The Hotstepper: Oscar De La Hoya, Nearing Stardom

6 May 1996: Oscar De La Hoya celebrates after a fight against Rafael Ruelas. De La Hoya won the fight with a second round technical knockout.
May 6, 1995: Oscar De La Hoya celebrates after his second-round TKO victory versus Rafael Ruelas. Image Credit: Holly Stein /Allsport

This is the third piece in a ten-part series looking at the fighters whose stories make Donald McRae’s Dark Trade the enduring classic that it is. New U.S. edition coming from Hamilcar Publications November 2018.

Before Oscar De La Hoya had thrown a single right cross in a professional prizefight, he had already been featured in a Sports Illustrated layout; he had already met the President of the United States at the White House; he had already cruised the late-night TV roundabout (in the early nineties that meant Arsenio Hall and “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno); he had already been a headline windfall for the Los Angeles Times, and… he was already a millionaire. Or close to it. As one of the last of a dying breed—an American gold medalist—De La Hoya parlayed a paralyzing left hook, Hollywood-hunk good looks, and a storybook background into the biggest signing bonus ever given to an amateur pug. Not bad for a nineteen-year-old who had failed to graduate from Garfield High in East L.A., the setting for the slick Tinseltown feel-good flick Stand and Deliver (”Go to woodshop, make yourself a shoeshine box, you’re gonna need it.”). No, De La Hoya had to settle for a GED, but settling would never become a habit for “The Golden Boy.”

In the summer of 1992, De La Hoya returned from Barcelona with more than just Olympic glory surrounding him like smog above the South Coast Air Basin. He had a magnetic aura that seemed to pulse “Win, win, win,” like something out of the Museum of Neon Art. It was something De La Hoya realized when he was mobbed at the airport after arriving from Spain. “When I came back with the gold, gosh, I couldn’t believe it,” he told Boxing 93. “I could do anything I wanted to do, I could have anything I wanted to have. The world was in my hands. And, believe me, that’s a great feeling.”

In a little over two years, De La Hoya had won titles in two divisions and had hit jackpot ratings on HBO. In February 1995, his twelve-round struggle with veteran John John Molina thumped both Riddick Bowe-Herbie Hide and Pernell Whitaker-Julio Cesar Vazquez in the Nielsen sweepstakes. De La Hoya also found himself in the louche, the posh, the lush, the luxe: photoshoots for Richard Avedon, high-rolling in Vegas casinos, leggy models with starry eyes, the beguiling L.A. nightscape. De La Hoya was not just racing down the fast lane; he was burning rubber on the La La Land equivalent of the autobahn. While a 1999 biography of De La Hoya by Tim Kawakami made no mention of booze or drugs and De La Hoya himself published a memoir that was short on his extracurricular activities, the facts of his skyrocketing success were at dark odds with his gee-whiz public facade. Years later, after he had been hospitalized for an overdose, De La Hoya told Univision: “I haven’t been truly sober since I was eight years old.” Still, De La Hoya maintained a wholesome air when the microphones and cameras were in his vicinity.

Behind his cardboard veneer—the corporate-friendly persona calibrated neatly for the superhighway nineties and perfected by Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter—were mournful undercurrents. Later, of course, would come the DWIs, the extortion plots, the cocaine binges with Backpage escorts, the detox centers, the lawsuits, the notorious cross-dressing sting—all the hard knocks of life harder than the blows in the ring. In 1995, however, De La Hoya was a walking photo op on the verge of mainstream stardom. To flyover country (and more important, perhaps, Madison Avenue and Wall Street), De La Hoya promised thrill after thrill—but only when the bell rang. There was no air of danger, not Cypress Hill or American Me, not la vida loca or MMV, but, for the heartland, a sort of post-ethnic Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver; and for the Teen Beat crowd, a rare demographic for boxing, Scott Baio or David Cassidy. Except that De La Hoya had TNT in his fists.

But among the hardcore afición, De La Hoya had a perplexing image problem. His pro debut at the Forum sold only 3,200 tickets. And his first title fight—against the harmless and virtually anonymous Dane Jimmy Bredhal—opened the refurbished Olympic Auditorium and drew less than half-capacity. One night, when De La Hoya arrived at The Forum to watch Jorge Paez in a tune-up bout, the crowd booed and hooted with gusto. “Many Mexican fans saw me as the enemy,” De La Hoya would later understate in his memoir, American Son, vis-à-vis Paez, but he could have been referring to his early career as a whole. Authenticity, a stalwart topic for Sartre and Camus, was also, apparently, a pressing issue from barrio to barrio in Southern California. To many Mexican-Americans, De La Hoya, with his one-two combo of glitz and glee, was too smooth to be a true representative of Mexican heritage. Wearing a sombrero, as De La Hoya sometimes did, was simply not enough to earn their respect.

This internecine fracture was not unusual for the Los Angeles boxing scene. Indeed, the rivalry between Chicanos and Mexican nationals had long filled the till at the Olympic, the Sports Arena, and The Forum in the 1960s and 1970s. Who could forget the free-for-alls among Ruben Olivares, Bobby Chacon, Danny Lopez (actually part Ute Indian), Mando Ramos, Chango Carmona, and Chucho Castillo? Bob Arum, who had taken charge of “The Golden Boy” after De La Hoya fired his management team and became a free agent, shrewdly exploited the cultural divide. Over the first four years of his career, De La Hoya scored his biggest wins against Mexican favorites (Jorge Paez), Mexican idols (Julio Cesar Chavez), and Mexican hopes (Miguel Angel Gonzalez). Even Genaro Hernandez, born in Los Angeles, played the part of the authentic Mexican against De La Hoya.

