Oscar looks to finish career with a bang

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES — It would be a stretch, were he 43-0 instead of 38-5. It would be a long shot were he 25 instead of 35.

And even if Oscar De La Hoya wasn't seemingly limping to the finish line of his career with three losses in his past five fights, it would be hard to conceive of a way that he could retire as the recognized pound-for-pound champion.

His fight on Saturday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., will do nothing to help him toward that goal, whether he squashes Steve Forbes in the first round like the 18-1 underdog that he is at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas or whether De La Hoya allows Forbes to hang around to a less-than-enthralling finish.

But it's the prospect of those next two fights that may follow Saturday's bout with Forbes that could propel De La Hoya to a pinnacle he's yet to reach in his illustrious career.

Oscar has had a heady ride, to be sure. Check his official biography and it has a list of world champions he's beaten that is longer than the number of Mayweathers who aren't speaking to each other.

He's won world title belts at 130, 135, 140, 147, 154 and 160 pounds. There has been no quality fighter in or around his weight class that it was reasonable for him to fight whom he hasn't fought.

"Outside of his fight with (Felix) Sturm and the ending of the (Bernard) Hopkins fight, his fights are generally crowd-pleasing fights," HBO analyst Larry Merchant, a long-time De La Hoya observer, said. "How many guys can you say that about? He's had a long career, he's fought all the top guys and almost without exception he's delivered exciting fights."

De La Hoya has been Sugar Ray Leonard Lite, the charismatic superstar who has meant an extraordinary payday to anyone who's faced him. Like Leonard, De La Hoya sought every meaningful fight, even if it meant a guy who had begun his career at 130 pounds challenging a man who not only held the middleweight belt for 10 years but who would later win the light heavyweight belt in dominating fashion.

But despite all that success, De La Hoya has never held an undisputed title, never has been recognized clearly as the best fighter at his weight and has never had anything more than a very tenuous claim to the pound-for-pound championship.

Top Rank billed his 1997 bout with an aging Pernell Whitaker as a battle for pound-for-pound supremacy, but that came smack during the middle of the Roy Jones Jr. Era. And while De La Hoya won a hotly disputed decision over Whitaker, he was never really seriously considered anywhere close to Jones.

For all of his many accomplishments, De La Hoya himself concedes he could have been better.

"I think I have left something on the table these past years," he said.

That's not to say, however, that he hasn't had a brilliant career or many significant moments. His crushing second-round knockout of Rafael Ruelas in a 1995 lightweight title fight in Las Vegas announced him as a star to the boxing world.

His dramatic 12th-round knockdown over highly regarded welterweight Ike Quartey in 1998 led to a close victory and showed the competitive fire that burns inside that skinny frame.

He's grudgingly won the respect of the Mexican-Americans who treated him coolly and kept him at an arm's length earlier in his career. His 2002 stoppage of bitter rival Fernando Vargas ended the silly notion that existed among some in that community that De La Hoya was dainty and not a real fighter.

But there is a notion, not entirely undeserved, that as good as he has been, De La Hoya has been more style than substance, a creation of brilliant matchmaking and perfect management.

No doubt, the immense popularity De La Hoya gained from the 1992 Olympics enabled his managers and promoters to play hardball with potential opponents. He frequently either fought men on the downsides of their careers or men who were forced to move up from their natural division to compete with him at a higher weight, where he had the physical advantages.

He battered Julio Cesar Chavez twice, but it's hard to imagine him ever putting that kind of a beating on a Chavez whose body wasn't ravaged not only from previous ring wars but from years of heavy drinking, as well.

And if he'd met the 1993 version of Whitaker and not the 1997 version, he might not have even laid a glove on the defensive wizard, let alone won a decision.

Even Forbes, who praised De La Hoya as one of the five best fighters of his era, conceded that De La Hoya's lack of a win over a superstar in the prime of their career at their ideal weight is troubling.

"Honestly, I'm a boxing historian and I don't think he's beaten anybody in their prime while he was in his prime," Forbes said.

He's come close, suffering an excruciatingly difficult loss to Felix Trinidad when both were unbeaten welterweights and a pair of equally tough losses to Shane Mosley. Of his five losses, two were split decisions and one was a majority decision.

If he beats Forbes, he'll fight Mayweather in a Sept. 20 rematch, the first of two bouts he'll need to make this improbable finale to his career.

Mayweather won a split decision when they met last year in what was the largest-grossing bout in boxing history. Forbes noted that Mayweather didn't fight anywhere near his best, terming it "C-level."

The perception among many is that "Money May" will simply turn it up in a rematch and shred De La Hoya. But De La Hoya, who has rehired Mayweather's father, Floyd Sr., as his trainer, is too competitive to quit without giving it another shot.

Having come so close to beating the guy who seemed unbeatable, De La Hoya is aching for another crack. That, frankly, is one of the differences between De La Hoya and Mayweather. Mayweather is willing to fight guys he's already beaten — he's also talking of a 2009 rematch with Ricky Hatton, whom he destroyed late last year — while De La Hoya would rather chase the bigger challenges and fights it seems he can't win.

He needs the Forbes fight to get to Mayweather, but admits to having his eyes firmly on the latter.

"Am I looking past Stevie Forbes? I have to admit that maybe I am," De La Hoya said. "I want that big prize of beating the best in the world, the pound-for-pound, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Can I beat him? Absolutely, I can beat him."

He said he has "little tricks here and there" that he can use to turn the tables on Mayweather. And he admitted he used the wrong strategy against Mayweather.

"It was all of our strategy that we came up with, that I was the bigger guy, that I was going to walk right through him, (but it was) the wrong plan," De La Hoya said. "Wrong plan."

His eyes twinkle as he speaks of what he may do in a rematch. And, if he gets that, he says he wants to end his career in December by fighting Miguel Cotto.

It's almost inconceivable that could happen. He's slated to face Mayweather tentatively on Sept. 20, which, even in the unlikely event that he did win, would only give him a few weeks off at most before he'd have to get back to the gym to prepare for Cotto.

If he managed to pull that fight out, he'd be defeating the men currently ranked Nos. 1 and 4 in the Yahoo! Sports rankings. He'd without question be No. 1.

And though there's a better chance of Roger Clemens being named Man of the Year, it's not inconceivable he could pull it off.

"He's fought everybody and he's been competitive with everybody," Merchant said.

It's unlikely, but not impossible. But just the fact that De La Hoya dreams these types of dreams is why he's beloved.

Say what you will of him, but you know this:

You'll miss him when he's gone.

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