy. The flurried fists of undersized Manny Pacquiao took care of that within eight brutal rounds and hastened the decision that was finalized here.
"The last four months have been very difficult for me," De La Hoya said. "I'm announcing my retirement because this is what I've done since I was five years old.
"When I can't do it anymore, when I can't compete at the highest level, it's not fair. It is not fair to me and it's not fair to the fans. I have come to the conclusion that it's over. It's over inside the ring for me."
De La Hoya will throw himself further into his life as a boxing promoter with the same intensity that he showed inside the ring. But those expecting a seamless and clinical transition between the two were mistaken. There was no masking his fractured emotions as he stood surrounded by reminders of how far he has come.
From the immigrant construction workers leaning over barricades to catch a glimpse, to a party of schoolchildren from East L.A., to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, actors Mickey Rourke and George Lopez, and his father Joel De La Hoya, Sr., they were all there.
This was a fitting final memory of De La Hoya the fighter, a better one than the cowed figure that sat on his stool after being battered by Pacquiao.
A record of 39-6 doesn't tell the full story, not even close. Numbers don't do him justice, nor do words sometimes. And in his closing few fights it was easy to forget just how good De La Hoya was in his pomp. He could have carried on, too. The public would have still bought his fights and even his wife Millie gave him a get-out clause on Tuesday morning by asking if he wanted to change his mind. But it was time, and he knew it.
"This was based on making sure that I do not disappoint anyone when I step inside the ring, that I do not disappoint myself," said De La Hoya. "I can watch my kids grow up. I make sure I can have a life where I can continue to be involved and help the sport of boxing. I was going back and forth with this. I was asking myself, I can still train hard and do this one last time.
"But when your body doesn't respond there is nothing you can do about it. You have to live for the rest of your life knowing I will never compete again. It is a very, very difficult decision."
Difficult, indeed. Emotional, painful and, in some ways heartbreaking, too. But definitely the right decision, at the right time, for the boy from the barrio who added a golden tinge to a grateful sport.
- Oscar De La Hoya