The Golden Boy Speaks: Oscar De La Hoya on Canelo-Cotto and Boxing's "New Age"
Oscar De La Hoya won't talk about his own past, but he has plenty to say about the rest of the boxing world in this exclusive interview with VICE Sports.
After running 50 blocks though midtown Manhattan during the morning rush—all in leather shoes, slacks and a blue sport coat, and let's see your Fitbit account for all that—I finally reached the heavy glass revolving doors of the restaurant, and made my way, huffing, past the bar, which was bathed in red light.
I was 20 minutes late to an interview with boxing icon Oscar De La Hoya, who won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1992, then 10 world titles in six divisions as a pro, and now runs his own promotional company, Golden Boy. We were meeting at the fabled French restaurant Le Cirque, which opened specifically for us, and us alone, at 9 AM on a Thursday. No big deal.
Then I saw him, in a smaller back room, with the same smile I recalled from his post-fight interviews. He was wearing his trademark dark shirt and dark skinny suit—he's partial to designer John Varvatos—with neatly trimmed graying hair. I introduced myself and apologized.
Soon, I had chugged several bottles of Fiji water—thanks, Le Cirque!—and the nearly-all-access interview began at a beautifully set table, where I used all the napkins to dry my glossy forehead.
De La Hoya was in New York to promote the November 21 middleweight title bout at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas, between Miguel Cotto, whom Jay-Z promotes through Roc Nation, and Saúl "Canelo" Álvarez, whom De La Hoya has repped for years through his company Golden Boy ("Canelo" is Spanish for cinnamon, the unusually gingery color of the Mexican Álvarez's hair).
It's being billed as yet another war between a Puerto Rican and a Mexican in a long-standing blood rivalry—an easy narrative crutch writers and broadcasters lean on at times for lack of ingenuity (though the story line usually fits). Another easy pitch: one more battle between the gritty veteran—Cotto is 35—against the hungry kid who won't defer to legends any longer—Canelo is 25.
Yet even though the fight is a mere eight days away, other developments in the boxing world are suddenly overshadowing it. First there was the former light-heavyweight contender Yusaf Mack, who, after telling an implausible story about being drugged to star in gay pornography, announced he is proudly gay and later celebrated with a coming out party. Orlando Cruz was the first boxer to make such a declaration, but Mack, formerly a top-level challenger on telecasts, seems to have made a greater impact, in part because he's a black fighter from a tough city.
"This is the new age," De La Hoya told me when I raised the topic. His PR woman had already stated he wouldn't discuss his own past—De La Hoya went on cocaine binges involving sex and cross-dressing before he entered rehab. But De La Hoya seemed very happy to discuss Yusaf Mack's newfound freedom to be himself.
"I mean, accept it. He's probably even tougher than your normal schmo. It reminds me of Emile Griffith," he said, referring to the 1960s welterweight and middleweight champ, closeted at the time, who notoriously unloaded a fatal series of blows on an opponent who had used a gay slur. "Emile Griffith was the toughest sonofabitch. So I believe that Yusaf maybe has a little bit more pressure than anybody else because people think he has to prove himself. If he ever comes back and fights (he's been off for a year), that'll make him so dangerous. Because he's gonna want to prove himself even more. I think it's great for the sport. Why not? Why not?"
The other news of the week was more unfortunate: TMZ acquired a video of Kelly "The Ghost" Pavlik, former lineal middleweight champion of the world, shooting a man working on his property with a pellet gun. Pavlik has battled alcoholism since his fighting days a half-decade ago, and the criminal complaint alleged that Pavlik was intoxicated during the entire episode.
I asked De La Hoya what he would say to Kelly Pavlik if they were face-to-face now.
"Think about all the people that care about you," De La Hoya said. "Think about all those people that want you to succeed, to overcome this. Don't think about the negative—well, people want you to do this, people want you to do that. Think about the people that love you. That's it. Feel that. And get yourself together. It's not easy. It's the toughest fight he's ever gonna have. It was my toughest fight ever, but when I accepted the fact that I can walk right beside a mirror and look at myself and like the guy that is there, it was all over. It was all over. Then I got the courage and strength to move forward."
"If you have his number, I would call," I said, "because what you just said to me was really strong and very passionate."
De La Hoya nodded and looked around, as if a member of his company might have the number right then and there. He turned back to me. "Now that we're talking about it, I'm gonna get his number, and I'm gonna give him a call."
It's hard not to like De La Hoya's fighter, Canelo. Before his last fight, against the rabid slugger James Kirkland, whom he knocked out, his team formed a prayer circle in the hotel. That unity, the invocation of God—that wasn't unusual for boxing. Manny Pacquiao bends one knee in his corner before a bout and prays with rosary beads.
No, it was the prayer itself. Forget whether you believe in a god, particularly one that would involve itself in bloodsport. Note instead the tenderness of the request and its stark realism:
"My lord, we are going to do a job. You know how dangerous this career is. Take care of us. Take care of Saúl. Take care of his rival so he doesn't come out badly injured. We all have a family. We all have relatives. You be the best judge, and may the best man win."
On the other hand, I've seen the best Miguel Cotto.
It was almost exactly eight years ago, November 10, 2007. Against long-time lightweight and welterweight champ "Sugar" Shane Mosley in Madison Square Garden. We were seated next to Tony Sirico—Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos—on a diagonal from the ring in the lower bowl. It was a close fight: Mosley still had his timing and reflexes, and Cotto his power and tenacity. They went at it all 12 rounds, and from where we sat, I thought Mosley had gotten the better of the action. At the end, I asked Paulie whom he had. "Cotto," he said, with a clear look of disdain—like only a schmuck would pose the question—and he left with his crew of three before they announced the decision.
