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THE NOT-SO-SWEET SCIENCE OF SELLING OSCAR DE LA HOYA

<i> Santa Monica-based Michael Leahy is the author of "Hard Lessons: Senior Year at Beverly Hills High School." His article on the Colorado Rockies appeared last week in this magazine</i>

Two hours before his fight and he stands alone on a rainy night in the drab gray lobby of a Phoenix hotel, staring not so much at as through a door, looking into nothingness, unaware of watching admirers. Two women, summoning their courage for the past five minutes, finally approach, all sideways blushes and giggles. “Oh, uh, hey,” he gasps. His big, liquid brown eyes blink, blink, blink. He nervously rocks on the balls of his feet, smiling shyly and offering an alto’s boyishly high hello. He is 19. The women are 35 at least, looking like sexual predators alongside the boy-man, the blonde daring now to touch his arm, openly flirting, teasingly asking, “Where’s your bodyguard, Oscar? You’re big; you need a bodyguard.”

He is a boxer with a million-dollar contract, an Olympic gold medalist accustomed to attention, but just the same, in this moment, he looks like any other wackily grinning teen-age kid, flattered to be ogled by a pair of mature, buxom women. The leering blonde persists: “Where’s your entourage?”

The fighter shrugs, his way of saying, no entourage, not really. Something seen then from out of the corner of his eye makes his shoulders hunch. His mind has already left the women behind; his mouth unconsciously mumbles a swift goodby. He sees a block of dark suits and paunches shuffling toward him, an owlish man at the front gesturing at the others and murmuring, “We ready? Huh? Huh? We ready? Yeah, I’m ready. C’mon, let’s go. Hi, Oscar.”

And Oscar De La Hoya, the East L.A. Golden Boy, turns his back on the women to shake hands with the fellow in the darkest suit, 61-year-old boxing promoter Bob Arum, born and raised in working-class Brooklyn, the older and younger man whispering to each other as the rest of the fighter’s gathering coterie call for a large van for the short ride to the America West Arena.

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“OK, Oscar? Ready?” one of his managers asks. Head down, De La Hoya steps into the van, finding himself seated next to a woman he’s never met, the wife of one of Arum’s lieutenants. This is his life now. Strangers always at his elbows, usually adults twice his age, important people, in one way or another, with whom he must make conversation, say the right things, be the Oscar everyone expects him to be even if it’s two hours before a fight.

It is part of the reason he has Joe around, Joe being Jose Pajar, his assistant trainer, aide-de-camp and, most importantly, another kid from the old neighborhood whom Oscar can count on for support and laughs when his adult life becomes tense and tiresome. Around fast-track white businessmen looking to make money off his fists, he occasionally lowers his head to speak softly to Joe in Spanish, knowing that the important older white men will not understand a word. This is the way he wants it--not because he has secrets or gibes to hide, but because any conversation in Spanish with Joe is a refuge for him, a chance to escape the suits and, if only for a few seconds, return to his adolescent world. But Joe is nowhere close right now, having been seated three rows back, with Oscar’s father.

One of De La Hoya’s co-managers, Robert Mittleman,takes the wheel of the van. “OK, that’s it, everybody’s in,” says Arum, riding shotgun, and the vehicle rolls into darkness.

The wily promoter and innocent kid do not make eye contact, each alone with his thoughts, De La Hoya staring blankly at Mittleman’s head, licking his lips, eyes darting now and then with the knowledge that he is being watched, studied, monitored by his handlers for signs of tension. Everyone in the van has some stake in his success and, as the days pass and the talk of his greatness builds, he can feel their expectations mounting. He takes slow, deep breaths, ruffling the hair on Mittleman’s neck each time he exhales. “So much is there for my family and the people close to this if I do it,” he said two weeks earlier. “But I guess a part of me likes the pressure. I’m used to it.”

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From the age of 15, when he won a national Golden Gloves championship as a 125-pounder, he had been coveted by shrewd boxing men who saw millions to be made on a kid whose teen-idol looks, fast hands and mule-kicking left hook would merely complement his most marketable feature: the ineffable mix of his American citizenship and Mexican ancestry, dual cultural loyalties that revealed themselves, benignly, in the way he proudly waved both his miniature American and Mexican flags when dancing around the Olympic ring. “You see the way Hispanics go wild for him?” Arum asked earlier that December day in Phoenix. “You can’t buy that sort of thing for a kid. There’s something more than boxing going on with that. It’s like, he’s theirs.”

