Boxing: Golden Boy's grail is unification

Oscar De La Hoya this weekend starts a series of title fights that could make him the greatest boxer of his era.

THIS WEEKEND in Las Vegas, boxing's "Golden Boy", Oscar De La Hoya, embarks on what he has termed "a comeback" - a curious choice of words, perhaps, as the World Boxing Council welterweight champion's absence has hardly been conspicuous.

But having been restricted by injury to only two fights in 1998, the undefeated De La Hoya believes it is necessary for him to defend his championship at least four times this year if he is to establish himself as the greatest fighter of his era. And if things pan out for the welterweight division over the coming months, it could yet be quite some era.

Over the past two years De La Hoya has featured in seven title fights, earning a total of $58m (pounds 36.7m). And on Saturday night at the cavernous Thomas & Mack Center in the Nevada Desert's neon gambling oasis, De La Hoya will collect a further $10m for facing his toughest opponent to date, Ike "Bazooka" Quartey, an unbeaten Ghanaian who until recently held the World Boxing Association title in the 10st 7lb weight class.

But while De La Hoya is unchallenged as the biggest non-heavyweight draw in boxing, his superiority within the welterweight ranks is as yet unproven. Quartey aside, the hard-hitting and undefeated International Boxing Federation champion, Felix Trinidad, has a very real claim to welterweight supremacy, while the power of the unsung James Page, Quartey's successor as WBA champion after the African was stripped of the title last year, makes him the dangerous dark horse of the division. And then there is the veteran former title-holder Pernell Whitaker, whose loss by decision to De La Hoya in April 1997 was questioned in many corners.

Without doubt, the welterweight class is the most competitive in contemporary world boxing. It has been compared with the middleweight division of the early-to-mid 1980s, when Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran helped a soporific, pre-Tyson heavyweight scene skulk out of the spotlight. Where that esteemed quartet featured in a series of 10 spirited and skilled battles against each other, today's welterweights - the De La Hoya-Whitaker bout aside - have so far been steered well clear of each other by cautious managers and promoters.

There has, however, been a sea change in world boxing, prompted by a policy review at Home Box Office, America's premier pay-per-view network, towards the end of last year. Known as the "cash-to-burn" network, HBO became tired of not receiving value for its money and let it be known that, in future, HBO fighters would either have to take competitive bouts, for which they would continue to be handsomely remunerated, or ship out.

Immediately, a series of exciting match-ups were made - the most notable being the Lennox Lewis-Evander Holyfield heavyweight unification match set for 13 March in New York - and HBO's chief rival, the Don King-affiliated Showtime network, was forced to follow suit. With King currently doing business with HBO for the first time in years, the cross-television divide that had reduced world boxing to a non-competitive farce appears to have come to an end, if only temporarily.

"Boxing has a perpetual cold; it's never in perfect health," said the HBO chief, Seth Abraham. "But right now, people are talking about it and writing about it. Is '99 going to be a busy year? We hope so."

The strength of the new cordiality will be tested by the outcome and aftermath of WBC and IBF welterweight title bouts over the next two weekends. De La Hoya-Quartey sees two HBO fighters locking horns, but the following weekend in New York, King enters the mix when Trinidad - promoted by King and contracted to Showtime - defends his IBF belt against HBO's Whitaker.

Yet De La Hoya's promoter, Bob Arum, is confident that welterweight unification can be achieved. "Personally, I'd prefer that Whitaker wins the fight; if it's Trinidad, you have to deal with Don King," he said. "But either way, Felix and Pernell can be made with Oscar."

Unbeaten in 35 fights (one draw, 29 wins by knockout), the 29-year-old Quartey is a livewire challenger for De La Hoya, who will be boxing 11 days after his 25th birthday. But the African, who was stripped of the WBA title for refusing to make a mandatory defence, is somewhat mechanical and De La Hoya has the technical skills to dismantle him for the 30th win of his career (currently featuring 23 stoppages) - providing that the Golden Boy does not decide to try and prove his toughness by engaging the savage left-hooker in a punch-out.

Regardless of whoever emerges as champion, what is important to the sport's future is that the winner of the WBC fight meets whoever the IBF champion might transpire to be (and Trinidad is favoured to retain at Madison Square Garden due to Whitaker's long absence through drug rehabilitation) before the end of the year in order to keep the new-found momentum building. And by so doing, the welterweights could establish themselves as boxing's flagship division.

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