Classy De La Hoya will be missed

4/16/2009 - Boxing
Oscar De La Hoya's future outside of the ring will be bright. Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The first time I met Oscar De La Hoya was a few days before his first fight with Shane Mosley, in June 2000. I was in the press room at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which was hosting its first fight card, when Top Rank promoter Bob Arum called me over and introduced me to the Golden Boy.

"This is Dan Rafael, the new boxing guy at USA Today," Arum said to De La Hoya.

De La Hoya shook my hand, flashed his million-dollar smile and said, "I guess that means we'll be talking a lot then, won't we?"

De La Hoya sure was right. Over the following nine years of covering De La Hoya for USA Today and now ESPN.com, I've interviewed him countless times. I've written tens of thousands of words about him and his fights. Not all of those words were necessarily to De La Hoya's liking, but one thing I can say is that rarely was he ever anything but a gentleman. That is how he's always been with the media, which dished out its fair share of criticism, some deserved -- but not nearly all of it. Through it all, De La Hoya almost always handled it like a pro.

A lot of other professional athletes could take a lesson from him. That's just one of the reasons I'm going to miss him as an active fighter.

On Tuesday, in his hometown of Los Angeles, in a nationally televised news conference, De La Hoya, 36, made the announcement most expected him to make. He retired from boxing, the unforgiving sport he took up at age 5 -- the sport that made him a wealthy international icon.

First came the moving ceremony a few hundred yards from where a statue of him sits outside the Staples Center. De La Hoya spoke about his decision and his love for boxing, his voice sometimes cracking.

Richard Schaefer, De La Hoya's business partner and, more important, his friend, also spoke, as did L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; AEG president Tim Leiweke, who runs Staples Center and is one of De La Hoya's business partners; HBO PPV chief Mark Taffet; De La Hoya's wife, Millie; and his father, Joel De La Hoya Sr., who said, "Thank God, the time finally came for my son to retire."

Each paid tribute to the kid from East L.A., who became a hero to millions, especially among Mexican-Americans. After the ceremony and dozens of interviews, De La Hoya spoke on a conference call with reporters unable to attend, many of whom he's known for years.

"It was a very emotional and difficult decision for me to make, but I have come to the conclusion that I am retiring from being a fighter," De La Hoya said. "It's not easy to even talk about because every time I think about it or mention it, it reminds me this was my life for the last 32 years, and to know that I will not be lacing up the gloves again, to know that I won't be feeling that same adrenaline or rush that one feels when they fight, it is difficult.

"I thought it was only fair to myself and my fans that I make this decision because it hurts me that I cannot compete at the highest level anymore. When I step in the ring now, it's not me, it's not the fighter people grew up watching. Therefore, that was one of the reasons I decided to retire, along with many more. I am firm on this decision. I am convinced I will never, ever come back. It's a bittersweet moment for me but I truly feel I have made the right decision."

Good for De La Hoya for going out on his own terms. I've always liked him personally and I'm happy for him. To go out on your own terms, be it as a fighter or in any walk of life, is uncommon.

And De La Hoya doesn't owe anything to anybody. He can walk away with his head held high after a memorable career in which he became the most popular fighter of his era.

Maybe he wasn't the absolute best, and maybe he lost some of his biggest fights, but so what? He dared to be great. He fought everybody, and he was awfully good. That left hook was a thing of beauty.

"I've accomplished a couple things in my career," he said. "I'm probably most proud of jumping up in different weight classes and fighting in six different weight classes. It's not every day you can see a fighter try to compete in those various weight classes."

There were the tough losses -- the December beatdown by Manny Pacquiao that convinced De La Hoya that he was done, along with defeats to Floyd Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins, Mosley (twice) and Felix Trinidad. (Even though we all know he beat Trinidad and was robbed.)

But there were also glorious victories against Fernando Vargas, Ike Quartey, Pernell Whitaker, Julio Cesar Chavez (twice) and others. Certainly, De La Hoya is a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer who will get my vote.

He did it all.

He won a 1992 Olympic gold medal, which was dedicated to his mother, Cecilia, who died from cancer not long before the Olympics.

As a pro, he won 10 world titles in six divisions. Even though we're in an era of watered-down titles, that's still impressive. Nobody else, after all, has done it. OK, De La Hoya wasn't considered the best at junior lightweight or middleweight, the lightest and heaviest weight classes in which he won belts, but he was certainly considered No. 1 for a time at lightweight, junior welterweight, welterweight and junior middleweight, the other divisions in which he won titles.