DE LA HOYA CLEARS HIS THROAT, CLOSES HIS EYES. AS THEY DRAW close to the arena, quiet fills the van. “Gonna be a good show,” Arum says softly, to no one in particular. In Arum-speak, fights are usually “shows.” Net revenue is seldom profit but “money to be whacked up.”

Tonight, the main event stars a 1988 Olympic silver medalist, Michael Carbajal, now the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council light-flyweight champion, who will defend his title in front of a wild hometown crowd of more than 14,000. De La Hoya will appear merely as a supporting player, in a six-round preliminary bout; yet Arum’s presence in the van signals that the promoter knows where the big paydays of the future likely lie. “Carbajal is a good medium attraction,” he said a couple of weeks earlier of the boxer whom he would guarantee $300,000 for the Phoenix fight. “But there are only a few, like Oscar, with a gold medal, the magic and the hope of whacking up the really big money, like tens of millions, in a huge pay-per-view (television) event someday.”

Arum can talk dollars and numbers for hours, his concentration on fights themselves ordinarily less than rapt at an arena, his head frequently swiveling to get a read on the success of the event. The first fight he attended was also the first he promoted--a Muhammad Ali heavyweight title defense, in Toronto, against Canadian George Chuvalo in 1966. A year earlier, Arum had left the Justice Department, where one of his assignments had been to pursue government tax claims, including one against the proceeds of a 1962 Floyd Patterson-Sonny Liston championship fight. The rogues he encountered, at once amiable and duplicitous, intrigued the young, straight-arrow government attorney.

Entering private practice, he met football great Jim Brown, who introduced him to Ali, a recent convert to Islam who had broken with the boxing establishment and wanted fresh faces to promote him. At 35, though he didn’t yet know it, the graduate of Harvard Law School was finished as a practicing attorney, fast on his way to becoming an impresario, his grip on boxing tightening in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s, when, as founder and chairman of Las Vegas-based Top Rank, he promoted nearly every mega-fight involving the superstars of the sport’s middle divisions--Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran--and became, along with rival promoter Don King, one of the two most powerful men in the sport.

“We all whacked up a lot of money together,” Arum says of the old boxing greats who have been under his wing. The financial highlight came in his promotion of the 1987 extravaganza between Hagler and Leonard, which grossed more than $80 million in pay-per-view and closed-circuit television sales alone, with Top Rank profiting nearly $6 million, and Hagler and Leonard pocketing $19 million and $11 million, respectively.

In the van, he glances over at Mittleman, who has been struggling to find the right route to the arena. Looking back in the direction of De La Hoya, Arum rolls his eyes and says drolly, “You know, the toughest thing about your fight, Oscar, is gonna be the bleepin’ ride to it with Mittleman.”

Laughter rumbles in the dark van. Among the group of 12, only De La Hoya remains silent, his eyes glazed. Arum studies him for a second longer, then turns away. “You never know,” he said earlier. “Never know what pressure will do to a young fighter. Even if you’ve matched him with ordinary guys, there’s uncertainty, the one in a hundred possibility. They say, as a lightweight, he could be the best since Duran. You just never know, even with this kid. But I think he really might be the one, the type who could make the kind of money that no one in the heavier divisions, let alone a lightweight, has ever dreamed of. Huge money, the size of which most people can’t conceptualize right now.” His conviction rests, as much as anything else, upon projections of an explosive growth in pay-per-view television, which, according to Arum’s count, can currently reach about 20 million American homes, along with a couple million more worldwide. “And four years from now,” he asserts, “we’ll have 100 million pay-per-view homes worldwide.”

