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He Doesn’t Look Right--Until He Gets in the Ring

Oscar De La Hoya is too good to be true. I mean, he’s more priest than pug, more altar boy than home boy.

Look at him! You ever see a prizefighter like him? Even Dempsey bragged a little. Joe Louis too.

Not our Oscar. First of all, he barely talks above a whisper anyway. He always says the right thing. He seems almost wistful. As if he were smelling flowers or saying his breviary in a monastery. He says things so softly it’s almost as if he were in confession.

Anyway, he’s too pretty. Not a hair out of place. Smooth skin. Ears not swollen, lips not busted.

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Pugs aren’t supposed to be like this. De La Hoya even has a good word for guys he knocked into the seats. He’s going to fight Julio Cesar Chavez on Friday night at Caesars Palace and, to hear him talk, you’d really think he just came hoping to get his autograph. Julio Cesar is his idol, he tells you. It’s an honor to be in the same ring with him. Hell, the same room!

That’s no way for a pug to talk. Pugs are supposed to say, “I’ll moider da bum!” as Tony Galento used to. They’re even meant to say in controversies over referees: “All he has to do is be able to count to 10.” De La Hoya, in a similar controversy over judges, only said politely: “Maybe they won’t have to vote on a winner.” In other words, somebody will knock somebody out. Oscar didn’t say who. Oscar shies away from controversy.

Even Muhammad Ali brought opponent-insulting to a high degree, an art form. George Chuvalo was “the Washerwoman,” Floyd Patterson was “the Thud at the End of the Third Round,” and Sonny Liston was “the Big Ol’ Ugly Bear.” He said the only thing Chuck Wepner would prove in the fight was that he was type-A. Liston once growled of an opponent, “If he run, I’ll cripple ‘im, if he come to me, I’ll kill ‘im.”

Even though he wasn’t given to opponent-baiting, Joe Louis once said, “He can run but he can’t hide.”

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Pre-fight news conferences have taken on the aspects of a dock fight of late. Riddick Bowe even started to punch out an opponent at one. At the very least, the boasting and threatening gets in the high decibels.

Oscar De La Hoya’s sound like Geneva peace conferences. No one raises his voice, least of all Oscar. Mutual admiration societies. They should have teacups.

You get the feeling Julio Cesar Chavez would like to launch a few missiles. In fact, does. But, since he doesn’t speak English, by the time the translation is haltingly made, some of the venom is lost.

Oscar just smiles sunnily. He’s almost apologetic about what he’s going to do. This-is-going-to- hurt-me-more-than-it-is-you syndrome. The father to the woodshed.

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He’s younger, prettier, faster and bigger than Julio. What more could you want? So why is all the money pouring into the Caesars Palace books on the eve of their fight here?

Well, for one thing, the odds were attractive--3 to 1 on Oscar. for another thing, Julio has one edge. And it’s a big one--experience.

Julio Cesar Chavez was probably the most damaging sub-heavyweight the fight game has seen since Henry Armstrong. His punches hurt, and he threw them with a will. He was as undiscourageable as an insurance salesman, as hard to hurt as a telephone pole. And he loved to fight.

There is some question Oscar loves it that much. He talks vaguely of becoming an architect. Or maybe archbishop.

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He’s a traitor to his craft. He has never been hauled up on charges for breaking a barroom mirror. Or a cop’s jaw. I mean, who does he think he is, Mother Teresa? So far as anyone knows, Oscar never even stole a Hershey bar. What kind of a record is that for a champion? It’s un-American.

The guess here is, he became a fighter because he looked like such easy pickings to the street gangsters. I mean, Oscar probably looked as if he were bringing an apple for the teacher. A Mama’s boy.

You love to reflect on what might have happened when those thugs got too close. And got their first samples of the Pretty Boy De La Hoya left hooks and right crosses. You imagine a lot of them were eating through a straw for weeks.

Because, make no mistake about it, whether he likes it or not, Oscar De La Hoya can fight. And one way you know is by his face. It’s unmarked. And this is the only American who won an Olympic gold medal in boxing at Barcelona and who has had 21 tough professional fights. Fighters like this used to be called “Baby Face.” Jimmy McLarnin comes to mind. Ali used to complain, “I’m too pretty to be fighting these big ol’ ugly bears.” Gene Tunney looked as if his sport should be crew.

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If he beats Chavez, Oscar may not have much more to learn in the ring. Out of it is another thing. He should learn to scowl a lot. Travel around with an entourage. Trash his opponent.

Talking trash has become an American hallmark. It has been a major part of basketball and football of late. It was even brought into the gentlemanly sport of tennis by Connors, McEnroe, Nastase and company. It’s part and parcel of the way we compete. Frank Merriwell is dead. Joe Louis saying “Another lucky night” is in the long-gone past.

Oscar doesn’t have to work on his jab, his uppercut, but he has to work on his vocabulary. He has to learn his opponent is a bum, the referee a crook, and that bad manners sell tickets. I don’t say he has to go to prison, but maybe a few traffic mishaps, maybe a 2 a.m. difference of opinion with a bartender is indicated.

To date, he has had only a few disagreements with managers and sponsors, things that are handled politely by high-society lawyers.

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As I say, he’s too good to be true. The Chavez fight is the proverbial Battle of the Century. It doesn’t need the hype. But wait till he fights some other guy who’s good to his mother and helps little old ladies across the street. You can bet the networks will want him to suggest his opponent drowns canaries, robs poor boxes and kicks cats. And Oscar himself has to stop smiling so much. Get a little scar tissue and a dent in the nose and speak in the laryngitic rasp of a Mafia don. Be the kind of guy who will make you want to call 911 when you see him coming.

Oh, yes, first he has to be sure Julio Cesar Chavez doesn’t do all of those things for him. After all, Julio’s the champion and may do a makeover on Oscar all by himself. He may resent Mr. Goody Two-Shoes stealing his spotlight. It’ll be like a bird biting St. Francis of Assisi.


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