Oscar's Golden Legacy will be defined on Saturday night

By Matthew Aguilar


Oscar's Golden Legacy will be defined on Saturday night

Oscar De La Hoya may be battling for more than a championship belt Saturday in Las Vegas. He may be fighting for his legacy.
The WBC junior middleweight champ, who meets pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, has had an enigmatic, strange career. For all of his glory and fame and status as the world's most recognized and monetarily-fit boxer, his ring accomplishments have often left experts scratching their heads about his place in boxing history.

Consider: He has won world titles in four weight divisions; defeated future Hall of Famers Julio Cesar Chavez and Pernell Whitaker; and waged war with the best fighters of his generation, over six classes and 30 pounds.

Impressive indeed.

Now the bad part.

The Californian has lost the two most important fights of his career - the 1999 heartbreaker to Felix Trinidad, and the 2000 points loss to Shane Mosley.

Why are Trinidad and Mosley the most vital of his fights?

Because "Tito" and "Sugar Shane" are the only prime, great fighters on his resume.

Mayweather, a potentially great fighter in his prime, represents De La Hoya's third, and probably final chance to shake the reputation as a fighter who couldn't win the big one.

It may not be fair. But that's boxing.

Some may argue that even a Mayweather victory couldn't make Oscar great. Up through the Trinidad fight, however, De La Hoya was as can't-miss as tomorrow morning. He was greatness-in-the-making.

He mowed through the 130-pound ranks (though the WBO title he won from Jimmy Bredahl in 1994 counts for nothing), and the 135-pound division. His 1995 knockout of Rafael Ruelas for the IBF lightweight title his first real world championship - was stunningly beautiful. To this day, it is perhaps the most dominant performance of his career.

He followed that up with a destruction of WBA champ Genaro Hernandez in 1995, forcing his then-undefeated counterpart to quit.

A year later, he carved up Chavez and registered an easier-than-expected fourth-round knockout over the Mexican legend. In 1997, he beat both Miguel Angel Gonzales a previously undefeated titlist, and the great Whitaker.

Then, in February of 99, he decisioned Ike Quartey in a riveting battle of undefeated welterweight champions.

Both fighters hit the canvas. Both fighters were hurt. And both showed guts and courage. But it was De La Hoya, exhausted from the pitched battle, who found the will to roar out of his corner in the 12th round and drop Quartey again with a sizzling left hook. And it was De La Hoya who convincingly won the last round.

As a result, he won the fight. By split decision.

De La Hoya's career was never better. He was on top of the world. Then came the Trinidad disaster.

For nine rounds, the "Golden Boy" was marvelous. He popped his Puerto Rican adversary with beautiful combinations, and continually beat Trinidad to the punch. His gameplan moving in, firing, and moving out  was perfect. To most, it was dominant.

The judges, however, didn't think so.

It didn't help that De La Hoya began to run in the late rounds, avoiding Trinidad like the plague. Where was the fire that allowed him to pounce on Quartey? The killer instinct that allowed him to flatten Ruelas?

De La Hoya lost a hugely disputed decision. But, disputed or not, in the end, he lost. And there are some who think his career never quite recovered. Strike one.

Nine months later, he met Mosley, who was moving up from the lightweight division. It may have been bad matchmaking because, at the time, Shane may have been the only fighter on the planet who could match De La Hoya's hand speed. Regardless, the two produced a memorable rumble on their home turf of Los Angeles. After taking an early lead, De La Hoya faded, and Mosley surged down the stretch. He outworked and outhustled De La Hoya in the late rounds, and there was no disputing this decision.

Sugar took a unanimous nod.

Strike two.

Since then, De La Hoya has had highs, and lows.

His 2002 knockout of hated rival Fernando Vargas serves as a career highlight. At the time, Vargas was a respected world champ who brought talent and intensity to the ring. And though Trinidad had already beaten Vargas, it was an important victory for De La Hoya and his legacy.

De La Hoya lost the rematch to Mosley in 2003 – though most everyone in the universe thought he won. And he was knocked out by middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins in 2004 – a bold attempt to take the 160 pound title.

De La Hoya was stopped by a body punch in the ninth round. But he should have never been in the ring with Hopkins in the first place.

He likely gets a pass for the Mosley rematch, and the Hopkins loss.

But the bottom line is this: None of his victories, Ruelas, Hernandez, Jesse James Leija, Gonzalez, Hector Camacho, Quartey, Arturo Gatti, Vargas, or Ricardo Mayorga have come against great fighters. Sure, he beat Chavez (twice) and Whitaker (barely), but both were well past their primes, and so physically outgunned that it almost wasn't fair.

There are other ingredients to greatness such as longevity and popularity and quality of victory. By those standards, Oscar is in (the greatness category). No problem.

But based on who he has beaten, De La Hoya, as he stands now, may be regarded as very, very good. But not great.

Not great like Sugar Ray Leonard, who beat Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler, all great fighters themselves. And not great like Salvador Sanchez, who beat Azumah Nelson and Wilfredo Gomez, both of whom reside in the Hall of Fame.

Which brings us to Mr. Mayweather.

There is little doubt as to what "Pretty Boy" Floyd brings to the table. He is regarded as the best fighter in the world today, and has won titles in four weight classes himself. Is he great? No one knows yet. But, by virtue of his awesome ability and the ease with which he has steamrolled his opposition, you'd have to say he's on his way.

And if De La Hoya beats him, the question regarding his greatness will, finally, be answered.

He will have passed the most demanding of criterias – and even hardened boxing historians and experts will have to give De La Hoya his just due.

But, until Saturday, the jury is still out on the Golden Boy.


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