Naturally, Cotto did win, though had Mosley taken one more round on two cards, it would've been a draw. But I re-watched the fight on tape later, and saw it Paulie's way: It was clear Cotto had landed the better blow in nearly every exchange, and Mosley had known it—his glum face on those walks back to the corner told the whole story. That was prime Cotto: bang you downstairs, then upstairs; then snatch your heart.
It's hard not to like Cotto.
It's not the toughest fight to watch, one where you legitimately like both sides. In another sport, you might say there could be no winner. In boxing, if each brings his very best, and they leave parts of themselves in that ring—irrecoverable exertions, absorbed punishments, commingled beads of sweat—there is no real loser.
Instead there are just memories of inseparable fighters bringing out the best in each other, forever entangled because of time and space they shared for a night.
I didn't share these sentimental notions with De La Hoya. I didn't need to: he implicitly understands them. His career has been marked by emotional bonds and betrayals. "Sugar" Shane Mosley, De La Hoya's longtime friend, injected himself with the illegal doping agent EPO prior to their second fight.
"I was devastated," De La Hoya told me. "Because how can a friend I grew up with, want to have that type of advantage? I was hurt. I wasn't angry. I was hurt. Because he was my friend. He still is."
"How can a person patch that up?" I asked.
"If he hurt me or knocked me out, that would've been it," De La Hoya said. "How can I forgive him?"
In 2002, De La Hoya founded Golden Boy Promotions. The concept then was that an outfit run by fighters would be fairer to them. It hasn't quite worked out that way, but that's no excuse at all for what De La Hoya encountered when he left rehab, his second stint, in 2003: he came home, allegedly, to find that former music impresario Al Haymon and Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer had signed Golden Boy fighters to contracts with them. What De La Hoya felt was a mix between romantic betrayal and spy novel paranoia.
"It was probably one of the toughest fights I've ever had," De La Hoya said. "It's figuring out, who's with me, who's not."
Since then, Haymon has raised $400 million in venture capital to sign a stable of elite fighters and buy airtime for their matches on all the major networks, essentially giving away the boxing product free in the hopes of recouping money through advertising. Channels that used to show Golden Boy content, such as Fox Sports 1, now devote the airtime to Haymon's Premier Boxing Champions series.
De La Hoya wound up suing both parties. Schaefer settled with De La Hoya for $50 million in January and a ban on promoting that ends this week. His lawsuit against Haymon is ongoing.
Mexico has no real amateur system, so boxers turn professional very young, which is why Canelo, at 25, has already fought for 10 years as a pro. De La Hoya is implicitly asking everything of Canelo; then again, so are his many Mexican fans. He is Golden Boy's golden goose right now, though De La Hoya also is high on a new Cuban heavyweight named Luis Ortiz. If Canelo rises, De La Hoya's company continues to, but if Canelo should falter, it's hard to know to whom De La Hoya could turn. These turbulent times for boxing—with Haymon's PBC upending the business model—only add to the pressure.
So take these De La Hoya predictions for what they are: the result of sharp thinking and necessary optimism.
"I'm betting [on a Canelo] knockout within seven rounds," he said. Maybe Cotto "has five rounds of boxing beautifully, so after that, he still has seven rounds to go. And that's where maybe the youth kicks in, that's where the power kicks in, that's where the strength kicks in."
De La Hoya added that, mentally, no matter how much he may deny it, Cotto may still be drained from the beatings he took from Margarito and Pacquiao years ago. It's another dimension of this very traditional matchup–young buck versus old head. In the same vein, De La Hoya dismissed trainer Freddie Roach's rejuvenating training of Cotto.
"All you hear coming from Cotto's mouth is, 'Well, I'm sticking to Freddie's plan. All I'm gonna do is what Freddie tells me to do,'" De La Hoya said. "So the key is, how do you cut that umbilical cord? Canelo has to figure out and his team: How do they get into Cotto's head and make him feel like Freddie is just an ordinary trainer?"
I asked De La Hoya whether "cutting the umbilical cord" was a phrase he had picked up in the fight world. Nope, was just improvised on the spot. I love it, though—strip away a fighter's psychological reinforcements, and he feels lonely as a newborn.
During the junket, I didn't catch De La Hoya trying to BS me. If anything, he could be surprisingly forthcoming. "When you take a look at a Floyd Mayweather for instance and you see the change of his body, it's abnormal," he said at one point. "So is anybody talking about it?"
I shook my head,
"Exactly. So there must be...look, do whatever, sue me. I'm just speaking the truth."
De La Hoya moves on in his post-fighting life. He believes strongly that a boxer should arrange his finances while he's still fighting. This is part of his recruiting pitch to young fighters deciding between promoters (his competitors include Top Rank, Roc Nation, and Premier Boxing Champions). So De La Hoya himself has recruited a new group of business advisers he believes he can trust, and has adapted his pitch to the new marketplace.
Beyond his business, De La Hoya hikes to stay in shape, plays golf regularly and exercises in his hotel room when he's on the road. But he can't do roadwork anymore–no running in the early hours of the day when the sun rises, no struggling through the altitude and chill as it goes down.
"My knees and my ankles are all shot now," he said
"Does that depress you at all?"
After a career so long he was named fighter of the year 20 years ago, De La Hoya has a quiet resilience. And he's still looking ahead. As our time at Le Cirque came to an end, he told me that "we gotta hook up for Canelo-GGG," using the initials of Gennady Golovkin, the man who'll face the winner of Cotto-Canelo. Then De La Hoya left.