It was a long way from East L.A. to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, but Oscar De la Hoya, born in Montebello, made it last December when he was voted into the IBHOF as a first-ballot lock. De La Hoya turns 41 today, and, in a way, his enshrinement served as an early birthday present for the Y2K-era superstar.
An amateur sensation, De La Hoya captured the collective attention span of America when he won a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, parlaying a stirring backstory and an impish grin into instant fame. As a boy, De La Hoya was steered away from the grim street gang culture of Los Angeles by his parents, and he promised his mother—who died of cancer in 1990—that he would win a gold medal. Incredibly, he succeeded and went on to dedicate his unlikely achievement to her memory. Features editors from coast-to-coast took notice, and De La Hoya was on his way to becoming one of a handful of fighters over the last 25 years with genuine mass appeal.
On November 23, 1992, De La Hoya made his pro debut in Inglewood, California, and immediately lived up to his nickname, “The Golden Boy.” That night, while most pugs were toiling for pocket money on gambling barges on the Mississippi River or VFWs across the Frontier Strip, De La Hoya made $200,000 for less than two minutes under the lights. But De la Hoya had more than just a blockbuster left hook going for him. Eloquent, charismatic, and handsome enough to grace the pages of Playgirl, De La Hoya was a dream come true for Madison Avenue and for hundreds of thousands of women across North America. (Hell, even my ex-girlfriend had a crush on him.)
De La Hoya popped up on episodes of Arliss and starred in commercials and ads for American Express and Budweiser. He earned endorsements from John Henry, Puma, B.U.M., Champion. In print, De La Hoya transcended industry publications like The Ring and appeared in mainstream titles from GQ to Esquire to Forbes. In 1997, People Magazine named him to its annual “50 Most Beautiful People” list. A year later, De La Hoya drew over 45,000 screaming fans in El Paso to see him crush a French pro so non-descript that pastry jokes followed him wherever he went. De La Hoya could have crowd-surfed the Sun Bowl for hours after that fight, but the nighthawk life that came with fame soon began to take its toll. When Felix Trinidad handed him his first—controversial—defeat in a 1999 pay-per-view extravaganza, De La Hoya was already losing his edge.
After dropping a decision to Shane Mosley in 2000, De La Hoya became a part-time fighter. Golf, The Hollywood Squares, Millie Corretjer, and even a Grammy-nominated CD were more interesting to him than slantboards and speedbags. Can you blame poor Oscar?
Since retiring after his loss to Manny Pacquiao in 2008 (having won championships in six different weight divisions and tallying a final record of 39-6, with 30 knockouts), De La Hoya has made headlines for coke binges, cross-dressing scandals, a needy Twitter feed, lawsuits, and two stints in rehab. No longer able to practice his craft as he once did, De La Hoya began a public downward spiral common to fighters who cannot replicate the adrenaline highs they find between the ropes.
Still, whether it was in advertising boardrooms or in the ring, De La Hoya was fabulosity before it was trademarked by Kimora Lee Simmons. Slightly tarnished now, yes, but for over a decade Oscar De La Hoya really was “The Golden Boy.” Ironically, at his peak, De La Hoya suggested a line from another Clifford Odets work, The Sweet Smell of Success: “In brief, from now on, the best of everything is good enough for me.” Yes it was. Yes it is.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine, and Esquina Boxeo.