Since Oscar De La Hoya donned the boxing gold medal at the Barcelona Summer Games in 1992, only two other U.S. men have done so – David Reid in 1996 and Andre Ward in 2004.
Before the last Olympics, the U.S. boxing program turned away private coaches and silenced the influence of seven-time trainer of the year Freddie Roach. Not surprisingly, the U.S. was blanked in 2012 medals.
Yet at the Rio Games, U.S. light-flyweight Nico Hernandez clinched a medal with a Wednesday quarterfinal victory. Add to that a 2-0 start by Santa Maria lightweight Carlos Balderas and the weekend debut of New Jersey’s gifted bantamweight, Shakur Stevenson, and the U.S. is positioned for a comeback in an Olympic sport it long dominated.
De La Hoya’s path to Olympic gold was paved by greats including Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Floyd Patterson, plus Sugar Ray Leonard in 1976 and Pernell Whitaker in 1984.
What made De La Hoya’s rise to prominence from East Los Angeles so touching was his promise to fulfill a final wish from his mother, Cecilia, who died of breast cancer in 1990 at a Montebello hospital.
“I remember going to the hospital, and every time I’d visit her, she’d tell me, ‘Don’t let anything stop you from getting that gold,’” De La Hoya recalled this week. “That was my ultimate motivation. I was determined to bring it back.
“From the second I stepped foot onto Barcelona all the way to the time I was listening to the national anthem on top of the podium, she was with me. I could literally feel her presence,” he said.
There were plenty of emotions for De La Hoya to draw upon for inspiration, but he needed to keep some of those powerful thoughts in check.
De La Hoya said his Olympic journey was boosted by “tunnel vision,” a mindset he recommends his successors practice in Rio.
“Staying focused, literally 24/7, was the biggest thing,” De La Hoya said. “There would be opportunities to go sightseeing or shopping. I said no. I literally just stayed in my room to concentrate on that gold medal.
“It’s a marathon, and you have to know how to pace yourself emotionally and not get ahead of yourself. It’s one fight at a time…
“All the fighters are talented. The question is, can you focus in the downtime? That’s when you have to dig down deep inside, believe in yourself and not crack under pressure. Forget the pressure inside the ring. The real pressure is outside the ring, keeping your eyes on the prize.”
De La Hoya said adapting his fight plan for each new opponent was pivotal.
“I faced [boxers from] Brazil and Korea, and I remembered having fought them prior to the Olympics, so I had those experiences to call upon. … You have to make the necessary adjustments to win,” he said.
Finding the self-confidence in a setting where so many other Olympic boxers are also driven to find the ultimate reward for their life’s work is imperative, De La Hoya said.
Other past Olympians, including Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Roy Jones Jr., failed to win a gold medal but went on to win titles and have lucrative pro careers. De La Hoya, now a fight promoter, insists, “The only fighters I’m interested in is anyone who brings back a gold medal.
“I reminded myself I was ready for this, I believed in how hard I had worked, and I convinced myself this was my time to shine. You can’t be too confident, tense or tight. You have to be perfect.
“That’s why winning an Olympic gold medal is so difficult, why not many can achieve it,” he said. “But if everything is aligned, go into the ring and take care of business.”
De La Hoya faced defending World Amateur Championships gold medalist Marco Rudolph of Germany in the gold-medal bout at the Barcelona Games.
“There was confidence, but also an undeniable fear of losing,” De La Hoya said. “I took a lot of fear in there with me, and therefore it made me react instinctively. It made me the fighter I was.”
De La Hoya was ahead only by one point before knocking down Rudolph with his famed left hook in the final round.
The gold medal secured the staying power of De La Hoya’s nickname, as he won belts in six divisions as a pro and now leads Golden Boy Promotions.
“It was destiny,” he said. “There’s no other way of explaining it – from my mom telling me those last words, ‘Go and get the gold,’ it had to happen.
“That moment was the most special moment in my boxing career. As a fighter, nothing can top the Olympic gold medal.”
Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire