Whether you are a fan of Oscar De La Hoya or not, it is impossible to deny his importance to boxing over the last decade. It is also impossible to deny his status as a good — if not a great — fighter.
His legacy could depend on whether he defeats Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a possible megafight tentatively slated for Sept. 16.
But, whatever the case, De La Hoya has proven to be the dominant lighter-weight fighter of his era, and not just because he had the ability to draw the mainstream sporting audience (read: women) in droves.
It’s because he could fight.
Rafael Ruelas, Genaro Hernandez, Jesse James Leija, Julio Cesar Chavez, Ike Quartey, Arturo Gatti, Fernando Vargas, Ricardo Mayorga. His list of victims is like a who’s who of boxing in the 1990s and 2000s.
So, what if De La Hoya had been born 20 or so years earlier, and competed in one of the greatest eras in boxing history — the 1980s?
Would he have fit in comfortably with the golden age of the welterweights? Or would he have been overmatched?
•Oscar De La Hoya (1997) vs. Wilfred Benitez (1979): This fight would have taken place at welterweight, about the time that De La Hoya outpointed Pernell Whitaker for the WBC 147-pound title and Benitez lost to Sugar Ray Leonard via 15th-round TKO.
Though Benitez lost to Leonard, it was anything but easy for Sugar Ray. Benitez, known as “Radar,” won the title in early-1979 with a masterful decision over another Hall-of-Famer, Carlos Palomino. He is regarded, along with Willie Pep, as one of the best defensive fighters in history. A fighter as fast as Leonard had trouble clocking Benitez clean. De La Hoya, a smidgen slower than Leonard, would experience similar frustration.
This fight would look a lot like De La Hoya’s ’97 battle with Whitaker, a fighter similar to Benitez in style and attitude. Unlike Whitaker, Benitez was a full-fledged 147-pounder who eventually moved up to 154 and won a title there. So it’s a bigger version of Whitaker that De La Hoya would be facing.
Benitez never had a very strong beard, which is why he eventually succumbed to the blazing fists of Leonard. However, they’d be fighting a 12-rounder, and it’s unlikely De La Hoya would catch the Puerto Rican with anything substantial over that distance. Only problem, he wouldn’t catch the Golden Boy with anything big, either.
After a tactical, nip-and-tuck (boring) affair, De La Hoya wins a decision based on aggressiveness.
Odds: De La Hoya, 2-1
Result: De La Hoya W 12 (s)
•Oscar De La Hoya (1996) vs. Roberto Duran (1980): De La Hoya was officially a junior welterweight in ‘96, following a career-best TKO of the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez. But he was starving himself to get down to 140, and was a mammoth specimen compared to tiny Chavez, who was aged and physically overmatched. He wouldn’t find the ‘80 Duran to be nearly as accommodating.
The fire in Duran’s belly was ignited by fighters like De La Hoya — pretty boy types who were coddled up the ranks and fed a steady diet of set-ups. He despised Leonard, who mapped out the blueprint for the Golden Boy. The parallels between Leonard and De La Hoya are undeniable: Olympic glory, undefeated records, classic styles, speed and athleticism.
Consequently, De La Hoya would face the inspired Duran who beat Leonard in Montreal, not the bloated, under-trained shadow who quit in New Orleans. And that Duran was as close to unbeatable as a fighter could be.
Duran would attack De La Hoya relentlessly, in an attempt to make it a street fight. De La Hoya, like Leonard, would initially be startled by “Manos de Piedra’s” aggressive start. He’d try to establish the jab, but would not possess the physicality to hold a raging Duran off. De La Hoya would begin to find himself in the middle rounds, jabbing to the body and catching Duran with left hooks. But he would get frustrated at his inability to hurt his iron-chinned opponent, and become demoralized by the championship rounds.
Scheduled for 15 rounds, De La Hoya would be a battered mess by the end of 12. Duran would seize the moment, and punish him in the 13th. The referee would jump in and save a bloody, defenseless Golden Boy late in the 13th.
Duran would snarl at De La Hoya, grab his crotch, and raise his hands in victory.
Odds: Duran, 2-1
Result: Duran TKO 13
•Oscar De La Hoya (1998) vs. Thomas Hearns (1981): De La Hoya was in his prime in ‘98, though his year was rather uneventful. There was a predictable third-round knockout of French pug Patrick Charpentier in June, and an eighth-round TKO of Chavez in a pointless rematch. But he was brilliant in both fights, physically and mentally.
