Imagine fight night in LA twenty years ago. Girls would wear their tightest dresses and their highest heels. We’d pull up to the house that was hosting the Oscar De La Hoya fight in his hometown of East LA. There would be twenty-five Harley Davidsons lined up by the curb, and at least a few lowriders and a sparkling candy-colored hot rod or two. Bodies spilled out of a house packed with people who stood shoulder to shoulder watching a TV in a living room. Everyone shouted and screamed for Oscar to beat whoever he was fighting. It was electric. This is the epoch that you often hear boxing fans pound their chests for. HBO featured gentlemanly commentators like Jim Lampley, Emanuel Steward, and Larry Merchant wearing tuxedos. Celebrities such as Liza Minelli and Jack Nicholson sat in the best ringside seats. Boxing royalty like Evander Holyfield, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, and Marco Antonio Barerra would be in attendance.
The buzz would start with the fight announcement. Diehard fight fans would nominate whose house could host the fight. Then we’d have to get up the nerve to ask. Meanwhile, someone was already planning on having the fight, and sometimes would ask a few people to pitch in to purchase the PPV. These parties were exciting, they had DJs and bothered the hell out of neighbors who were not fight fans. Computers were the size of old television sets, we had pagers, and carried our car stereos around like handbags. Girls would make cardboard signs saying, “Good Luck Oscar” and all throughout the fight girls would profess their love for him. Some guys would get jealous, and some would try their best to become his sycophants. The ladies-room bustle of lip gloss and hairspray was more of a gossip session about who Oscar was sleeping with.
It’s easy to remember the fight in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay from 2002. Larry Merchant’s mocking the fighters’ claims of macho-ness was hysterical. Merchant said, “I need to decide whether this is a fight or a grand opera.”
The best-known sportswriters all predicted that Oscar would win the fight. Emanuel Steward and George Foreman both predicted Vargas would win with Foreman dropping a low blow stating, “Vargas wasn’t trying to look pretty and De La Hoya had it all made.”
Foreman even went as far as saying De La Hoya “only wore a size-eight shoe.”
The first round was everything we wanted it to be. Vargas, in the best shape he had ever been in, had Oscar almost falling through the ropes. Don’t forget the staredown before going back to your corner! Both boxers stayed in the center of the ring. Oscar had great head movement whenever Vargas threw a punch. Fernando’s best asset was his strength and he needed Oscar up against the ropes to use that strength but Oscar was all about the sweet science, slipping most of Fernando’s punches. By round four Vargas had swelling under his right eye. Still, Oscar had absorbed plenty of body shots and by round five had a bloody nose.
By the second half of the fight both boxers were using more combinations. Oscar threw a right hook after the bell in round six that turned up the heat. Oscar was boxing and Vargas was brawling. Emanuel Steward said, “Oscar now knows he’s the superior boxer.” Each round Oscar got more comfortable and continued to land combination after combination to Fernando’s face. Oscar threw a triple-jab while in the center of the ring—exactly where Vargas didn’t want him—and Vargas had a cut under his right eye that was bleeding. Vargas pushed his power on Oscar in round nine, but it was not enough. Oscar stunned the strength right out of Vargas’s legs at the end of round ten with yet another left hook. In round eleven Oscar delivered his famous left hook knocking Fernando down and followed with a flurry of punches. Oscar spit out his mouthpiece as the referee waved his hands ending the fight.
At this point Oscar was a household name, but so many fans remembered Oscar from high school or after he won Olympic gold. Some say Oscar was quiet, soft-spoken, and always in his Olympian jacket. The everlasting rivalry of Roosevelt High School (in the Boyle Heights section of East LA) and Garfield High school played a major role in fight-night activities. None of us were jocks in high school yet everyone had an Oscar story or an Oscar claim-to-fame. Stories of the infamous Monday night Fight Nights at the Los Angeles Forum and the after-parties at the Forum Club circled. Oscar could evoke a wicked sense of competition among his fans, which forced them to pick sides and became the root of many drunken arguments.