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If it happens, the right fighter will be in a position to whack up a gold mine, in a single evening. “Let’s say that a (De La Hoya fight) one day does 5% of (100 million homes) at $30 apiece,” Arum hypothesizes, a 5% buy-rate being the standard for a ballyhooed title bout. “That’s $150 million. Seventy-five million goes to the distributing cable companies and the promotion. That leaves $75 million to be whacked up. Oscar could conceivably make $25 million to $30 million. That’s the end of the rainbow, I know. But that’s what’s out there. And I think he’s the most logical choice to do it. He’s got it all going for him right now. The Olympic thing, the punch, the looks; the package is good. He looks special, don’t you think? Don’t you think?”

Privately, with almost everyone, the promoter looks for confirmation of this. Publicly, he went out on a limb after De La Hoya’s professional debut, last November at the Forum in Inglewood, where the new star, weighing a sculptured 133 pounds, knocked out a nonentity from the lightweight division named Lamar Williams at 1:42 of the first round. Arum allowed as to how, by late this year or early next year, the fighter, who turned 20 in February, could either comfortably drop to 130 pounds and win a title in boxing’s junior-lightweight division, or fight at the lightweight limit of 135 pounds and become champion there, before moving on to take the welterweight and perhaps middleweight crowns. Facing a battery of microphones, he trumpeted, “I think (De La Hoya) is going to be bigger than Sugar Ray Leonard or Marvin Hagler. . . . He’ll be the biggest in boxing history, except for Ali.”

The promoter’s adoration belied his utter lack of interest in the fighter during the Barcelona Olympics, when De La Hoya occasionally appeared lackluster and frustrated en route to winning the 132-pound championship. Convinced that the chief handlers of then-heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield--the managerial/promotional team of Shelly Finkel, Lou Duva and son Dan Duva--already had De La Hoya under their control, ready to be signed to a professional contract, Arum took part in the bad-mouthing of the young fighter to boxing writers, dismissing the quality of the Duvas and Finkel investment. Yet by the time the troika had lost its grip on De La Hoya and Arum himself joined the pursuit, nothing that had happened inside a ring at the Olympics meant nearly as much to him as the commercial possibilities inherent in the alluring portrait of a teen-ager, a native of hardscrabble East Los Angeles, born to Mexican immigrants. Arum was certain he could sell De La Hoya. “He’s one of the few guys who’s going to transcend the sport and bring in the non-boxing fan,” the promoter asserts. “You can already see it. Go see him spar. Most of the Hispanics screaming for him aren’t even men.”

De La Hoya, Arum said at a workout last November, ought to be promoted “totally as a Hispanic project,” which meant prohibiting anyone else involved from trying to anglicize the Mexican-American kid. Ultimately, white America would not need selling, he thought. For the time being, he wanted to concentrate on pitching Spanish-language publications and media outlets wherever he could find them. “He’s bilingual,” Arum said with soft reverence. “An American Olympic star carrying a Mexican flag. The heritage thing is good. Mexican and American. Here but there. Latin but something else, too.

“I think we have a crossover fighter here,” he dared to dream aloud. By which he meant somebody who, properly marketed, could get a hold on the psyches of the entire boxing universe, on Hispanics, yes; but upon blacks, whites and others, too. “The greatest possibility for a major crossover fighter is someone Hispanic and bilingual. The demographics are right. The Hispanic market is huge and, to some degree, untapped. They’re becoming boxing’s core audience.”

Arum estimates that, on the average, 35% of the homes buying a pay-per-view fight today are Hispanic. The share skyrockets for a championship bout involving at least one Latin superstar: Hispanics made up 80% of the viewers who paid to see WBC junior-welterwight champion Julio Cesar Chavez successfully defend his title, in a Don King promotion, against Puerto Rican challenger Hector (Macho) Camacho. Arum, who had believed King would sell no more than a highly respectable 200,000 homes, expressed poorly concealed envy when four times that number purchased the fight, at an average of $30 a household. Eight hundred thousand homes . . . $24 million in pay-per-view revenue alone. . . . “That’s a lot of money to whack up,” he said pensively, scribbling numbers on a cocktail napkin. “The truth is, no one knows how big the Spanish audience can be. The figures from that fight were boggling, incredible. And Chavez isn’t even a crossover fighter. He has few whites watching, few blacks. Imagine what a fighter who could get those two markets would take in. Imagine . . . .”

