Pupil ready to pass master

Close-up: Oscar de la Hoya; Julio Cesar Chavez's reign over Spanish-speaking America is under threat. Harry Mullan reports on the coming man
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When Julio Cesar Chavez's sparring partner and a Mexican cabinet minister were killed in crossfire during a drugs shootout earlier this year, the headlines and reports focused on the fighter, with the unfortunate minister relegated to the second paragraph. (In similar circumstances here, Michael Heseltine would probably be more upset about the billing than the shooting.) That is a measure of the grip Chavez has on the affection and imagination of his people, and of the enormity of the task facing Oscar De La Hoya in Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, on Friday when he attempts to take the Mexican's WBC light-welterweight title.

In a business awash with undeserved superlatives, this is genuinely as close to the perfect fight as we have seen since Marvin Hagler's nine minutes of mayhem against Thomas Hearns in the same ring a decade ago; El Grand Campeon meets the Golden Boy. They fight for Latin pride as much as for the world title or the $10m plus each will earn. It is a clash of the Old Mexican against the second-generation Latino; the greatest champion of his generation, in his 100th fight, against a youngster who has already won titles in two divisions.

The trade views it as a passing-on of the torch, from the legend of the Eighties to the budding legend of the Nineties, and the landmark significance of the match in boxing history is reflected in the revenue it has generated. All 16,000 arena seats sold in a fortnight, and the co-promoter Bob Arum claims advance closed-circuit sales of over three-and-a-half million tickets in America and Canada and a further one-and-a-half million in Mexico. The 17,000-seat Thomas And Mack Center in Las Vegas will host a special Spanish-commentary transmission, which is sold out, and the fight will also be screened in China and India, making overall viewing figures incalculable.

The Las Vegas Visitors Authority predict non-gambling revenue of more than $50m next weekend, while wagering on the fight alone is expected to smash the $20m record set when Hagler lost his middleweight title to Sugar Ray Leonard, at Caesars, in April 1987.

The figures do not frighten De La Hoya, a startlingly handsome 23-year- old who earned $200,000 for his professional debut and has been smashing records ever since. (Chavez, wryly, recalled this week that he was supposed to have been paid 1,500m pesos [$150] for his debut in 1980, but is still waiting for the cash.) As the United States' only boxing gold medallist at the 1992 Olympics, De La Hoya was hot property and, guided by his ex- fighter father, was shrewd enough to realise it. He negotiated a signing- on fee of $500,000 in addition to the $200,000 debut purse, but then dumped his small-time managers Bob Mittleman and Steve Nelson after they had steered him to the first of his world titles at super-featherweight. Like Leonard, his predecessor as American boxing's favourite son, De La Hoya has a ruthless streak which sits uneasily with his boyish charm.

His background is a marketing man's dream. He has intelligence to match his looks and skills, and was so dedicated to self-improvement that he completed his high school assignments and returned them by Federal Express while on international duty abroad. He lost only five of 223 amateur fights, and reversed one of those defeats - to East Germany's Marco Rudolph - in the Olympic final. His mother died of breast cancer at 37 shortly before the Games, and the boy's emotional dedication of his victory to her memory would have wrung tears from Mike Tyson. His father, Joel, and paternal grandfather were both pros, and the family remain close: Oscar's signing- on package included a $50,000-a-year retainer for his father, and brother Joel Jnr will be amongst his seconds on Friday.

No corners have been cut as he prepares for the event that the co-promoters and unlikely bedfellows Bob Arum and Don King have billed, with customary understatement, as "The Ultimate Glory". De La Hoya has invested $500,000 in a gym behind a two-storey log cabin at Big Bear, 6,800ft up in Southern California's mountains. There, he has worked with a team which, in addition to the usual boxer's entourage, includes a dietician, motivation specialist, strength and flexibility coach, cardiovascular monitor and a fight strategist, Jesus Rivera.

Since he is moving up from the lightweight (9st 9lb) to face one of the game's fiercest body-punchers at 10st, the challenge has been to strengthen his lean frame to absorb Chavez's attacks without forfeiting any of the hand-speed that has carried him to 21 consecutive wins, 19 inside the distance. Joe Park, his strength coach, believes they have succeeded: "When he gets in the ring with Chavez, he's going to have maximum strength and energy. The old approach of making fighters dry out is archaic and dangerous."

I had the chance to observe Friday's rivals at close quarters in Las Vegas in March, at the final press conference of their coast-to-coast publicity tour, and the warmth between them and their families is obvious and unmistakable. Chavez sparred with the youngster before the Olympics, the only time De La Hoya acknowledges being hurt in the ring, but the Mexican was then 29 and at the peak of his powers.

Afterwards, De La Hoya said, Chavez advised him to "take one day at a time and beware of managers and promoters". The respect, even awe in which the Californian holds Chavez, will be undiminished by Friday's outcome, but he is sharply aware that the man he faces is on borrowed time.

"He is not what he was", he said. "We have studied his fights with Frankie Randall [Chavez's only defeat] and Pernell Whitaker [a controversial draw] and spotted all the errors he makes which I can turn to my advantage. But I know he's been training for this fight for three months and will be in the best shape of his life. My main concern is his punching power. He can knock out anybody. If he tags me, he figures he can knock me out. If I hit him, I'll KO him for sure. Chavez has been a great champion and he's a friend of mine, but this is a war and he knows it."

De La Hoya is not yet a megastar in Britain, but he is huge in America. Last year, he crushed four former or reigning world champions, John Molina, Genaro Hernandez, Rafael Ruelas and Jesse James Leija, to earn selection as the Fighter of the Year, and sold out Madison Square Garden.

But the biggest tribute to his popularity and status came when he was robbed at gunpoint and, a couple of days later, had the wallet (with $150 contents intact) returned by the thief when he realised who he had held up. Even in Mexico, Chavez is not that big.

How the rivals measure up

De La Hoya

Age: 23

Record: 21 fights - 21 wins (19 inside schedule)

Titles: WBO super-feather; IBF and WBO lightweight

Championship record: 9 fights - 9 wins (8 by knockout or stoppage)

Strengths: Youth; supreme confidence in the ring; hand speed; ability to hit from unexpected angles with surprising power and accuracy.

Weaknesses: None yet revealed, but is untested against a puncher of Chavez's quality.


Age: 33

Record: 99 fights - 97 wins, 1 draw (78 inside schedule)

Titles: WBC super-feather; WBC and WBA lightweight; WBC and IBF light- welterweight

Championship record: 33 fights - 31 wins (21 by knockout or stoppage), 1 draw

Strengths: Experienced at championship level; fierce left-hooks to body; master of art of "stalking"

Weaknesses: Slowing down; struggles against smart boxers such as Frankie Randall and De La Hoya.