They're circling each other from not too far away now, eyeing the millions, pushing for position and waiting for the bonanza.
Why? Spurred by a heavyweight malaise and a paucity of major names in the rest of boxing, 1998 will be the year of the welterweight.
In an echo of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran-Thomas Hearns-Marvin Hagler middle-sized boxer's heyday, the hard politicking and the heavy deal-making all surround five fascinating fighters who weigh no more than 154 pounds and no less than 147.
The famous five--Oscar De La Hoya, Terry Norris, Ike Quartey, Felix Trinidad and Pernell Whitaker--are all universally ranked among the sport's top 10, regardless of weight class, and appear ready to step into the multimillion-dollar void left by Mike Tyson's involuntary layoff.
To make things interesting, De La Hoya and Norris are promoted by Bob Arum, Quartey and Whitaker by Dino Duva and Trinidad by Don King. Now it's up to those three businessmen to put together a series to remember.
So, think of last April's bout between De La Hoya, the youngest of the five, and Whitaker, the oldest, as an unofficial and hugely profitable prologue to the upcoming round-robin festivities, and start planning.
Here's a thumbnail peek at the possibilities:
* De La Hoya, the center of the storm: As always, he's the guy everybody wants, because he generates millions more than anybody else in the field.
Given the controversial nature of De La Hoya's unanimous-decision victory over the 34-year-old Whitaker, a sequel looked like the best bet for next spring's big bout. De La Hoya is facing Hector Camacho, another elusive left-hander, on Sept. 13, which would make an April 1998 rematch with Whitaker, who desperately wants one last major payday, seem right on schedule.
But although De La Hoya personally wants to knock Whitaker out, some of his advisors worry that Whitaker is simply too hard to hit and that another ugly 12-rounder would wound De La Hoya's marketability as a power hitter.
Said a Whitaker camp spokesman: "Whitaker-De La Hoya II is not going to happen. It's too bad, but I guess when they said they wanted a rematch in '97 they meant that they wanted it when Pernell turned 97."
Now that Norris, the World Boxing Council super-welterweight champion, has jumped from the King camp to Arum, he could be the next meaningful matchup for De La Hoya--if De La Hoya's corner feels comfortable going up against the bigger Norris.
And watch out for the money grab: If there's a De La Hoya delay for Norris, that could open up a spot on De La Hoya's calendar for a senseless rematch against Julio Cesar Chavez--an easy, but still hugely marketable foe.
* Norris, the wild card: His projected bout against Quartey, the International Boxing Federation 147-pound champion, fell apart because Norris is looking for bigger fights against either Trinidad or De La Hoya and doesn't want to risk taking a lesser fight against the dangerous Quartey.
Norris and Arum will try to win a purse bid for a potential bout against Trinidad, who is positioned for a mandatory challenge for Norris' WBC 154-pound title. That would create a bout between quick, powerful fighters who have shown a knack for hitting the canvas--maybe a Hagler-Hearns type of war.
Or, if Arum loses the purse bid to King, Arum could let the WBC strip Norris and move him straight to De La Hoya this April, in what would be De La Hoya's toughest test so far. Either way, Norris gets big bucks, and a chance at real significance.
* Whitaker and Quartey, stuck with the leftovers: Lacking options and short of marketing charisma, the two Duva fighters might end up fighting each other in April. If Quartey, the World Boxing Assn. welterweight champion, can find a way to knock out Whitaker, his stock rises immensely.
Whitaker, meanwhile, is frustrated--and too frustrating to fight. He wanted a rematch with Chavez to prove his superiority over Chavez after their horribly judged draw in 1993 and never got it. The best technical boxer of this decade probably won't get De La Hoya either, until Whitaker is way over the hill or will take below market value.
If the De La Hoya camp is thinking about history, and not easy money, it would sign that rematch with Whitaker for 1998. If Whitaker runs and plays prevent defense again, a dominant performance by De La Hoya would show two important things: He is willing to take risks, and he is still improving.
* Trinidad, the end of the rainbow: Probably the biggest hitter in the business, pound for pound, and the most anticipated potential foe for De La Hoya--the Hearns to De La Hoya's Leonard.
This one has been brewing for years and still may take some time. Puerto Rico's Trinidad, who blew out Troy Waters in his first fight at 154 pounds last week, clearly has room to grow, and King desperately needs him as a headliner to counteract the loss of Tyson.
So, a la King's gingerly handling of Chavez while Tyson was in prison, don't look for Trinidad to seek De La Hoya right away. Meanwhile, De La Hoya still needs time to adjust to 147 pounds before planning a showdown at 154.
Whenever it happens, and fiscal forces will make sure it does (by November 1998? April 1999?), De La Hoya-Trinidad is a bout that will define both fighters' careers and possibly the sport itself as it heads into the next millennium.
It was a scramble, but the Evander Holyfield-Michael Moorer title unification bout finally is set for Nov. 8 in Las Vegas, hosted by the Mirage (the MGM Grand has at least temporarily bowed out of the boxing business) and possibly to be held at Thomas & Mack Center.
Besides the titles, here's what's really on the line: The reputation of the heavyweight division.
Their first fight, in April 1994, when Moorer upset Holyfield to take the WBA and IBF titles, was a financial dud; so boxing people are wondering if Holyfield can carry the heavyweight division without Tyson around as his foil.
The purses? Holyfield is getting almost $20 million, Moorer about $7.5 million.
He's known for his before-fight blather, but, leading up to Sept. 13 against De La Hoya, Camacho does have a point: This is the first time De La Hoya is facing a veteran who is coming way down in weight to 147 pounds (and therefore should be as physically strong or stronger than De La Hoya), in contrast to the smaller foes who have gone up in weight to fight De La Hoya. "Just remember that I'm the bigger guy coming down," said Camacho, who has fought at 160 pounds recently. "I'll be much stronger. You haven't seen a boy beat a real man, like myself." Camacho brags about the punishment he took without getting knocked out by Trinidad and Chavez . . . but is that a good or a bad thing?
Chavez vs. Miguel Angel Gonzalez, long discussed, is finally set for Oct. 25 in Mexico City and is the latest fight Chavez swears will be his last--if he loses. Which sounds familiar, since he said the same thing before his loss to De La Hoya. And yes, it's very possible for national legend Chavez to be an underdog against Gonzalez, a capable, younger fighter who gave De La Hoya a much tougher run than Chavez did.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Saturday: Juan Soberanes vs. Roger Flores, junior-welterweights; Fidel Avendano vs. Dan Goodwin, super-middleweights, 7:30 p.m., Paolina Boxing Club, 726 S. La Brea.
Monday: Ed Mahone vs. Cleveland Woods, heavyweights; Isidro Garcia vs. Miguel Granados, flyweights, 7:15 p.m., Forum.