AN OPEN DE LA HOYA WORKOUT SESSION HAS THE CELEBRATORY FEEL of something that is, in equal parts, fiesta and political rally, a stage upon which a burgeoning ethnic pride and assertiveness cannot be missed. In November, during a weekday lunch hour, he sparred in an outdoor ring erected for him in Century City while hundreds of strolling white professionals in shirts and ties paused to stare. A few shouted the Olympic hero’s name. The event’s emcee, comedian Paul Rodriguez, could not resist jabbing across the cultural divide: “I hear a lot of white guys and reporters here saying, ‘De La Hoya . . . Hoya . . . Hoya . . . Hhhhh -oya.’ Wrong, guys. The h is silent. It’s pronounced De La Oya. Oya. If you don’t know Spanish, I have this to say to you: Learn.”

Many in the crowd chuckled approvingly. Up in the ring, De La Hoya, unusually tall for a lightweight at 5 foot 11 and blessed with the broad, powerful frame of a man 15 pounds heavier, toyed elegantly with three sparring partners. “The matador,” one smitten woman sighed, holding a baby in her arms and dreamily swaying to a salsa tune pulsating through her headphones. Most in the enraptured crowd surged toward the fighter when the workout ended. He signed autographs for half an hour and did three interviews for Spanish media outlets. Bilingual, he generally spends as much time at press conferences answering questions in Spanish as in English.

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He basked in the adulation, even while grieving privately. He thought of his mother, Cecilia, who had not lived to see her 39th birthday, the victim of breast cancer to which she succumbed two years before Oscar would drive to the grave to say that his promise to her had been fulfilled: He’d brought home a gold medal from Barcelona and would hang it on the mantel at home, next to her picture. What happened to his mother offered evidence to him that life was not a storybook, not in the absence of security.

His father, 51-year-old Joel De La Hoya Sr., briefly a professional lightweight in his 20s, worked until last year as a shipping clerk at an air-conditioner manufacturing plant, and, while the modest work had afforded his family a hard-won, respectable existence in an apartment, his dreams of big money and a beautiful American home had gone unrealized. Nearly all of his hopes became projected onto his second son, upon whom, at the age of 7, he had laced boxing gloves for the boy’s first fight, and in the years would swiftly help convert from a southpaw to a right-hander. The transformation left the young De La Hoya with a frighteningly powerful left hook, though some question, to this day, whether he has real power in his right, whether he is in fact a one-handed fighter.

By 1984, as a thin and awed 11-year-old, the boy was watching television as another pint-sized and handsome East Los Angeles hero, Paul Gonzales, capture a gold medal in the light-flyweight division at the Los Angeles Olympics. Many observers had predicted that Gonzales would go to the top, but he has been reduced to a lightly regarded journeyman, a fall from grace hastened, believes De La Hoya, by arrogance and a betrayal of East Los Angeles. “He’d tell everybody he wasn’t Mexican,” De La Hoya recalls, shaking his head incredulously. “He’d go around saying, ‘I’m not a Mexican; I’m an American.’ Why did he have to say that? He’s Hispanic and he’s American. All the fame went to his head, I think. He was cocky and rude. I’ll never make a mistake like that.”

Instead, he assiduously seeks to please. On one winter Sunday, he served as grand marshal of the East Los Angeles Christmas Parade in the morning, then participated in the Hollywood Santa Claus Parade that night, afterward squeezing in a TV interview. The exposure and the marketing of his personality have paid off: Endorsement deals with MCI, B.U.M. sportswear and Champion will bring him more than $1 million. “But I know that only my boxing can give me everything I want,” the fighter says. “If I don’t win, a lot of things would go away instantly for me. I know that. I gotta become champion. I gotta win every time.”

