Oscar De La Hoya, the clean-cut, quick-fisted boxer who had promised an Olympic gold medal to his dying mother, returned to Los Angeles in triumph on Wednesday, wearing the gleaming medallion around his neck.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” a smiling De La Hoya said, hoisting it aloft for family members and well-wishers. “This means the world to me. I really can’t ask for nothing more.”
For a few moments Wednesday, it appeared that De La Hoya’s toughest fight of the month--tougher even than the German he outpointed on Saturday--would be his scramble to get through the surging homecoming crowd at Los Angeles International Airport.
They came in hordes to see the 19-year-old, 132-pound lightweight, the only gold-medal winner on an underachieving U.S. boxing team that otherwise won only a bronze and a silver medal. The airport throng numbered about 200--TV crews, cousins, uncles, fight fans and puzzled passersby.
Paul Gonzales, who emerged from De La Hoya’s East Los Angeles neighborhood to win the 1984 Olympic gold at 106 pounds, was on hand, raving about the new champion and about the way people turned out to greet the young boxer.
“It’s wonderful,” Gonzales, still lean and wiry at 28, said with a grin, recalling his own return to Los Angeles eight years ago. “It makes you feel good. To be honest . . . it almost makes you want to cry.”
Gonzales said he had “passed the torch” to De La Hoya when the younger pugilist was only 11, a young “banger” at Gonzales’ East L.A. gym who displayed his first hints of Olympic promise.
The Olympic dream, however, did not crystallize for De La Hoya until two years ago, when his mother, Cecilia, was stricken with cancer. After she postponed radiation treatments to watch him perform in the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, De La Hoya promised her a victory in Barcelona.
She did not live to see it, dying that fall.
“Oscar, Your Mom Must Be So Proud . . . Oscar De La Gold,” read one of the signs hoisted at the airport.
Long before he appeared at the arrival gate, the chant went up: “Os-car! Os-car! Os-car! Os-car!”
As he stepped from the gate, wearing his medal over a U.S.A. Boxing T-shirt, De La Hoya was immediately engulfed by the crowd, disappearing behind a wall of bodies and TV cameras.
“Oscar, where are you?” someone shouted.
After long moments, De La Hoya appeared to be pushed back, down the tunneled ramp from which he emerged.
“He’s going back on the plane!” one bystander hollered.
Indeed, the arrival gate had closed with De La Hoya behind it. But the vanishing act was only temporary. Before anyone could say Muhammad Ali, the young fighter had escaped through another arrival gate, running a short-lived end-around. He was soon engulfed again by the phalanx of cameras and fans.
He smiled at well-wishers who seemed only to want to touch him, to kiss him, to have their pictures taken with him, to feel that gold medal.
“I’m very proud,” said a beaming Joel De La Hoya, the boxer’s father, who admitted, “In my dreams, I dreamed something like this. It’s very excellent.”
Trainer Robert Alcazar, who had accompanied De La Hoya and his father to Barcelona, talked confidently of an upcoming professional career.
“He’s going to be a millionaire,” Alcazar said. “He’s going to be a world champ in no longer than two years. I know that.”
But first, De La Hoya headed back to his home in Boyle Heights--a modest stucco structure where another huge crowd awaited, spilling into the street. There were flags and Olympic rings hanging in windows, a flag hanging from the next-door garage. Various signs hailed him as the pride of East L.A., and John (Juanito) Ibarra, who helped train the fighter, said nothing ever was more true.
“It’s awesome, overwhelming . . . rambunctious!” Ibarra said. “It’s just beautiful.”
An older cousin, Adrian Pasten-De La Hoya, who had cheered from ringside during the Games, said it had been important to De La Hoya to follow through on the vow he had made to his mother.
De La Hoya had fought back tears on the victory stand.
“Once he had that medal in his possession, he knew he had followed through . . . that was an important thing for him,” the cousin said. “It’s been a lot of hard work. Every ounce of sweat, every minute of pain and grief he’s gone through over the last 13 years, have been well worth it.”
Meanwhile, out in the yard, De La Hoya continued signing autographs--on photographs, on newspapers, on scraps of paper. The chant started again: “Os-car! Os-car! Os-car!”
Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be there, right with him. And on De La Hoya’s left jaw--a jaw that had endured every savage hook, every stinging jab--there was a bright pink blotch of lipstick.