Along the way, De La Hoya made millions of fans and a ton of money, thanks to those fans. We're talking about a guy who is the biggest revenue generator in boxing history. By coming along at exactly the right time, just as pay-per-view was exploding and Hispanics were beginning to flex their economic muscle, his 19 HBO PPV events generated all-time records of 14.1 million buys and $696.4 million in gross revenue. That money doesn't include all of his other fights or all the other revenue the PPV fights generated from ticket sales, sponsorships, foreign television rights and other revenue streams.

The figures are staggering, even more impressive than all the titles he won. There are those who will belittle De La Hoya's considerable ring accomplishments by pejoratively saying he was only a great attraction, not a great fighter.

De La Hoya won't take that as an insult. When asked to react to that common assessment of his career, De La Hoya, a gentleman to the end, said, "Thank you for always watching me, thank you for making me an attraction, thank you for believing in me, thank you for being there. I've had the opportunity to face world champions. A lot of them I won. Some I lost. But my satisfaction is because at least I tried. I tried to accomplish the impossible, and not too many people do that. And so if people want to remember me as an attraction, I am glad I gave a lot of people a lot of entertainment."

De La Hoya's retirement is bittersweet nonetheless because he was good for boxing and good for business. He carried the sport on his back for years, for which he should be thanked. How many other fighter retirements would rate live television coverage on ESPNEWS these days? None.

I'll certainly miss covering his fights because they were larger-than-life events. At the weigh-in for his fight with Vargas at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, I remember several pretty young women tossing bras and underwear from the stands in an interesting show of their devotion to him. You don't see that at your standard weigh-in.

If you were a boxing writer, you knew at least a couple of times a year there would be an event that would be as big as anything in the sports world, something everyone would be talking about, and it was a joy to have a front-row seat to it all. It was exciting to be part of it.

Someday, somebody will fill De La Hoya's shoes just like Sugar Ray Leonard came along after Muhammad Ali retired and Mike Tyson came along after Leonard was gone. When, I can't say, but it can't come soon enough.

Still, De La Hoya (39-6, 30 KOs) picked the right time to call it a day. After the frightful beating he took from Pacquiao, a much smaller man, in an eighth-round TKO loss in December, De La Hoya told Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach -- one of De La Hoya's many former trainers -- that he just didn't have it anymore. But instead of an emotional announcement he might live to regret, De La Hoya took his time. Only when he was good and ready, four months later, did he retire.

I know De La Hoya struggled with the decision. I could sense it in his voice during an interview with him in mid-February, his first since leaving the ring against Pacquiao. I could sense he was still struggling with the decision when I had dinner with him in Houston in late February.

De La Hoya I am firm on this decision. I am convinced I will never, ever come back.

-- Oscar De La Hoya

But when I spent time with him last week in Las Vegas, where he was promoting the Paul Williams-Winky Wright fight, he seemed more at ease. He said he had made his decision and felt comfortable with it, even though he wouldn't come out and say what it was.

He saved that for Tuesday's heartfelt announcement. I have to admit that, watching it on ESPNEWS, I choked up for a minute listening to him say goodbye.

He said although he took his time making a decision, the brutal loss to Pacquiao made it easier for him to retire.

"I was searching for that perfect exit strategy," he said. "How do I retire? How does it happen? What is it going to take? Because us athletes are very stubborn. We never know when enough is enough. When I got beat by Pacquiao, it made it easier for me to say, 'That's it, you don't have it anymore.' I can make any excuse that I want, but the time is now. It's over."

Maybe, like so many fighters before him, De La Hoya will make a comeback, although he sure sounded convinced that he wouldn't.

"The temptation is there. I don't know what I will feel in a week from now, a month from now. But I've always had a plan, not only in boxing but in life," he said. "I am 100 percent convinced I won't come back. I've made some good money and saved my money. That's the reason I know I will not come back to boxing. I'm sure I'm making the right decision for my health and I understand I am not competing at a high level anymore. It really hurts. It's eating away at me, but the decision was made by myself on my own, not because of my friends, my father or my wife.

"I feel I have all my marbles. I still physically work. I feel I am still intact. I think I have come out OK from a difficult sport and a sport I have been competing in at the highest level for such a long time."

Now that De La Hoya is done, and not a physically damaged shell like he would have become had he stayed too long, we'll be able to talk about all those great memories for years to come.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.