The word can’t has motivated him since he was a skinny 14. Can’t make a mistake. Can’t lose, he thought to himself last summer, or his family might be stuck in a small apartment for another five, 10 years. All top-flight athletes crave winning, but the fiercest are usually haunted by the prospect of defeat’s toll upon their egos, by the suspicion that, having defined themselves as champions, a crushing defeat might strip away their identity. About two years ago, at 18, De La Hoya sparred two rounds with Julio Cesar Chavez who, possessing a 10-pound weight advantage, briefly stunned him with a hard right hand, knocking him to the canvas. He quickly recovered and, according to most witnesses, held his own against his idol for the remainder of the session. “One day I think Chavez and I will fight, and I’ll beat him,” he declares. “When that happens, it could be the biggest money fight of all time. I want to fight the big fights soon. I’m not planning to be in boxing when I’m old. I’m gonna be out as a young man . . . at 25 or 26. Start a whole new life. Do what I want. . . . Maybe be an architect.”

It is something he dwells upon often. Since the day he first showed precocious power in his 7-year-old fists, his life has been the project of others. “I’ve always told him,” explains his father Joel, “that I wanted him to be somebody; not like me, working for eight to 10 dollars an hour. He was a little boy, but he always obeyed me--went to school, then straight to the gym. No messing up. Come home and do schoolwork. No booze or girl problems. Get good food and lots of sleep. He did everything right. I asked a lot.”

Trainer Robert Alcazar agrees: “He missed out on some of his childhood. In high school, kids were fooling around and going out on dates and Oscar had to be training or resting. Couldn’t do nothing else. Nothing’s really changed all that much.” He lives at home, in Montebello, in a house his professional contract bought for his family. Sometimes he shoots some pool on a table set up outside, but his life is largely controlled by the regime of training. The fighter obeys; he always obeys. It is only the budding man, emerging like an atoll after years of unseen volcanic activity beneath, who sometimes feels compelled to question the boy’s grind. “For once, I’d love for a month or two to hang out with my friends and go (night)clubbing,” he says. “I’d like not to have to be around grown-ups all the time, to be around more friends my own age.”

Occasionally it becomes too much and Oscar will snap, get frustrated with the person he loves most, the one who first encouraged, cajoled, pointed him toward a gym. “He gets mad at me sometimes,” admits Joel De La Hoya. “He asks me, kind of joking, ‘Can I have a little fun now?’ And I tell him there will be plenty of time for fun later. He’s a good boy. He works hard and listens.”

IN THE VAN, DE LA HOYA HAS SAID NOT A WORD, LOOKING IN SILENCE at fight fans hurrying through the driving Phoenix downpour. The vehicle begins a slow roll at the mouth of the cavernous arena, waved deep inside the subterranean belly by guards who direct it to a stop about 100 feet from De La Hoya’s dressing room. Arum jumps out first. “So long, good luck, Oscar,” he mumbles, shaking the fighter’s hand, and he’s gone.

It is 6:20. Roughly an hour and 50 minutes before De La Hoya’s fight. In the dressing room, Joe Pajar turns on a boombox. “Play That Funky Music, White Boy” blares through the speakers, followed by a mix of rap, rhythm and blues, techno-pop and mariachi. The waiting begins. A preliminary fight comes on a television monitor, and De La Hoya glances up to see a scantily clad woman carrying a round-card strutting into view. Pajar looks at him, and the wide-eyed teen-agers swap leering grins. De La Hoya mumbles something in Spanish. Teen-age cackles fill the room.

Off to the side, his little-known managers, Mittleman, 51, and Steve Nelson, 38, huddle in discussion. The duo knows that they are being carefully watched by skeptics and scavengers waiting for them to trip, doubters suggesting that De La Hoya made a terrible mistake in not signing with the experienced Finkel, who had played a major role in craftily guiding no fewer than four 1984 U.S. Olympians--Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker and Meldrick Taylor--to championships and millions. For two years, Finkel was a close friend of the De La Hoyas, a benefactor who had loaned money on a monthly basis to Joel De La Hoya for living expenses and, upon a plea from Joel, put $4,500 toward Cecilia’s funeral expenses. When Joel said that Oscar needed wheels, Finkel loaned him $17,000 for a new car. “Shelly, you’re my number one guy,” Joel assured him during the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials, before pressing: “But when are you going to make Oscar an offer?”

Finkel had looked “stunned and mad,” recalled the senior De La Hoya, scowling over the memory, snapping, “We weren’t going to let him take advantage of us just because he helped us out. We aren’t bean farmers.”

