Boxing: Image problem for Golden Boy

De La Hoya retained his world welterweight crown on Saturday but has yet to win over all fight fans

ON SATURDAY night in El Paso, Texas, the biggest American boxing crowd since 1993 - the fifth largest of all time - gathered to watch a fight that was a mismatch from its inception. It was the event rather than the contest that drew 45,000 to the Sun Bowl arena in the border town on the banks of the Rio Grande. The event called Oscar De La Hoya.

De La Hoya, the 25-year-old World Boxing Council welterweight champion, is a phenomenon. Not only is he an excellent fighter, unbeaten in 28 contests (23 wins by KO), but the handsome and articulate "Golden Boy" has transcended the sport; De La Hoya's popularity with young Hispanic women has reached teenybop proportions,and he fights to the kind of soundtrack usually associated with the music world's manufactured boy bands.

The demographic of De La Hoya's pay-per-view TV audience reveals that 30 per cent of all buyers are women below the age of 25. Hundreds of screaming females greeted De La Hoya when he flew into El Paso on Tuesday, with similar-sized gatherings attending supposedly secret training sessions for his defence against his mandatory French challenger, Patrick Charpentier.

While the clean-cut youngster, born in Los Angeles of Mexican parents, is a hit with women, he faces an uphill battle to win over male Mexican fight fans, who like their warriors to be rugged, uncompromising sorts. However, the most chauvinist fans in boxing are also among the most knowledgeable and they harbour a grudging, unspoken respect for De La Hoya's achievements in the ring.

De La Hoya easily dealt with his Mexican-born rivals Julio Cesar Chavez and Miguel Angel Gonzalez, who drew a 140,000 crowd when they met at the Plaza de Toros, Mexico City in April. De La Hoya's presence at ringside brought squeals of delight from the few females in the massive old bull ring, but they could barely be heard as the boos and catcalls of the males filling the arena.

Fortunately for the native of the East Los Angeles barrio, De La Hoya's country of birth loves him. The United States took De La Hoya to its heart after he saved the nation's embarrassment at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where he was the only American fighter to win a gold medal, at lightweight.

With a record of 222 wins (160 by KO) against five defeats in a 10-year amateur career, De La Hoya was a media star long before he boarded the plane for Barcelona. "Oscar's personality outside the ring makes him a winner," said his first manager, Bob Mittleman, who returned from Spain with the most-prized signature in boxing at the time.

De La Hoya signed what was reportedly the richest deal ever for a fighter coming out of the Olympics. He sold out the 6,000-seat Great Western Forum, Los Angeles, on his pro debut in November 1992, and won in 102 seconds. After 11 fights, he won the first of five world championships in four weight divisions. By that stage in his career, De La Hoya had abandoned wearing a sombrero and waving both the American and Mexican flags as he entered the ring. The admiration and respect he hoped to receive from the Old Country was never going to materialise.

At least there were plenty of screaming girls in evidence whenever he fought, and, in the best traditions of a teenybop icon, De La Hoya knew better than to admit to romantic attachments for fear of alienating a female following, who each liked to think they might be the one he was saving himself for.

He once said: "For a boxer to have a woman in your life is really tough." So it seems. De La Hoya recently featured in a Sports Illustrated article on "deadbeat dads" where the mother of his young son complained about the lack of attention that the fighter paid him. After the fight in El Paso, De La Hoya tried unconvincingly to redress the balance. He said: "This fight is for my son, Jacob. I miss him."

De La Hoya's image disguises the steely resolve of a young man determined to succeed. He dumped Mittleman, who had invested heavily in launching his professional career, in favour of a more lucrative "establishment" deal with the promoter Bob Arum's Top Rank organisation. The cries of "mercenary" grew louder when another manager, Shelly Finkel, revealed that De La Hoya had reneged on an agreement stating that Finkel, who guided Evander Holyfield to the top and is now working with Mike Tyson, would have De La Hoya's signature after the Olympics - this after the manager had given financial support for De La Hoya for two years prior to Barcelona and paid the funeral expenses of the boxer's mother, Cecilia.

De La Hoya has the survival instincts of any street kid. Proud of his roots, he carries a $1 food voucher with him to remind him of his poor upbringing. But these days he can afford to move his father Joel, who has a significant level of control over his son's career, and sister into a $500,000 (pounds 300,000) house he bought for them in an attractive part of LA.

He may never be able to buy the respect of the Mexican people, who hunger to see him beaten by one of their own, but life has its compensations for De La Hoya, who earned pounds 38m from five fights in 1997, and pounds 3m for the rout of Charpentier, who was down three times in the third before the referee called a halt after 1min 56sec of the round.

Charpentier had landed all of five punches before his collapse. But then it is doubtful that the women in the Sun Bowl had noticed he was there at all.

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