De la Hoya: what next?

Oscar de la Hoya is not one to prolong his career by fighting journeymen and making money. For more than a decade he has been at the peak in some way and is a rare example of a fighter who has achieved independence and does what he wants, writes Michael Klimes.

Should Oscar de la Hoya retire?

The sun is setting on the ‘Golden Boy’s’ career, but does boxing still need him as a fighter?

The word ‘retirement’ does not seem to be very friendly and perhaps walks on the precipice of hostility. It probably generates unease in people who want to enjoy the fruits of old age, but simultaneously worry that after organising their dream library, consuming numerous bottles of fine wine and reading those long novels that take a summer, life can be mysteriously empty.

If a person has far too much time to spare it is unhealthy. Human beings may complain about their daily jobs saying ‘work is work,’ but the truth remains that work or at least being active is not just about paying the bills, but also finding a use for the time we have.

This hard fact of retirement and trying to stay stimulated afterwards is even more problematic for most sportsmen and sportswomen who do not have the luxury of their careers stretching into the sixties like those of golfers or snooker players. The problem is even more acute for boxers who unlike tennis and football players cannot join some senior circuit and keep fighting indefinitely since boxing is one of the most punishing of sports.

The current plight of Muhammad Ali makes the most poignant statement of a boxing legend who did not know when to press the brake pedal to the floor. Therefore, the message is simple: When boxers need to retire, they must do so.

Oscar de la Hoya is a man in his twilight years. He is the handsome cowboy, definitely a Paul Newman or Robert Redford riding somewhere, but this is where the concluding scene becomes confusing. Is he the battle weary warrior riding into a vanishing dusk with a few skirmishes left for him or is he already in the night?

Last May he failed to produce what could have been the story book ending to his exhilarating career by losing to the best defensive fighter of his generation, Floyd Mayweather Jr. De la Hoya fought well and did have a sense of how to unsettle his elusive foe: Offset his balance and rhythm with a strong and consistent jab, drive him to the ropes with pressure and rough-house tactics blended with body shots. However, he lost momentum in the second half of the bout as his early jab and bounciness deserted him.

The best super middleweight on the planet, Joe Calzaghe, is a frequent user of the well known phrase, “you are only as good as your last fight.” This piece of philosophy is good advice for any fighter as it is common sense, particularly for old ones who maybe slightly deluded about how far they can keep on going. Evander Holyfield should have this phrase drummed into his psyche as he is like a farmer who keeps attempting to plough a desert thinking some miraculous rain will save him. Holyfield has no fountain of youth flowing at 44, but then he has defied the odds on so many occasions that he may just have one last great performance in him.

De la Hoya at 34 is no Holyfield and is arguably in better physical condition than his older counterpart, but this measuring stick of being ‘only as good as your last fight’ does not answer the question of whether de la Hoya should soldier on. His previous outing against Mayweather was like the split decision against him, it was not conclusive.

Consequently, other factors have to be weighed. De la Hoya has only had five fights since September 2003 and three of these have been losses and it is still three if one includes the criminal decision over Felix Sturm, but reverses the dubious decision Shane Mosley was given in their rematch.

This record is again mixed, but in defence of de la Hoya one cannot say these defeats came from lacklustre opponents. His indisputable loss but win over Sturm by abhorrent judging was the lowest point in his career, but de la Hoya gave good accounts of himself against Hopkins, Mosley and Mayweather, three genuinely great fighters.

Furthermore, de la Hoya’s savage pummelling of Ricardo Mayorga was exemplary and one of his best victories to date. Nevertheless with de la Hoya’s increasing inactivity over the past four years (with only one fight a year), his patchy record and growing interest in promoting through his own company Golden Boy Promotions versus his diminishing yet intact skills, his massive star appeal and gift to sell tickets like no other fighter in the industry; it is extremely difficult to say if de la Hoya should stop right now.

De la Hoya’s record is a generational trophy of the toughest names from 135-160 pounds: Ruelas, Molina, Genaro Hernandez, Lieja, Chavez, Whitaker, Camacho, Quartey, Oba Carr, Trinidad, Mosley, Vargas, Hopkins and Mayweather.

He has continually pitted himself against the best of the best and as a result become one of them, which throws up the question, what does de la Hoya have left to do? His 38 wins and five defeats against this depth and range of competition is astounding.

Nevertheless, de la Hoya has always been motivated by a challenge and being the true gladiator he is he may feel the need to finish his career on a higher note. It would also be wonderful for de la Hoya’s vast fan base, both elite celebrities and the common fans to be able to say goodbye to their hero in an apt fashion and de la Hoya does deserve to end his Hall of Fame accomplishments with victorious applause.

Another argument for keeping de la Hoya around is his name will continue to sell tickets and generate headlines regardless of who he fights. However, it must be asked whether boxing is moving in the correct direction by relying on the fading de la Hoya. He is more of the past than the future and flirting with nostalgia will not build new superstars who can help fill the void caused by his absence.

De la Hoya’s iconic stature enables him to sell out any arena but one has to admit this is a double-edged sword. De la Hoya’s name has proved to be the most marketable in history with his pay per view sales alone cashing in half a billion dollars, but revenue does not necessarily translate into benefiting boxing as a whole.

If he wanted to, de la Hoya could continue to make millions by knocking out journeymen and this may rank high on the entertainment scale of casual fight fans, but boxing’s loyal fan base would be disgusted at what could be seen as a cynical betrayal. It must be explicitly said though, de la Hoya has never engaged in such a scheme, he as always been a gentleman and consummate professional but this does not rule out other people who could potentially manipulate de la Hoya’s appeal to their own ends. Chris Eubank was not completely off target when he infamously remarked, ‘boxing is a mug’s game.’

Instead, de la Hoya might use his presence and influence in a more positive way by wielding his experience and considerable charm to spotlight any emerging talent. His recently established Golden Boy Promotions quashed a Cold War it had with Bob Arum’s Top Rank Promotions over the rights to promote Manny Pacquiao’s career.

Both stables have many talented prospects they need to develop and expose. A mutual respect between Top Rank and Golden Boy could forge a healthy business partnership which might allow a resurgence of boxing into the mainstream of public consciousness, perhaps more so in the United States than Europe, which is not doing badly at the moment. On top of that, peace, at least in this case, is more lucrative than war. A lot of money can be made.

There is of course a third dimension to just listing the pros and cons of de la Hoya fighting on and that is what he wants to do because in the end de la Hoya will decide his next move.

Thankfully, De la Hoya has never seemed to clamour for the spotlight and celebrity in the way Floyd Mayweather does. He seems to be a rare breed in boxing, a fighter at heart who could walk away from what made him with his faculties and finances secured.

De la Hoya has always been prudent and cautious about the many pitfalls that can ruin the best of boxers and his business acumen puts him in the same boat as Bernard Hopkins. He also knows he is not getting any younger. Apart from speculation on the future of one of the sport’s most popular icons, it just might be better to celebrate his past.

De la Hoya has been a smooth ambassador for the sport, put people in seats and participated in many explosive fights. For more than a decade he has been at the peak in some way and is a rare example of a fighter who has achieved independence and does what he wants.

De la Hoya will leave a positive legacy as a fighter and for this he must be saluted.