Girls from Venice Beach would drive to the Eastside to be with Oscar and his brother at parties in hotel rooms and house parties galore. Oscar had a pimped-out bus with his image wrapped around the bus like he was a pop band on tour. The bus had TV screens, lacquered wood paneling, and mirrored ceilings. Vargas had a custom SUV that Jim Lampley called a “rolling disco.” This was before private jets were popular and loading up and driving to Las Vegas was easy as pie. Everyone wanted a piece of Oscar and people wanted him to win for all of us. Of course there were the haters. Just like today, people were judging Oscar’s every move. Locals wanted him to stay in East LA forever. He moved to Big Bear to gain an advantage in his training camps and to have some fresh air. He took a lot of flak for that move.
The announcement of the fight between De La Hoya and Vargas was similar to the war with César Chávez years before. East Los Angeles and Ventura County was just as good as a border and another crater of division was on. The plot was perfect: the bully Vargas as the supervillain, and the squeaky clean ODLH, the conqueror. But behind our local hero’s enthusiasm was the good old underbelly of Los Angeles and boxing—the criminal act of betting wages in the California prison system.
In California a certain demographic of boxing fans live by a code. That code is either you’re a Norteño or a Southsider Mexican. Southsiders are from Southern California, and Norteños from Northern California. There are official colors and numbers for each. This world within a world is governed by the Mexican Mafia and the northern Mexican drug cartels from the inside of California State prisons. The division behind Oscar and Vargas was mostly geographical. In general the local community was ecstatic about the Golden Boy. But in the California prison system betting was on and a huge division existed about who was going to win the fight. Oscar was a local hero to most of us and we were all so proud. Oscar represented the milk-drinking Olympian. Even though Vargas was an Olympian too, Oscar called him a “thug.” We loved to hate Fernando Vargas—boy, did we hate him—and some of us still hold Mexican grudges.
Was the tension any different with two Americans than it was between Oscar and “true Mexican” César Chávez? In 1996 César Chávez was quoted as saying that Oscar wasn’t a “true Mexican.” Ouch, that stung for many of us. On top of that Oscar De La Hoya was on the verge of being 86’d from the country of Mexico. Oscar received a letter from President Ernesto Zedillo with a request to cease and desist from wearing the Mexican flag on his shorts without permission at his next fight. The Mexican Americans from East LA in particular have a love for Mexico that is not felt in return. Families may still have relatives living in Mexico that treat you as any other Mexican national. But hold on here’s an American star athlete claiming Mexico, you can hear the tires screeching with a slam of the brakes. Zedillo’s statement said you are an American, and don’t ever forget it. Yet to many Mexican Americans this was once all Mexico, and we are simply still here, or came here by a formality. We know this is not historical reality, especially if you speak to someone who is trying to get citizenship. But let’s face it, we are mostly ignorant to the struggles of immigrants. All this political correctness did not apply between De La Hoya and Vargas and we could all be divided in a comfortable way without any threats from Mexico. Now we only had the Mexican Mafia to consider.
Although gambling in prison involves mostly card and dice games, there is also “fight club” where inmates are forced to fight other inmates. Betting on Vargas and De La Hoya provided a nice break from that. Inmates would borrow money from other inmates to bet on Oscar De La Hoya’s fights. Oscar has told the story of when he was threatened by a cartel to lose a fight and I believe it. The Mexican Mafia run a lot of wagering in California and prison guards have a hand in this as well. Illegally stashed cash and canteen items are used as currency. Research has found that gambling is a normal part of prison life.
If you weren’t a boxing fan you could still see Oscar on late night TV talk shows or on the cover of a magazine. Boxing was reported on the local news and in the sports section of the newspaper. When a fight was happening everyone knew—even our moms knew, and wanted to see the fight. Everyone loved Oscar and we still do. Oscar may have moved out of his old neighborhood, but he built a high school where his old Resurrection Gym existed. For decades ODLH has provided a full Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds of locals in his hometown of East Los Angeles. Along with traditional sides of mashed potatoes and stuffing the dinners include a package of tortillas, keeping the Mexican American spirit alive.