Destiny and desperation tossed together the tall, sheltered young champion with this tiny, wrinkled pop-eyed atheist full of gigantic ideas, and the upset is that this relationship did not spontaneously combust at the outset.
A year ago, before his fight with Rafael Ruelas, Oscar De La Hoya was a “champion in trouble,” a brilliant talent languishing without either spiritual or professional guidance, according to Jesus Rivero.
And Rivero was “this old man,” according to De La Hoya, somebody who once had trained somebody who might have been good, but what in the world had he been up to for the last 15 years?
Now, De La Hoya and Rivero are dedicated pupil and insistent master, the lightning-punching yin and the fascinating, iconoclastic yang in what could be boxing’s most fascinating--and lucrative--kinetic reaction since cranky Cus D’Amato took in a merciless teenager named Mike Tyson.
“I want to awaken him,” Rivero said of De La Hoya recently through a translator. “I tell him to buy the complete set of Shakespeare and I will help him through it. Shakespeare understood human passion--jealousy, human ambition.
“I can teach him. He’s going to discover a world he doesn’t know. I want to work with his mind, not only boxing. I don’t want to make him a killer, I want to make him a human being.”
Heading into Friday’s bout with Julio Cesar Chavez, Rivero--a student of Greek philosophy and boxing lore--has taken over the camp and emerged as the key figure in De La Hoya’s heart, soul and boxing preparation as the 23-year-old fighter warms up for a quantum leap.
“Don Jesus is opening my eyes, you know?” said De La Hoya, using the honorific title the camp has given the trainer. “There’s so much to learn and such little time. He’s an atheist, so I don’t agree with him on that, but I’ve never talked about this kind of stuff before.
“I mean, everything there is to know about life or boxing, he knows it.”
For the 65-year-old Rivero, who trained 1960s flyweight champion Miguel Canto and then quit in 1970, tired of boxing’s corruption, this “Karate Kid” relationship means playing De La Hoya classical music, teaching him about the culture of the Mayans, speaking to him of politics and religion and history--and the history of boxing, including Jack Dempsey, whose raging success and detour in the world of glamour is a story Rivero believes is particularly cogent.
De La Hoya acknowledges he hasn’t quite plunged into all of the books Rivero has given him, but says listening to classical music now “makes me feel on top of the world.”
“Don Jesus, has brought a light to this camp,” said De La Hoya’s older brother, Joel. “We just sit around and listen to him talk, and laugh and tease and learn.”
Said boxing agent Rafael Mendoza, Rivero’s Yucatan compatriot and the man who recommended Rivero to promoter Bob Arum: “Rivero is a special character. He went to Caesars Palace and watched that show with talking statues and he tells me, ‘This is a mistake because that statue they’re saying is Caesar Augustus isn’t Caesar Augustus, blah, blah, blah, That guy is Caesar Augustus.’ To him, it’s important.
“He was just like this when he was younger--except now he’s older, fatter and has less hair--like me. Other than that, the same thing.
“Rivero is a perfectionist. He is an obsessive. You must do things with class, or else he doesn’t want any part of it. For him, boxing is an art.”
Rivero, who had a brief boxing career before Canto asked him to be his trainer, believes that the elusive style of Willie Pep is the essence of boxing--keep moving, stay balanced, then strike your opponent when he’s flustered and off-balance.
After De La Hoya’s tougher-than-expected brawl with John John Molina in February, 1994--when the HBO cameras and mikes caught a frozen Robert Alcazar, De La Hoya’s long-time trainer, unable to give instructions between rounds--Arum and De La Hoya’s advisor, Mike Hernandez, went looking for a low-profile trainer who could assist Alcazar.
At the time, Rivero was very low profile. For 15 years, he had stayed in Merida, Mexico, immersing himself in higher learning.
“I love to read philosophy, politics, economics and that’s what I wanted to pursue,” Rivero said, explaining his absence. “It’s more beautiful than boxing.”
Said Mendoza, “There is not much work in Merida for historians, you know? He was watching boxing on television, he was reading and writing and listening to classical music. And that’s it.”
Rivero kept only marginally in touch with the boxing world--including, at Mendoza’s insistence, mapping out the game plan for Humberto (Chiquita) Gonzalez’s decision over Michael Carbajal in a February 1994 rematch.
But then he saw the tape of the Molina fight and was intrigued. Later, he saw tapes of De La Hoya suffering two early career first-round knockdowns, noting that De La Hoya was off-balance and teetering toward a disastrous loss. If De La Hoya was the kind of person he could work with, who would listen, there were possibilities here.
“Mendoza said Canto was considered one of the great flyweight champions of all time,” Rivero said. “But it was a shame, because he was too little and didn’t hit hard.
“Mendoza said, ‘Here’s one that hits hard, let’s see what you can do.’ Mendoza touched my ego, he provoked me.”
Alcazar has publicly said that, with his new five-year contract and an increased role in Oscar De La Hoya Enterprises, he is happy with his role. His contract caps his per-fight payment at about $100,000, about the same as Rivero will earn for this fight.
But, for the last four fights, Alcazar tried to shield his fighter from Rivero. In the first two weeks of camp before the Ruelas fight, De La Hoya didn’t even know Rivero’s name.
After a training session one day, Rivero called De La Hoya and told him to come to his cabin. They talked and began to form a bond that has grown deeper with each fight.
“Alcazar didn’t want me here, he wanted to push me aside,” Rivero said. ‘I asked him, ‘Where do I start? What should I do?’ He said, ‘I don’t need you.’
“So, I was very careful. First, I asked Oscar, ‘How do you go backwards?’ I saw him go backwards wrong. Then all the lateral movement was wrong. He wouldn’t pick up his feet.
“I had to see where he was and start all over--how to move backwards, how to use the heavy bag for feints. And it started working. Oscar started liking it, and he started having the confidence in it.”
For the first time in De La Hoya’s 21-fight career, because De La Hoya and Rivero agreed that Alcazar’s intransigence was becoming a distraction, Alcazar did not participate in training sessions for this fight, although he will join Rivero in De La Hoya’s corner fight night. Rivero, however, will be in charge of the proceedings.
Rivero has a downstairs bedroom in De La Hoya’s new cabin in Big Bear, takes long walks with him between workouts and goes over every day’s videotaped sparring session with the fighter.
“He’s thinking more about boxing,” Rivero said. “Before, after working out, he’d just go into the house and forget about boxing. Go play golf, whatever. Now, we’re thinking and talking about boxing all the time.”
De La Hoya, who has been feinting and bending quickly left and right in recent bouts, says he cherishes the chance to be a stylistic, crafty fighter. And he loves the idea of hitting without getting hit, especially heading into the fight with Chavez, famous for his ability to chop down his opponents with body shots.
“The old man, he’s given me the confidence to do whatever I want to do in the ring,” De La Hoya said. “And the confidence. People can see it.
“I’m not trying to knock my opponent out, so it’s making me a faster fighter. I’m not just trying to throw every punch with a lot of power. But the power’s still there. A soft punch I throw is still going to hurt.”
Four successive knockout victories have left Rivero still uncertain if De La Hoya has picked up the new style completely--and the biggest test is three days away.
This will be the first time Rivero is in De La Hoya’s corner--he watched the previous four fights on the press room television monitor.
“This is his fight,” Hernandez said of Rivero. “And I think Oscar loves having him there.”
Said De La Hoya: “He’ll always be there with me, from now on. When he’s there, I have more energy and confidence that I can do anything I want.
“Just the fact that I have a person up in my corner who knows what he’s doing makes me a confident fighter.”