Trainers think Oscar has a shot

Updated: September 14, 2004, 12:14 PM ET
By Steve Kim |

When Oscar De La Hoya steps into the ring at the MGM Grand on Saturday night against the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, Bernard Hopkins, it will mark the first time in his illustrious career that "The Golden Boy" will go into a fight as an underdog.

Most pundits believe that De La Hoya, who has won world titles in multiple weight classes (starting from junior lightweight -- if you count his WBO title that he won against Jimmy Bredahl) has simply bitten off more than he can chew by facing a fighter many consider one of the all-time great middleweights.

But three world-class trainers -- Teddy Atlas, Joe Goossen and Tommy Brooks -- give De La Hoya more than just a sliver of hope of upsetting "The Executioner."

Many had written off De La Hoya's chances after he struggled to beat the relatively unknown Felix Sturm in June, but Atlas, who believes that the psychological makeup of a fighter is just as important as their physical conditioning, thinks that the scare against the German could actually benefit him.

"I think he gets a benefit in two ways," Atlas explains. "One, it's a wake-up for him. I don't think he was ready for that fight; a lot of people are going to say, 'Well, he should've been.' Well, he should've been, could've been, would've been -- it don't matter. He wasn't and he will be this fight. He wasn't mentally up for that fight; physically, he didn't look to be ready for that fight, completely."

Which was bore out by the fact that De La Hoya, as is customary with most fighters, refused to take off his shirt at the weigh-in, which hid a soft, flabby body.

"He understands that there's no room for that now," says Atlas. "He has to be ready for this fight. And the other thing is that it helps him on the other side of the coin too because people are human."

Atlas thinks that based on how De La Hoya performed in his last bout, that perhaps Hopkins could suffer a letdown of his own.

"Hopkins and the people around him, even as slight as it is, might start to assume that they have a lesser mission in front of them because of that performance against Sturm then they might have been if he had a good performance against Sturm in that fight."

But that doesn't seem likely with the paranoid Hopkins. Mental letdowns don't seem to be in his vocabulary. But what De La Hoya can control is his own preparation. Going as far back as the opening days of this promotion, De La Hoya seemed to be in better shape for the photo shoots for the fight poster than he was for the Sturm fight a week or two before.

Human nature seemed to have gotten the better of De La Hoya for his previous fight. Hey, it happens in all sports. In football, coaches always warn of looking ahead to rivalry games when there is a lesser-known opponent to play that week. De La Hoya was clearly in that position, and he nearly got upended by a two-touchdown underdog.

But regardless, there's no way Oscar trains for Hopkins the way he did Sturm.

"No way," states Goossen. "Obviously, if he didn't look the way he did and he's the first one to admit he didn't do it correctly and he cut himself short and just by him saying, 'I promise I won't come in looking like that,' meant that he came in looking like 'that' because he's promising to train this time."

Brooks agrees with Goossen.

"He knows all the marbles are at stake now. Not only all the marbles, but everything that he has is based upon his boxing career."

In other words, never underestimate the pride of a fighter who is fighting for his legacy. But no matter how much passion and hunger De La Hoya says he has (and we've all heard that song before, haven't we?) it may not matter since it could be that maybe he just isn't a real, legitimate middleweight. But for this fight, the catch-weight is 157 pounds and Oscar has stated he will weigh-in lighter than that. So how much of a factor is that?

"It's going to make him come down three pounds; did it look like he needed to get rid of more than three pounds when he was at 160?" asked Goossen rhetorically. "Yeah, it looked like he needed to get rid of 33 pounds. But again, it has nothing to do with weight, it has to do with what you put into it to get your body at 157 or what you did to get your body to look either good or bad at 160.

"That looked to me like he just starved himself down to 160 and made the weight. He can make 160 for this fight and look tremendous."

Again, this goes back to the mental psyche of De La Hoya, but being in better condition does accentuate the one clear advantage he has -- speed and quickness.

All three trainers agree that the best chance he has to upset Hopkins is to box smartly and employ lateral movement.

"I need to see the old De La Hoya," says Brooks, "the De La Hoya right after the Olympics, the guy that's up on his toes, sticking and moving, not standing still. He stands still, he's going to get knocked the hell out. He fights any kind of way like he fought Felix Sturm, it doesn't go four rounds."

Atlas, like Brooks, believes that Oscar's best chance of winning comes from, "Being left on the outside, boxing. And he's got a good chance to do that. I think people forget two things: one, that Bernard Hopkins' greatest assets are that he's a versatile fighter and he's a slickster. He's a counterpuncher, a good boxer, he's a smart fighter. And that bodes well for De La Hoya, because Hopkins is not a seek-and-destroy guy.

"He stays on the outside, looks to box, looks to counter and that's good for De La Hoya," adds Atlas. "De La Hoya's a guy who used to be a junior lightweight, lightweight; that fits into him. He can use his speed, he can box with anybody. If he's allowed that kind of landscape on the outside, I think he's got a very good chance to win this fight."

Hopkins is as sound and as complete a prizefighter as you'll see, but if he does have one discernible weakness, it's that he does seem to have slow feet, and at 39, he's not moving quite as well as he used to.

"I think that's the obvious thing," agreed Goossen."Hopkins is a real methodical, pressure fighter; he's not a hustling pressure fighter unless he's just got you dead to rights and he's jumping all over you. But he's a very systematic fighter and he's not a rushing pressure fighter. He waits for you to make mistakes so he can come out of a dip, slip and crack you good or counter you.

"Hopkins is not fleet of foot; De La Hoya used to be. Now is he anymore?" asked Goossen. "And if he is, that's pretty much what he better get going first -- the legs. Because the minute you get pinned on the ropes or cornered or step and sit in the middle, that would obviously go to Hopkins' favor."

But Brooks, who trained Carl Daniels against Hopkins a few years back, doesn't see a lot of chinks in his armor.

"Not a whole lot," said Brooks, whose fighter got stopped by Hopkins in ten rounds back in February of 2002. "Bernard's a phenomenal athlete. He's strong-minded, strong-willed and as anyone can tell you, if you've got a strong mind, strong will and you're in condition, you can do anything you want to in the fight game."

So can De La Hoya do it? Goossen thinks that he'll have to turn back the clock.

"His best chances are to do what he's done when he's won his biggest and best fights," he says. "And that wouldn't be what he did in his last fight.

"Aside from the physical issues, if you're talking about styles, the style would be the one he's been most successful with and that would be obviously to box," said Goossen, who points to his past fights against Ike Quartey and Felix Trinidad. "I can't see any other style that will work; he certainly couldn't use a pressure style. He can't use a pressure tactic like Hopkins is going to use.

"De La Hoya's going to have to get into the shape where they used to say about Ali, 'How can he dance for 12 rounds?' Well, he's going to have to be able to dance for 12 rounds."

Atlas agrees with much of this and adds that the size differential between Hopkins and De La Hoya is a bit overstated.

"Another thing people are forgetting is that while people say, 'Well, now De La Hoya's moved up too much,' hey, this guy's a small middleweight," he points out. "This guy isn't the size of a Hagler or one of those kinds of middleweights. With all those things, I give De La Hoya a real shot."