With a copy of her song in hand and two of her aunts in tow, Nicole Presley drove up the twisting mountain road from Los Angeles to Big Bear with one thought in mind: meeting Oscar De La Hoya.
What she got was beyond her wildest fantasy--an invitation inside the gates of De La Hoya’s mountain estate and a chance to chat with him.
“I normally wouldn’t do anything like this,” the 24-year-old aspiring singer told the fighter, the tape of her song trembling in her hands. “But there’s just something about you.”
Toweling down after sparring eight rounds in his garage-gym, the welterweight champ was attentive and charming as he listened.
“It’s completely inspired by you,” Presley said, handing him the tape. “But wait until I leave before you listen to it.”
A few minutes later, a camp member opened the 12-foot high gates and the woman left.
“You’ve got to watch those kind of people,” De La Hoya said. “They’ll end up stalking you one day if you’re not careful.”
The remark was only partly in jest: De La Hoya’s celebrity status is taking off, five years after he won Olympic gold.
Young women scream his name when he appears at public functions, captivated by his movie-star looks and nice-guy ways. He attracts female fans unlike any other boxer.
Women join his fan club, leave messages for him on his website and fill auditoriums to cheer when he arrives for a prefight weigh-in. They even go to his fights, buying an estimated 70% of the tickets the first two days they were on sale for his June 12 knockout of David Kamau in San Antonio.
Among those in the Alamodome was Presley, who used up her savings to fly to San Antonio with a friend, then managed to get her picture taken with De La Hoya as he left a private party.
“All the girls were screaming when he came out,” she said. “I just walked up and said, ‘Mr. De La Hoya, can I take a picture with you?”’
The 24-year-old De La Hoya, originally from East Los Angeles, still can’t win the respect of the Mexican fight fans who view him as a pretty boy who won’t brawl.
But his popularity among women and some clever matchmaking have helped him achieve the type of megafight status not seen outside the heavyweight ranks since the days of Sugar Ray Leonard.
On Saturday, he’ll get $9 million to defend his WBC 147-pound title against Hector “Macho” Camacho, part of about $35 million he’ll make in the ring this year.
He’ll earn it partly because women are joining men in buying his bouts on pay-per-view.
Television ads for the Camacho fight play to that audience. While one shows clips of the fighters in action, a second called “Oh, Oscar” veers away from the usual boxing crowd.
“You know, Oscar, I could sit around and watch you sweat all night,” a woman’s voice says. “And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“Whether they want to mother him, or go to bed with him, there’s something about him that has a universal appeal to women,” promoter Bob Arum said.
That was evident on a recent day in the high mountains of Big Bear, where De La Hoya works out in a gym built next to the house he helped design.
Just before Presley met the boxer, a woman wanted De La Hoya to sign papers to present to the city council to change the name of his street.
“What do we want to call it?” she asked.
“How about Oscar De La Hoya Drive,” the fighter said. “I like the sound of that.”
De La Hoya talked to each of the dozen or so people allowed inside the gates to watch him spar, and patiently waited as trainer Emanuel Steward tried to get the flash working for a picture of the fighter and a woman from Norfolk, Va.
“I saw you fight Pee Wee,” the woman said.
“Pee Wee? No, that was Sweet Pea (Pernell Whitaker),” De La Hoya said, laughing.
The politeness isn’t an act, those around him say.
“He’s one of the nicest human beings I’ve met in all my work in sports,” said Chuck DeBus, who has trained several Olympic track gold medalists and supervises De La Hoya’s cardiovascular work. “He’s just a great guy.”
In addition to the millions he gets for fighting, De la Hoya earns some money on the side from endorsements, in clothing and deodorant ads and as a spokesman for Budweiser. But advertisers, wary of the audience boxing attracts, tend to shy away from the sport on a national level.
De La Hoya, though, is becoming a pay-per-view force. His fight against Whitaker in April sold to 800,000 homes, and Arum says he can do better. At $30 to $40 a pop, it adds up quickly.
He’s the biggest draw outside of the heavyweight ranks, and he knows it.
“I’m Bob Arum’s meal ticket,” De La Hoya said.
He now fights for no less than $8 million to $9 million against what he calls a “B class opponent.” An “A class” fighter, such as Felix Trinidad or Terry Norris, could be worth up to $20 million.
“We can eventually end up doing Tysonlike numbers,” Arum said.
Assuming De La Hoya beats Camacho--and he is an overwhelming favorite--Arum plans to keep him busy in an attempt to fill the pay-per-view void left by Mike Tyson’s ban from boxing.
Those plans include an Atlantic City fight in December, then a trip in March to Japan, where Arum said De La Hoya’s ratings for the Kamau fight were the highest ever for a foreign boxer.
Arum envisions a Tokyo Dome filled with screaming women.
“Japanese girls are crazy about him,” he said.