Thursday, April 16, 2009

I never saw a Golden Boy

With apologies for becoming a site about retired or retiring boxers something must be said about the long goodbye of Oscar de la Hoya. It had been a thing long speculated over and by the end was a foregone conclusion, but attention must be paid to the man with the golden left.

I never rooted for Oscar in any of his major fights, not because I disliked him, but he left me cold. He was like a better-looking, less talented Alex Rodriguez. But whereas Rodriguez has always been at least marginally intriguing as a cultural figure because of his very vapidity and the fundamental emptiness everyone acknowledged in him, Oscar’s career and life just seemed to float so unquestioningly and undramatically that to me he’s always been the rock that others break against in their own quest for personhood. Oscar fought like a robot; straight backed, shooting the jab, scientific footwork, and listened intently to his trainers. He also behaved like a robot, a counterfeit Latino shibboleth with the same sense of danger and even less sexual tension than your average boy band.

And all this is not really a moral judgment, or said with any particular form of malice. I never felt about him the way I did the early Kobe Bryant, who one could always see through despite the polished exterior, to the dark and lonely places beneath. Kobe through his fall from blandness has, to me and many others, become much more sympathetic and meaningful. Oscar is, as seen clearly through the two 24/7s he starred in, exactly who he has portrayed himself to be, a nice and respectful fighter who thinks of boxing as a business. He had to drag in Freddie Roach, Floyd Mayweather Sr., Anglelo Dundee, and several other celebrity trainers over the years, not because he needed help with his footwork, but because he was only gripping with his mouth closed, and one can only take his level of respectful in three minute post-fight interviews. He was a palimpsest, constantly being rewritten by big personalities, but limited only in what could be written to crayon and dollar-store greeting card wisdom.

Again, there is no sense of ill will towards him, I think if he hadn’t been a boxer he might very well have joined the priesthood, and said the sacrament with the same conviction he said, “I’m in the best shape of my life.” And lord knows it’s hard to judge a man who has lived his life in the public since his youth like Oscar and the distorting affects of that. Still, even if it was merely his elaborate impersonation of what a fighter should be, you eventually become what Oscar became. De La Hoya was a template of a man against which others are shaped, but ultimately as empty and meaningless as the sculptor’s used cast, an object through which form and meaning is brought into the world but is itself no more nourishing than a husk of corn.

Even to this day the fight and moment that I remember most was the last three rounds against Trinidad. Oscar was cruising through nine in the fight of his life, matched up against the Puerto Rican bomber he used his discipline and focus to flummox the fiery Trinidad for the first nine rounds. De La Hoya shot out just enough combinations to win each round, never risking an engagement with Trinidad. And then it happened, the corner told him he had the fight won, and all he had to do was move. And he did it. He ran, not in the sense people accuse Mayweather of, a sticking and moving and countering style that De La Hoya had worked to build his big lead, but in an inglorious, almost cartoonish way, like Chaplin in City Lights. I thought Oscar won the fight, I thought the judges got it wrong, but somehow it seemed to end up right, and it became Trinidad’s defining moment as a relentless killing machine whom, even when hopelessly outgunned would keep coming, and coming, and coming.

When, years later, Bernard Hopkins had Trinidad in a similar situation he finished him. Hopkins was more cautious and prudent than anyone in his generation, but he had a sense of the moment. Oscar listened to his corner and let it slip away. He was a businessman, a suit, a robot, and he ultimately didn’t have that thing in him that his conquerors did; Trinidad, Mosley, Hopkins, and Pacquiao (Mayweather’s is a different sort of passion) all would break a mountain with their fists just for being in their way, De La Hoya would only do so if told that there was coal inside.

And so ultimately De La Hoya’s career was fulfilling, if only for what it said about those he fought against; his conqueror’s were great fighters, his victims were very good; Quartey, Vargas, Mayorga, and the old greats he beat, Whitaker and Chavez, who were ennobled in their losses to him in ways they rarely were in victories.

So perhaps it is fitting after all this that he will become a promoter, setting up moments and destinies on others’ roads to greatness and history. I won’t miss him, his outsized box-office power distorted the natural matchups for years and created a logjam as everyone held their fire waiting for the golden ticket. One wonders what he could have been if he fought like he did here, in the last round against Quartey, with a passion and resoluteness he seldom mustered. But it was the contrast that meant so much to us, those who braved the losing battles, and those who brought low the corridors of power, and that is in itself a gift.


Anonymous said...

Man this is the real deal. Some of the greatest stuff I've read and I don't mean just about boxing. Keep 'em coming!

shoefly said...

Thank you very much. I feel bad speaking ill of the recently departed, but Oscar was always a strange figure and I hope I was able to communicate that. I really appreciate the encouragement, red-legs.