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Oscar has skills to match the looks

9/14/2004

In the gang-ridden streets of East Los Angeles, a bustling city with no
mayor and no city hall, speaking the name Oscar De La Hoya brings instant
reaction.

It's a crime-ridden world where De La Hoya learned to survive and it's given
him more experience than any amount of boxing rounds could bestow upon him
and has probably helped in his winning six world titles in six weight
classes.

"That's where I'm from. I love East L.A.," says De La Hoya.

When De La Hoya steps in the ring against Bernard Hopkins (44-2-1, 31 KOs)
for the undisputed middleweight championship at the MGM Grand on Saturday,
the East L.A. baby face has the gall to challenge the tough-looking
Philadelphia fighter recognized as boxing's best fighter.

It's all about face.

"I'm not afraid because Hopkins spent time in jail," said De La Hoya (37-3,
29 KOs). "When we get in that ring it will be just me and him."

Other fighters in history with the look of angels have stepped into the ring
like Max Baer, Jimmy McLarnin and Sugar Ray Robinson. Once there was another
fighter from East Los Angeles named Keeny Teran who was touted to be the
next great thing. But the lure of the streets proved too enticing for the
talented fighter.

"Keeny Teran was a fabulous boxer," said Leonard Castillon, 89, who recalled
seeing the baby-faced ring assassin who fought during the 1950s and died in
1995. "All the women really loved him."

Teran had the speed and the looks, and was raised on the zoot suit streets
of East Los Angeles. His first prizefight took place at the Olympic
Auditorium, and he blitzed through 30 opponents with speed and power and
looks that could kill.

Rapidly, Teran rose through the ranks with the help of Hollywood movie stars
and like De La Hoya, his looks played a big part in it. But the sudden fame,
money and notoriety as a favorite son proved too much pressure for the
talented East L.A. fighter. By his 19th birthday, his career in the ring was
over. Heroin beat him convincingly.

When De La Hoya emerged from the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona, many of
the old boxing experts quickly recalled Keeny Teran. Like his 1950s
predecessor De La Hoya has the speed, the power and the looks that seldom
mix with the sport of boxing. But unlike the '50s prizefighter, De La Hoya
avoided the traps of East L.A.'s unforgiving streets.

"Oscar always tries to do the right thing," said Joel De La Hoya Jr., the
elder brother who works in Oscar's corner during fights.

Tough-looking guy
Now De La Hoya faces Hopkins, whose rugged complexion looks like a prototype
boxer's face.

But a tough-looking guy is often given too much credit for being more than
what is perceived. Street toughness can't be seen on the surface. The real
street guys know about it.

"You always have to watch out for the baby-faced guys," said Castillon, an
East Los Angeles street veteran who has lived in the area since the 1920s.
"Those are the worst ones. I never worried about the mean looking guys, it
was those baby-faced guys that were the dangerous ones, guy."

Growing up near Whittier Boulevard, De La Hoya experienced the dangers every
day simply walking to school. From where he lived on McBride Street, you pass
through four separate gang turfs before you get to either Griffith Junior
High or Garfield High where he attended. You don't survive East L.A. unless
you can spot the dangers.

Of course not everyone in East L.A. joins a gang, nor spends time in jail,
but everyone in that town has someone like that in their family. Everyone.
And everyone has a family member into boxing. That's East L.A.

"I remember seeing Oscar in the Resurrection Gym when he was just a little
guy," said Joe Chavez, who is now his cut man and saw De La Hoya when he was
seven years old in the local East L.A. gym that is now called Golden Boy
Gym. "You could tell he was special. He had that eye of the tiger."

As a youngster De La Hoya would go to the baseball fields with his father to
watch the local semi-pro baseball teams from his dad's hometown in Mexico.
From the sidelines he would watch the game.

"I remember watching him come to the games with his father," said Al
Applerose, now a photographer and accountant who played on that team. "He
was a good kid."

High school gym teachers recall his athleticism and willingness to run
endless laps around the track while others tried avoiding workouts.

"Oscar was always running or preparing for some big fight even when he was
young," said Stephen Wright, a physical education teacher at Garfield who
remembers De La Hoya. "Lot of people don't know that he even tried fencing.
And he was very good at it."

Others like close and personal friend Raul Jaimes, know about De La Hoya's
pit-bull competitiveness.

"Nobody knows that I was the guy that introduced him to golf," said Jaimes,
who supervises Golden Boy Promotions. "Right away he was already beating me
at golf. I quit playing because of him. He likes to win at everything."

Turning point
Hopkins won't be the first opponent favored against De La Hoya. Early on
many felt that he was simply a pretty boy.

"People forget that he was an underdog against Rafael Ruelas," said Jaimes,
a long-time friend of De La Hoya who recalls stepping into the arena at
Caesars Palace as thousands booed the Golden Boy's entrance in 1995. "When
he knocked out Ruelas so easy the people didn't know what to do. Those same
people that booed him suddenly realized he could really fight. That was the
big turning point."

From 130-pound junior lightweight to 160-pound middleweight, the richest
non-heavyweight boxer in the history of the sport will be looking to add on
to his legacy with a match against an opponent that almost all experts say
he can't win.

"Oscar is no chump; he will fight to the end. He will not quit," said
Hopkins, 39, on a press conference call. "He's a champion."

De La Hoya, stern and perturbed by people's lack of confidence in his
ability, sat on a chair outside of his Big Bear cabin with that same look he
showed before he fought Ruelas nine years ago.

"I'm going to win," said De La Hoya, 31. "You'll be surprised, but I won't
be."