- Robert Morales
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If insults were like punches, Oscar De La Hoya would have been beaten to death a long time ago.
"He has been in this position so many times with 'player haters,'" said Eric Gomez, De La Hoya's boyhood friend and matchmaker at Golden Boy Promotions. "Felix Trinidad Jr. called him chicken; Fernando Vargas called him gay and everything in the book."
Ahead of Saturday's welterweight megafight with Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas, it's De La Hoya's style and heart that are being called into question.
A war of words has developed during the promotion. Some of it is typical prefight hype while the rest appears to be genuine.
Top Rank, which promotes Pacquiao, has instituted a "Mexicans for Pacquiao" movement. Top Rank president Bob Arum has said that iconic Mexican fighters like Antonio Margarito, Julio Cesar Chavez, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Jorge Arce and Erik Morales are rooting for Pacquiao.
Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, has also taken jabs at De La Hoya's integrity, blasting him for going back on a promise that he would be De La Hoya's trainer for the rest of his career.
Roach was fired after one fight -- De La Hoya's loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. in May 2007, a loss for which De La Hoya and Roach blame each other.
"The thing is he told me that he'd never fight without me in his corner again. He just wanted to make me feel good at some point, and I fell for it," Roach said.
In one breath, De La Hoya said he doesn't have anything bad to say about Pacquiao. In another, he ripped Pacquiao for backing out of their infamous 2007 promotional deal, with Arum ending up with the rights to Pacquiao.
"When he looked into my eyes and I looked into his eyes and we shook hands, we had a deal," De La Hoya said. "And he talks about honor. That's also one of the reasons why this fight is so personal to me because of that night when we signed the deal and he turned his back on me. He's going to have to pay come Dec. 6."
Bickering with his former trainer and sore about a broken promise, De La Hoya brings a mixed bag of emotions going into Saturday's fight. But it's the "Mexicans for Pacquiao" crusade that seems to have evoked the most emotion.
During a recent media workout at his camp in Big Bear Lake, Calif., De La Hoya was asked about those Mexican-born fighters who have put their support behind Pacquiao rather than him -- a Mexican-American.
"That's beautiful and wonderful that Chavez and Margarito can support Manny Pacquiao," De La Hoya said. "I was down in Mexico City promoting an HBO series [recently] and I invited [former welterweight champion] Pipino Cuevas, I invited [former bantamweight champion Carlos] Zarate, I invited all the great legends from the past and there were like 15 of them.
"They're all coming to the fight as my guests. And they're all in my corner. So if he has Margarito and Chavez, that's fine."
Gomez suggested "Mexicans for Pacquiao" was Arum's idea. At a news conference in De La Hoya's native East Los Angeles last month, Arum was booed when he stood on the dais and told thousands of Mexicans about this drive. Gomez was quick to point out that those Mexican fighters who supposedly are backing Pacquiao are all fighters currently or formerly promoted by Arum.
"I think it's jealously, but Oscar doesn't care about that because he's got tens of thousands of Mexicans backing him, [fighters] such as Daniel Zaragoza, Chiquita Gonzalez, Ruben Olivares," Gomez said. "If you really want to talk about fighters that are behind Oscar, I guarantee you there are bigger names and more significant names that are behind Oscar.
Roach is of the mind, however, that it isn't just Mexican fighters who are backing Pacquiao.
"Manny has a lot of Mexican fans because of the great fights he's fought with great Mexican fighters," Roach said, alluding to battles with Marco Antonio Barrera, Morales and Juan Manuel Marquez. "And the rivalry's great between the Filipinos and the Mexicans because of Manny Pacquiao."
Arum believes there is another factor involved, one that could be considered a knock on De La Hoya's supposed safety-first style. Arum considers Pacquiao's all-out, guns-blazing style to be more akin to what Mexican fans appreciate and have come to expect from their fighters. It's something they can relate to and, ultimately, cheer for in Pacquiao.
"You have to understand that Manny is more of a Mexican-style fighter than Oscar De La Hoya is or ever will be," Arum said. "So I think that's the reason a lot of fighters who fight the Mexican style are supporting Manny."
De La Hoya has had trouble in the past with Mexican fans -- American-born ones as well as transplants now living in Southern California.
The majority of Mexican and Mexican-American fans threw their support behind Chavez before his fights with De La Hoya. Later, they backed Vargas going into his fight with the Golden Boy in 2002.
The reluctance to back De La Hoya as one of their own doesn't sit well with Gomez. He sees his friend De La Hoya, who has donated millions of dollars to the East Los Angeles community over the years. He sees a man who has worked hard as a fighter and as a promoter to make a better life for his family. In essence, he sees in De La Hoya exactly what he sees in immigrants who come to America in search of a better way of life. Rooting against De La Hoya makes no sense to Gomez.
"If you are here doing the same thing he is trying to do, you are being a hypocrite," Gomez said. "If you are Mexican and not rooting for Oscar, it's just jealousy. There are a lot of people out there jealous and envious of Oscar."
Former welterweight champion and Hall of Famer Carlos Palomino of Los Angeles via Mexico is not one of them. He scoffed at Arum's remarks about De La Hoya's fighting style.
"I think in the beginning he didn't have that much respect because of image that was created for him," said Palomino, in reference to De La Hoya's "Golden Boy" moniker. "But as time has gone on he has proven that he will stand in there and fight, like the fight with Ike Quartey. When he had to, he stood and he fought. I think he has earned the respect of Mexican fight fans for that."
Like many in boxing, Palomino is not crazy about this fight. He perceives it to be a no-win situation for De La Hoya because De La Hoya is the bigger fighter and is expected to win.
Still, there's no question as to which fighter he wants to see emerge victorious.
"Oh, Oscar," Palomino said. "Of course."
Robert Morales covers boxing for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram.