Welter-to-middle success not uncommon

Updated: September 14, 2004, 12:08 PM ET
By David A. Avila | MaxBoxing.com

When Oscar De La Hoya signed the contract to fight middleweight world champion Bernard Hopkins, fans everywhere acted like it was an outrageous mismatch.

History shows different.

Natural welterweights have always moved up to the middleweight ranks to test their mettle, and in this case De La Hoya is not attempting an impossible task when he faces the decade-long 160-pound champion Hopkins at the MGM Grand on Saturday.

"It's a challenge no doubt, but I am going to win this fight," said De La Hoya.

Hopkins, who has erased every opponent he's faced since losing to Roy Jones Jr. in 1993, is anxious to destroy any semblance of the De La Hoya legend.

"Oscar De La Hoya has never ducked anybody," said Hopkins. "But this time he made a mistake. He's going to be punished."

In 1940, former featherweight world champion Henry Armstrong had already captured the lightweight and welterweight world championships and came within an eyelash of the middleweight belt against Ceferino Garcia. It ended in a draw.

Sugar Ray Robinson, who ruled the welterweight championship from 1946 to 1951, moved up to middleweight and challenged champion Jake LaMotta in a clash that became known as the Valentine's Day massacre and ended in the welterweight's favor.

Carmen Basilio became welterweight champion and he moved up to middleweight to challenge for the title and beat Robinson in 1957. Robinson is considered the greatest fighter of all time at any weight.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Emile Griffith beat Benny Paret for the welterweight crown in 1961. He later challenged the great Dick Tiger for the middleweight championship and captured that too.

It goes on and on.

Of course there have been ill-fated attempts too.

Jose "Mantequilla" Napoles, a great welterweight, never could beat middleweight champion Carlos Monzon despite two attempts.

"Carlos Monzon was too strong, too clever for Napoles," said Amilcar Brusa, who trained the late great Argentine middleweight Monzon in the 1960s and 1970s. "He was like a machine."

Size is often not a big factor when it comes to a showdown between a welterweight and a middleweight.

"Oscar De La Hoya has speed, and that's a big factor," said Emanuel Steward, who trained Tommy Hearns, another welterweight who moved up to middleweight successfully. "Speed will play an important factor in Oscar's fight with Bernard Hopkins."

Even in the world of martial arts, bigger is not always better.

"Bruce Lee used to say when you have two great fighters facing each other it comes down to three things: speed, power and technique," said Derek Smith, a former boxing writer for Uppercut Magazine and former martial artist. "Lee said you need at least two of them to be the winner."

At 6-foot-2, Hopkins definitely has the size advantage and some say a power advantage. But until you step in the ring one never knows.

Against Jones, Hopkins fought valiantly in losing against the speedy fighter from Pensacola, Fla. It was his last loss, but it also marks the last time he fought someone with faster hand speed.

"I think Bernard Hopkins will be surprised by Oscar De La Hoya's speed," said Shane Mosley, who defeated De La Hoya twice.

De La Hoya's last fight against Felix Sturm was a poor example of his speed, timing and preparation. Basically, he was out of shape.

"I was embarrassed," said De La Hoya bluntly. "That's not going to happen this time."

Close friends who have known the East Los Angeles fighter since childhood see the difference.

"I haven't seen him this focused since he fought Rafael Ruelas," said Raul Jaimes, a childhood friend who now supervises Golden Boy Promotions for De La Hoya. "He told me 'I'm going to win' and I know when he says that, he will."

Floyd Mayweather Sr., who took over as trainer for De La Hoya beginning in 2000, knows all about beating someone like Hopkins and sees an opening for his pupil.

"Oscar has speed and speed kills," said Mayweather. "He's a better all-around fighter and he'll show it against Bernard."

Of course promoter Bob Arum, Top Rank's president, said he sees similarities between this fight and one that took place in 1987 between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler. In that fight, which he promoted, the former welterweight champion defeated the middleweight champion too. But this fight is different.

"I remember seeing a diminutive Roberto Duran go up against a monstrous Iran Barkley," said Smith, recalling a fight that took place in 1989 in Atlantic City. "Boy, Roberto put some stuff on him. It was pretty."

Duran at 5-7 seemed like David against Goliath when he faced the 6-2 Barkley, who had just demolished "Hit Man" Hearns for the middleweight title. The Panamanian great was a big underdog, but he pulled off an amazing upset.

"It was a classic case of styles," Smith recalled. "Duran made Barkley respect him and from there was able to put some stuff on him."

Once again we have a similar moment.

"I know what I can do. He's a great fighter, but he's not unbeatable," said De La Hoya, who's faced and beaten numerous world champions at different weight levels in his march to the middleweight crown.

"I have to make him respect me," said De La Hoya.

That's the key.