Oscar has skills to match the looks

Updated: September 14, 2004, 12:13 PM ET
By David A. Avila | MaxBoxing.com

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."