Oscar's legacy

Kevin Iole

LAS VEGAS – Oscar De La Hoya is hardly the greatest fighter of his generation. He's lost as many of his big fights as he's won.

He hasn't held the linear championship in any division. He's never been the most well-conditioned fighter and frequently tired in the latter half of his bouts.

He's never truly become a complete fighter, relying far too much on his powerful left. Sometimes, you get the feeling he puts a glove on the right hand because the referee tells him he must.

But whatever he might not be, he unquestionably is the single most important figure in the fight game of the last 15 years.

He'll fight unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr. Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden in a bout he didn't have to take. De La Hoya is the game's largest draw and has the ability to dictate who he fights, where he fights and when he fights.

Potential opponents literally grovel at his feet (you know who you are, Winky Wright) for the opportunity to meet him in the ring, so much more are their paydays when they face him.

It says a lot about De La Hoya that he opted to face Mayweather while Mayweather is at the height of his powers. It even managed to slow, at least for a while, the torrent of trash talk coming from Team Mayweather.

"Oscar has my respect, no matter what happens in the ring," said Leonard Ellerbe, Mayweather's adviser, corner man and close friend. "He could have said 'No' and that would have been it. He wasn't forced to take this fight and he did. He's going to get his ass beat for it, but I have respect for him for saying yes."

It was no surprise, though, to long-time De La Hoya watchers, because his choice of opponents has almost always been dictated by one fact: Which opponent will generate the biggest payday?

He was promoted by Top Rank for all but three of his 42 bouts. For most of them, when he was considering an upcoming bout, he'd sit around a conference table huddling with Top Rank staffers, including chairman Bob Arum, president Todd duBoef, Arum's stepson, and matchmaker Bruce Trampler.

Trampler said the pros and cons of each opponent would be laid out and De La Hoya, after briefly digesting the information, would ask the defining question: Who pays the most?

De La Hoya, like Sugar Ray Leonard a generation before him, used an Olympic gold medal as a platform to become the game's biggest star.

But Leonard had the benefit of free network television exposure, which De La Hoya has not had. De La Hoya has fought the bulk of his career on premium cable and/or pay per view. He's fought exclusively on pay-per-view since his March 24, 2001, victory over Arturo Gatti.

Pay per view can be lucrative for a fighter if he's popular, as De La Hoya is, but it's a dangerous medium because out of sight means out of mind. Many boxers don't understand that the fewest number of viewers see a pay-per-view fight.

Leonard's fights were on ABC and CBS regularly as he was rising to stardom. He was arguably the biggest story of the 1976 Olympics. He was well known to the public the minute he turned professional and then saw that increase bout after bout as he was fighting on free network television each time out.

De La Hoya's success was due largely to the brilliance of Arum's promotional campaign and his own willingness to sell himself.

He was, and remains, unfailingly polite. He's gracious with fans and accessible to the media and had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time.

He'll become the largest pay-per-view seller in history when Saturday night's proceeds are counted, largely because of his striking looks, his accessibility to fans and media, his willingness to fight anyone and his aggressiveness inside the ring.

The fact that many of his opponents, like Pernell Whitaker and Julio Cesar Chavez, were on the downside of their careers when he faced them or that many of them had to climb in weight for the right to fight him, is simply a byproduct of his stature and a reward for his steadfastness in promoting his clean-cut image.

There have been more than a few blips, as Mayweather was quick to point out, including an allegation of sexual misconduct with a minor, and racist comments directed at Arum.

And he hasn't been the fighter that perhaps many in the public believe him to be. If you take his eight most significant fights (and I don’t include the two Chavez fights here, because Chavez was finished as a top-level fighter by the time he first faced De La Hoya in 1996), De La Hoya is only 4-4.

He had wins over Rafael Ruelas, Whitaker, Ike Quartey and Fernando Vargas and losses to Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley twice.

A loss to Mayweather will put him below .500 in his most noteworthy bouts, or at least those where the outcome was all but preordained.

But De La Hoya has had at least the impact upon boxing that Tiger Woods has had upon purses in golf.

There are a lot of people in the business who owe him a note of thanks.