When Finkel’s management offer finally came, a bid of roughly $250,000, it paled next to the $1 million dangled by Mittleman and Nelson, whose deal afforded the De La Hoyas half the cost of the $560,000 four-bedroom home in Montebello, a new $60,000 Acura NSX for Oscar, a van for the fighter’s camp members and $500,000 in the bank. “Shelly had a last chance, but it seemed he only wanted us cheap. His mistake. He lost,” said the father. Finkel recently sued the De La Hoyas to collect more than $100,000 in allegedly outstanding debts.

During the frenzied chase to land De La Hoya, an excited Mittleman had called Arum to report that, incredibly, he and Nelson found themselves on the verge of striking a deal with the family; that all they needed now was some financial assistance to bring their resources up to $1 million, an advance of sorts. Could Arum help? Sure, he could help, said the promoter. It’d be his pleasure.

That the aspiring managers had turned for financing to a man against whom they doubtlessly would be negotiating for De La Hoya’s future fight purses raised prickly conflict of interest questions. In boxing, however, such incestuousness constitutes business as usual. Ultimately, Arum loaned Mittleman and Nelson, with the De La Hoyas’ knowledge, what the promoter would later characterize as “a substantial amount of money.” De La Hoya then signed with Mittleman and Nelson, who, according to the contract’s terms, would receive one-third of his purses over the next seven years, in exchange for paying the promised $1 million. In their first managerial act on De La Hoya’s behalf, Mittleman and Nelson signed a five-year deal with Arum, who agreed, in turn, to provide De La Hoya with a minimum of eight fights per year.

Three months later, in the dressing room, Mittleman is bothered. Reflecting on a meeting with the promoter earlier that day, he says Arum has failed to grasp that “Oscar isn’t getting paid like a gold medalist should.” Mittleman shakes his head. “A lot of old Olympians were getting more in the beginning than Oscar. It isn’t right.”

De La Hoya will be receiving a guarantee of a mere $15,000 for his appearance on Arum’s pay-per-view card this night in Phoenix. Fifteen thousand, plus a buck for every California home that buys the $19.95 telecast, along with a dollar for every Texas home above 5,000 purchases. Mittleman isn’t happy. “We accepted the $15,0000 (guarantee) this one time, as a favor to Bob,” he says grimly. “But only this one time.”

All the while, De La Hoya shadowboxes, his concentration Zen-like. “Yeah,” he softly exhorts himself, snorting tiny breaths through his nostrils, firing jabs at an imaginary patsy. “Yeah.” He possesses the undisturbed childlike optimism of a youth who has yet to experience what it is like not to be regarded as special, who sees the world in front of him as a glimmering boulevard where no potholes exist, where an Arum will be around only so long as Oscar wants him to be. “We’re not tied down with Bob Arum,” he said a couple of weeks earlier. “If another promoter comes up with a bigger offer, we can take it.”

Actually, according to the terms of his contract, he can scarcely move without Arum. Mittleman and Nelson revel in discussing how the agreement allows them to take four fights a year to another promoter; that the provision is of particular importance in the event they hit an impasse in negotiations with Arum. Yet, in practical terms, the clause is meaningless: none of the four fights can appear on pay-per-view television, HBO, Showtime, ABC, CBS or NBC. Mittleman insists that Oscar would do a fight on a smaller cable network. “Bob has to understand that we have options,” he says adamantly, and then swivels his neck, trying to shake this disagreeable business out of his head for a moment and focus on Alcazar, De La Hoya’s trainer, who tapes the fighter’s hands and slips on his gloves.

At 7:51, De La Hoya waves his tiny American and Mexican flags, looking glassily at the floor, a subtle tension welling. “How much time?” he asks, once, twice, but no one has heard him, their attention riveted on the television where two flyweights are beating the hell out of each other. Superimposed over the mayhem a graphic appears. “De La Hoya versus Hicks next,” Pajar reads softly, sounding a trifle awed, grinning at Oscar, who says nothing, staring right through his friend, his mind raised to another state, a part of him having already joined the battle. De La Hoya licks his lips and swallows. He takes a deep breath now, rolling his shoulders, eyes shut.