If De La Hoya could not join the ranks of Mexican favorites, he would define himself in opposition to them. Enter Rafael Ruelas, the soft-spoken but hard-charging IBF lightweight champion with a rabid following among the afición. Originally from Yerbabuena, Jalisco, Mexico, Ruelas was shipped to Sun Valley, California, to live with a relative when he was eight years old. For Ruelas, the U.S. might have been another world. “The little place we come from… the streets were dirty. There were no cars, no restaurants, and just barely electricity. A few TVs. No phones. It was like the Old West. You know, horses, donkeys, cows, bulls, and you live off what you grow. In Sun Valley, there so many cars. There, restaurants were open all day. There were stores all over.”

When the fight was announced, Ruelas was the clear favorite at the grassroots level. And although Ruelas settled as a 2-1 underdog against De La Hoya, he was the first asterisk-free opponent to glove up against “The Golden Boy.” Ruelas was a defending titleholder at twenty-four, he was in his prime, and he was a natural lightweight. His string-bean build belied his punching power and his record, 43-1, included wins over Jorge Paez, Daryl Tyson, Freddie Pendleton, and Billy Schwer. But Ruelas had flaws that all but guaranteed hurt against a quick-fisted natural athlete with range. Even worse, some of these flaws compounded themselves. Not only was Ruelas a slow starter, for example, but he also had a cold chin and a shoddy defense. His biggest drawback, however, was his feeble balance. Rarely does a fighter who moves like a knock-kneed wino reach elite status and Ruelas would be no exception. He may have been the IBF lightweight champion, but his footwork was strictly backyard brawler. His aggression and power could only offset his clumsiness so much. This is how Robert Alcazar, the sometimes fumbling, bumbling trainer of De La Hoya, described Ruelas at the time: “Ruelas, he has a big heart. And, of course, he has a big punch. But basically, he’s got no talent in this sport. He doesn’t even know how to walk into the ring. What, is he going to dance like Muhammad Ali? No way.” (To prepare for this “no-talent,” De La Hoya hired Jesus Rivero, the defensive wizard behind the career of Miguel Canto, for some fine-tuning. Alcazar seethed throughout training camp.)

Their partial unification bout (De La Hoya was the WBO champion, in those days almost an unflattering distinction) took place on May 6, 1995, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, before a rollicking crowd of 10,118. After winning a coin toss, Ruelas was entitled to enter the ring last, and he used this opportunity to play the waiting game with De La Hoya, forcing the young challenger to ponder the magnitude of the event. Despite having to cool his heels in the ring for a few minutes, De La Hoya was focused at the sound of the opening bell. He had to be, because Ruelas, true to his nature, steamed out of his corner to initiate contact, his five-feet-eleven-inch frame going forward, forward, forward, like an ornament on a car bonnet, but this was a new-look De La Hoya he was facing. It was clear that Rivero had added a few tricks to De La Hoya 2.0.

A much looser De La Hoya, calm and calculating, circled to his left, away from the Ruelas hook. On the outside De La Hoya alternated between jabbing and sharpshooting. While Ruelas pressed, often crudely, and cranked up haymakers from every angle, De La Hoya picked his shots with care. Within a minute, De La Hoya rocked Ruelas with a left hook and drove him back into a corner with a series of lashing punches. Ruelas survived the onslaught and resumed his stalking until the bell rang, when the crosstown rivals glared at each other before heading to their respective corners.

Ruelas opened the second with redoubled energy, lunging after De La Hoya with both hands churning. Although De La Hoya was on the retreat, he was also looking for an opening. He created it less than a minute into the round. A quick shoulder nudge in close forced a crowding Ruelas back a step, where he remained, for a split-second, within firing range, an open target. In that instant, De La Hoya unleashed a right that missed and a follow-up left hook that did not. It landed with a sickening thud that suggested the sound-effects method used for some of the fight scenes in Raging Bull: a man smashing a watermelon with a Louisville Slugger. Ruelas hit the mat in a deadfall, struggled to rise, took the eight-count on one knee, and beat “ten” with a foggy look in his eyes. Almost instantly, De La Hoya sent Ruelas skidding again with an overhand right. This time, a gallant Ruelas needed the ropes to regain his feet. When Referee Richard Steele signaled for the fight to continue, De La Hoya used the opportunity to showcase his killer instinct. With Ruelas pinned against the ropes, like a calf ensnared in barbed wire, De La Hoya opened up with a blur of punches. Ruelas teetered, tottered, and threatened to topple once more before Steele stepped in to halt the slaughter.

A jubilant De La Hoya climbed the turnbuckle and basked in the roar of Caesars Palace. There was far less booing than had greeted De La Hoya before the fight… it was a sign of things to come. So, too, were the pay-per-view numbers: 330,000 sales for a non-heavyweight in an era with only a fraction of the cable access that exists today was astonishing. Oscar De La Hoya, who kept a food stamp in his wallet as a reminder of his roots, was on his way to where he had always felt himself destined: the stratosphere. “For me, it was almost an out-of-body experience. I was in such great shape and the strategy had worked so perfectly that I felt as if I was just floating around the ring, my feet not even touching the canvas. And the next thing I knew, Ruelas was lying on that canvas and that huge crowd was lifting me to the heavens.”

In those days, flying into LAX meant descending through a smog squall thicker than the smoke clouds of a Shasta wildfire. This is the murk that greeted a De La Hoya at his apex, already cashing in on sponsorships from Mennen, B.U.M., Nynex, on a flight back from the quickly receding past of Las Vegas. But what awaited him below, in the City of Angels, would almost certainly glitter: a limitless future, yes, for sure, of course.