Night of the Oscar

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The worst and the best of boxing were on view at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, on Friday night as Eric "Butterbean" Esch, a 21st 9lb freak who has turned America's biggest beer belly into a valuable commercial asset, was promoted to a featured attraction on the show that saw Oscar De La Hoya end the reign of one of boxing's greatest champions, WBC light- welterweight king Julio Cesar Chavez, with a fourth-round stoppage.

De La Hoya was flawless and the cut eye that was the official reason for the stoppage merely spared Chavez the ultimate humiliation of a knock- out. Esch was farcical, clubbing a part-time fireman from Kansas City called George Clarke to a three knock-down defeat inside two minutes to record his 23rd win in 24 fights all against the kind of opponent Mother Theresa could have beaten in half the time.

With Chavez and De La Hoya on combined guarantees of almost $18m, Butterbean's cult hero status was needed to pull in the pay-per-view fans on whom the industry now relies. These days, gimmicks are worth almost as much as genius. De La Hoya, the handsome 23-year-old from east Los Angeles, was widely expected to beat the veteran Mexican, but not even those who backed him down to a 1-3 favourite could have anticipated the ease and thoroughness of victory.

The fight effectively ceased to be a contest within the first minute when two hard, straight lefts from the challenger brought blood spurting from a two-inch cut over Chavez's left eye. The cut had been opened in sparring five days ago, but Chavez said afterwards that, with the fight so close and the advance ticket sales so spectacular, he had decided to keep quiet. That is understandable, if a shade unethical, but it also raises questions about the thoroughness of the medical examinations to which the fighters were subjected after the weigh-in on Thursday afternoon. A doctor who cannot spot a recent cut running almost the length of the eyebrow has much to explain.

The referee, Joe Cortez, immediately stopped the action and sought the advice of the ringside doctor, who allowed the champion to continue even though the blood that gushed down Chavez's face severely restricted his vision. With his opponent so badly handicapped, De La Hoya might have been excused taking a few chances to end the fight early, but instead he showed maturity by standing off and relying on his long and accurate lefts to dominate Chavez, who was having his 100th fight and 34th championship match, an all-time record.

At times the challenger used his left almost like a cattle prod, holding it extended in front of him and poking Chavez with the glove as if pushing him into range for dazzlingly fast bursts of hooks. Chavez normally takes three or four rounds to get going, but with his title at such obvious and immediate risk he had to gamble everything.

De La Hoya handled the attacks with contemptuous ease, slipping most of Chavez's punches and landing counters with calm precision. Chavez constantly dabbed at the wound to clear his vision, but was so confused and unhappy at the end of the second round that he walked to a neutral corner and stood there in bewilderment for precious seconds while his corner men waited to work on the cut. He tapped the top of his head in the third round to indicate that he had been butted, perhaps hoping to save the title on a technical decision, but Cortez was having none of it. De La Hoya, a study in concentration, hardly missed with a punch and by the end of the round the champion's nose was gashed and appeared to have been broken.

Chavez summoned one last despairing rally in the fourth, but De La Hoya, utterly dominant, opened up with a barrage of hooks and upper cuts and the referee waved his arms to signal a stoppage with Chavez, his face a mask of blood, taking unanswered blows against the ropes. Afterwards, the normally placid American bristled when told that Chavez had dismissed him as "a nothing whose punches didn't hurt". He frowned, then said: "That hurts, because I have such respect for Chavez - but, if I'm so bad, what am I doing with his championship belt?"