At 8:14, television enters the dressing room to hear him say that he feels fine, and then, two minutes later, it is time. He dances to the ring, amid the special-effects smoke and pulsating rock, and, climbing through the ropes, steals a glance at southpaw Cliff Hicks, an opponent chosen for him by Mittleman, with the blessing of Arum, who remarked, “You have to put him in with mediocre guys (at this stage). But every fight ought to be a learning experience.”

Dubbed as the North Carolina lightweight champion, with six losses in 19 professional fights, the 28-year-old Hicks took up boxing only three years ago, fighting three times as an amateur before deciding to fulfill his fantasy of taking on professionals.

Forty seconds into the fight, De La Hoya whips a left hook at Hicks’ jaw that might as well be a 100 mile-per-hour fastball delivered in terrifying darkness. The blow’s impact lifts Hicks off his heels, like the hapless sap in a John Wayne barroom fight, and deposits him flat on his back. He arises at the count of five, only to be pummeled into submission by a De La Hoya combination.

The fight ends at one minute and 15 seconds into the first round. A beaming Arum scampers into the ring to pat the fighter’s back and direct him to another television interview. “He looked good in there; he’s going to be the greatest ever,” Arum cries, adding in the next breath, “But if he doesn’t keep nailing them, it’ll mean nothing.”

THE DOUBTERS STILL whisper that Oscar De La Hoya may not have a right hand sufficient to deliver him to greatness. May not ; for the truth is no one knows--punching power remains the most mysterious of boxing gifts. Yet the manager who failed to land him, Finkel, says wistfully, “The kid has star material and a fighter’s heart. I think he’s the real thing.”

For his part, De La Hoya indicates that his resolve is absolute. More than anything else, the young fighter yearns for the material comfort that eluded Joel and Cecilia De La Hoya during their lives together. “I start thinking,” he says haltingly, “that I can stop working at 26 and be retired. That’s what will keep me going hard. Dedicate myself now and I can have everything that I want later.”

It is a lesson that Bob Arum would be wise not to forget; for no matter what any contracts might say to the contrary, De La Hoya and his father will move, in the end, toward whoever offers them the biggest treasure chest. In such an atmosphere, alliances are understood to be tenuous. Contracts are apt to be broken. The day after the Phoenix show, De La Hoya’s managers happily say that they have resolved their disagreements with Arum; that everything’s fine, the money issue having been put behind them. Yet when De La Hoya fights next, on Jan. 3, the guaranteed purse is not for $40,000 or $50,000, but a paltry $10,000.

Nerves fray. Phone calls are made that momentarily assuage the agitated. The Oscar De La Hoya Project moves on, everyone keeping a steely eye on everyone else, dreaming of the $35-million pay-per-view show at the rainbow’s end if the bilingual kid with the movie star’s looks has the stuff to be a winner, become a crossover star, make them all roll in dollars and pesos.

Attentive to keeping his new star happy, Arum guarantees the fighter a $100,000 payday on a March pay-per-view card in Las Vegas, where he faces his first credible opponent, Jeff Mayweather, a slick, if light-punching, veteran. The Golden Boy would go on to win spectacularly, dismantling an overwhelmed Mayweather in four rounds, after which Arum pledged to pay him $110,000 for his next major pay-per-view fight, against former IBF featherweight champion Troy Dorsey, on the undercard of a June 7 heavyweight bout in Las Vegas between George Foreman and Tommy Morrison.

In April, journeying to Rochester, N.Y., he won a lopsided eight-round decision over a pummeled trial horse named Mike Grable, boosting his record to 6-0, with five knockouts, as he prepared to face lightly regarded Frankie Avelar in Lake Tahoe on May 8, in what most observers viewed as a tune-up for his test against Dorsey. Yet, Arum counted on nothing, saying, “There are no guarantees.”

Meanwhile, the hunt for a crossover star continues. Arum has been making new moves, just in case. Word comes from the promoter that he has a raw but highly touted heavyweight under his wing, an expatriate from Cuba named Jorge Gonzales, in whom he has invested $200,000 in purses, living expenses and something that he calls personal growth. “We are getting Jorge tutored in English,” Bob Arum says serenely.


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