BEVERLY HILLS -- Despite brisk ticket sales and an elaborate stage production that kicked off the initial press conference for the Sept. 18 showdown between Bernard Hopkins and Oscar De La Hoya, most of the media in attendance at Tuesday's event failed to take the fight seriously.
But the press conference, which took place at the plush Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel, took on a serious tone once De La Hoya, the challenger to the undisputed middleweight title that Hopkins holds, had his say at the podium.
The early afternoon press luncheon began with a stage production set up by a local Hollywood set producer. Thick velvet curtains opened to the thunderous strains of the theme song from the film "2001: A Space Odyssey." As the trumpets and drums blared, two standing silhouettes appeared, facing the media audience.
Suddenly, spotlights revealed Hopkins and De La Hoya, hands on their hips, in front of a Roman Empire backdrop.
The staged introduction was supposed to add drama and perhaps a sense of history to what is being called the biggest fight of 2004, but it was all very cliché; in fact, it was downright corny.
"Look at them, they're posing like super heroes," said Carlos Arias, longtime boxing writer for the Orange County Register. "Anyone else feel like they're watching the beginning to the Justice League cartoon?"
This writer did.
This writer also wondered why promoters always fall back on the old gladiator motif for big fights? Hasn't that been done a thousand times before? Does it actually help to sell a fight?
A giant poster of the fight that covered the wall adjacent to the stage had glossy mug shots of Hopkins and De La Hoya floating over what looked like the ruins of ancient Rome's coliseum. The poster read: "For these two champions, it's more than a fight -- it's history." The official title for Hopkins-De La Hoya is "Quest for History."
But after De La Hoya's performance against Felix Sturm earlier this month, most fight fans and the majority of the sports media would call the September fight "Execution Time for the Golden Boy." That's how one-sided most observers see this fight.
A few minutes after Hopkins and De La Hoya appeared on stage, the music abruptly stopped, leaving the fighters awkwardly standing there. Eventually, as scurrying staff put together the tables and podium for the press conference, both fighters dropped their Superman poses.
"Who dropped their pose first?" Arias asked.
"Oscar," a few writers replied. Everyone at the table started laughing.
But the snickering would stop once a stern-faced De La Hoya took the podium. He made it clear that this fight is not a laughing matter. With his voice trembling with emotion, De La Hoya tried to address the many people who have criticized him for taking such a risky fight.
"Let me tell you why I took this fight," he said without his usual smile. "Until now, every fight out there is the same story. Whether the odds are 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 or 20-to-1, I am always the favored fighter to win. The pressure, the expectations (are always on me). For the very first time in my life, there's no pressure at all. Zero."
No pressure to win the fight, that is. But there is plenty of stress with regard to what Hopkins might do to him over 12 rounds. De La Hoya let the media know that he is aware of the physical danger that Hopkins presents. It is the reason, he said, that he will be at his best for this fight.
"I took this fight because I know I have to work hard," De La Hoya said. "Because if I don't, he knocks me out. It's as easy as that.
"I don't want to get knocked out. I don't want to be the laughing stock of the world.
"I'm glad I had my last fight. I'm glad I wasn't in shape. I'm glad I left Big Bear to train in Florida. Everything happens for reasons in life. Even though I've had all these fights, I'm still learning. I've learned that having this man in front of me, Bernard Hopkins, is not a joke.
"This is the fight of my life. This is the fight of my life because he can end my life. And I know that. All it takes is 10 seconds. I get tired for 10 seconds, it's over."
Serious words from a guy who usually just grins for the cameras and says a bunch of clichéd stuff at press events like this one. On this day, De La Hoya had an intensity that many had never seen from him before.
Maybe De La Hoya does need to be the underdog to recapture the hunger he once had. Maybe he needs to have a healthy dose of fear in him to be at the top of his game.
It has to be difficult to be afraid of your opponent when you're a 10-1 favorite and 95 percent of the media picks you to win easily. It has to be difficult to take your opponent seriously when your father and cornermen are betting on the round you'll stop the guy in. It's probably difficult to respect your opponent when your trainer -- whose ego has surpassed your own -- spends as much time making up tasteless put-down poems as he does on fight plans. It must be hard to worry about your physical well-being when everyone around you is partying the night before your fight takes place.
And it has to be difficult to train 100 percent when you've won so many times at only 75 percent.
"Why am I going to train hard for a Felix Sturm?" De La Hoya said. "Why am I going to train hard for a [Yory Boy] Campas?"
He's going to train hard for Hopkins. If he doesn't, even the people around him understand that it will be 'execution time' for the Golden Boy.
"Nobody wants me to take this fight, not even my own people," De La Hoya said. "Everyone thinks I'm crazy. You know what? I love what I do. I love to fight. I love to raise to the occasion and prove to everyone, including myself -- especially myself -- that I can do this."
Same old Hopkins ... sort of
Hopkins was civil and respectful to De La Hoya, but he was far from nice.
"Take a picture of Oscar's face right now," he told the throng of photographers, "it might be your last chance. You see, you got the 'before' picture right now. After Sept. 18, you're gonna have the 'after.' "
The 'after' Hopkins has in mind won't be pretty, but that remark is about as ugly as fans will see the middleweight champ get.
Make no mistake, he's still boxing's angry maverick, but he's obviously grateful for the opportunity to make as much as $15 million with this fight.
Before Hopkins spoke of making history or De La Hoya, he was sure to thank Top Rank (including Bob Arum and even Todd duBoef), HBO PPV, Golden Boy Promotions (including Oscar himself, of course), and the MGM Grand (which will host the fight). With all this gratitude, it's hard for him to be at odds with industry that had always tried to keep him out of the big picture. But there's always the media.
Hopkins said that many among the press have tried to "downplay" his 11-year unbeaten streak and the fact that he has made a division record 18 title defenses since winning his first belt in '95.
Come on, Nard. Just about everyone in the media agrees that you are the best fighter in the world, pound for pound.
It's part of his psychological makeup. Hopkins' 'me-versus-the-world' mentality has allowed him to keep his edge into his late 30s and it's
working well for him as he is currently the longest reigning champion in boxing. The more enemies he believes he has, the harder he works in camp. And the Philadelphia native vows not to slack off just because most observers view his 19th title defense as a mere formality.
"I'm looking for a fight that's tougher than the one I had with (Felix) Trinidad," Hopkins said. "Trinidad was -- well I don't want to say it, but I will say it -- Trinidad was a dumb fighter, one dimensional. That's not Oscar. Forget the Strum fight. That was Oscar's twin. I'm looking for an Oscar that's fighting for history. He damn sure doesn't need the money.
"Everything I do from now on is for history. I'm not going to make history like Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas. I don't underestimate this man. I will not fall into that trap where people tell me 'Bernard, you're gonna kill this guy.' I'm going to train as hard as I have for any fight."