The ‘81 Hearns was one of the most fearsome welterweights in history. His vicious knockout of Pipino Cuevas in 1980 is a classic Hearns hit, and he followed that up with knockouts of contenders Luis Primera, Randy Shields and Pablo Baez. He handled all with ease.
De La Hoya would be facing the Hearns who was heading into the Leonard fight in September ‘81.
This would be a fascinating fight early on. In fact, it would resemble Hearns and Leonard the first time — a pair of fencers probing for openings. Hearns had the harder punch and faster hands, but De La Hoya had the better chin. So, when Hearns landed, De La Hoya would shake and rattle, but not roll.
However, when De La Hoya landed with his quick, powerful bursts, Hearns would be wobbly-legged. De La Hoya would drop Hearns in the seventh with a left hook. However, while moving in for the finish, Hearns would strike him with a perfect right hand and put Oscar on his back.
De La Hoya would get up, and a classic battle would unfold.
The fighters would alternate between boxing and brawling, often engaging in wicked exchanges that would result in both fighters being staggered. And neither fighter would neglect the body, pounding the ribcage with abandon.
It would take a toll on the “Hitman.”
Hearns was agonizingly skinny in 1981, and De La Hoya’s body work would have more of an effect. He’d begin to weaken Hearns in the 10th of the scheduled 15-rounder. Hearns would rebound with his heart and skills, boxing his way back into the fight with his longer reach and superior hand speed, a la the original Leonard fight.
But then, a whistling De La Hoya left hook would drop Hearns in the 13th round — similar to the way the Hitman fell against Iran Barkley in 1988. Hearns, one of the gutsiest fighters in history, would try to make it up, but would come up short, and be counted out.
Odds: Hearns, 2-1
Result: De La Hoya KO 13
•Oscar De La Hoya (1999) vs. Sugar Ray Leonard (1982): This was the De La Hoya who was at the height of his powers — amazingly quick hands, outstanding power, great chin and a killer instinct that belied that big smile. It was right around the time of the Oba Carr fight (KO 11), and months before the hard-to-figure Felix Trinidad disaster of 1999.
The ‘82 Leonard was an awesome fighting machine. He had already dispatched Benitez and Duran, and was coming off the thrilling, historic 14th-round knockout of Hearns. His future was seemingly limitless after a quickie KO of no-hoper Bruce Finch (KO 3) in February of ‘82, and that was the Sugar Ray that was favorably compared with his legendary namesake, Sugar Ray Robinson.
Leonard always liked to play mind games with his opponents, and it would be interesting to see what his mental plan-of-attack would be against De La Hoya. Against Ayub Kalule, a native of Uganda who supposedly had a witch doctor in his corner, Leonard wore an emblem on his trunks that countered black magic.
Against Hearns, who traditionally wore white trunks, Leonard wore his own white trunks — just because he could.
Against Duran in the rematch, Leonard wore all black, to reflect his dark, serious mood. It translated into the most notable humiliation of a bully this side of Buster Douglas’ knockout of Mike Tyson. He wound up with a fake bolo punch and popped Duran with a jab. He stuck his chin out. He did the Ali Shuffle.
He mocked him unmercifully, forcing the great Duran to walk away in disgust.
Leonard wouldn’t be able to get away with such nonsense against a quicker fighter like De La Hoya.
Not immediately, anyway. So he’d likely play it serious in the early rounds, which would be dull as both fighters searched for an edge.
De La Hoya would hit paydirt with a left hook in the middle rounds of an even fight, but would be shocked to find Leonard smiling at him. Knowing that he could absorb De La Hoya’s punch with little problem, Leonard’s strategy would be formed: He’d hunt down his prey.
De La Hoya would become even more shocked when Sugar Ray soaked up more of his bombs willingly, without flinching, while continuing his forward progress. And that’s when Leonard would initiate the body work. Left to the body. Right to the body. Double left to the body. Jab to the body. Leonard would follow the same blueprint as the Hearns fight. Forever wanting the mental edge, Leonard would be looking to come out prettier in the battle of the pretty boys.
By the 10th round of the scheduled 12-rounder, De La Hoya would be in trouble. Unable to keep Leonard off of him and his legs too weak to move, he would rumble with his back against the ropes. His eyes would be swollen and his mouth bloody, but he wouldn’t come close to going down.
He’d pull out the final round on heart alone, and it would make things interesting. But it wouldn’t be nearly enough. Leonard by unanimous decision.
Odds: Leonard, 2-1
Result: Leonard W 12 (u)