“Iron”. “The Blade”. “El Terrible”. “Lights Out”. “The Golden Boy”? As nickname’s go in the boxing world, Oscar De La Hoya’s (take your pick) leaves something to be desired. To say the least, it’s an atypical auto-compliment, a decorative moniker that seeks to enrapture rather than intimidate. By that token, however, it’s an oddly appropriate one for De La Hoya, who stands out as a pristine and charismatic talent in world of flattened noses, scarified cheeks, and split lips that stutter forth speech thickened by constant beatings. Like a golden retriever in a kennel full of rottweilers, De La Hoya is a pretty alternative to the pug-faced rank and file of the boxing world. But is he too pretty?
Such a question, of course, is rarely applicable. Sports, however, (particularly the world of contact sports) is one of the few arenas where looking the part can often involve sporting visible signs of pain and suffering. From football players like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ famously toothless linebacker Jack Lambert to virtually any hockey player in the NHL (other than Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux), athletes have long sported disfigurement like a badge of accomplishment, permanent purple hearts decorating their visages. This is particularly the case in boxing, which meets out suffering and the need to endure physical pain with unparalleled enthusiasm. To look at De La Hoya, though, one would expect to find him at a department store cologne counter, or selling Armani suits, or modeling — doing anything, really, other than boxing.
This is not to say that De La Hoya’s the first of his kind. The most visible golden boy in boxing, mister “too pretty” himself, was Muhammad Ali. But for Ali, his good looks served a purpose, functioning as proof of his in-the-ring prowess: he was too quick to be touched. His appealing physiognomy was a testament to his ability to outmaneuver opponents, a fact he frequently pointed out in post-fight interviews. It was also a way of distinguishing himself from the other top fighters of the day, such as Joe Frazier (Ali called him a “gorilla”), George Foreman (“Frankenstein”), and Sonny Liston (“the big ugly bear”). In this way, Ali emphasized his looks as merely an extension of his stylish brand of fighting, referring to his face as much as he referred to his punching power, his speed, the ineptitude of his opponent, or any other aspect of his self-promoted game.
De La Hoya, for his part, can’t match Ali’s braggadocio, nor does he try. That’s not to say, however, that people don’t take notice of his looks. But where Ali gained fans by actively outshining the opposition, De La Hoya has actually lost support due to his slick appearance. Why hate a fighter for being beautiful? That age-old bugbear of race may have something to do with it. De La Hoya, as you might have guessed, is Hispanic — he was born in East Los Angeles to parents who immigrated from Mexico. Raised from the age of six to become a boxer, De La Hoya was born into a family that had a long tradition of involvement in the sport. Even without these connections, however, the Hispanic community, both within the United States and abroad, has a well-established history of proud boxing champions; from Roberto Duran and Julio Cesar Chavez, to more recent stars like Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales.
These fighters, and many more, were known more for their tremendous courage in the ring, their ability to stonily absorb punishment without giving in, more than their exceptional flashiness. They were, in short, physical manifestations of masculine “machismo”. As such, an unspoken stereotype has emerged, associating Hispanic fighters with a blue-collar work ethic and superior endurance, as athletes who very rarely decorate their endeavors with flowery embellishments (the multi-sequined Hector “Macho” Camacho is perhaps the lone exception that proves this rule).
Yet De La Hoya stands far apart from this tradition. Not only does he exude the high gloss of a media darling, he’s fractured the stereotypical single-mindedness of the Hispanic boxer by pursuing a variety of endorsement deals and business opportunities. Some of these, like his founding of Golden Boy Promotions to promote up and coming fighters, seem sensible. Others, like his recording of an album of bilingual love songs, effectively torpedo any chance he has to gain popularity and evoke that familiar sense of machismo. What’s worse, a move like this smacks of the kind of cross-promotional grabs for cash (see Roy Jones, Jr. or Allen Iverson) that keeps athletes from doing what they do best. As a result of his involvement in these newfound enterprises, De La Hoya’s victory earlier this month over Ricardo Mayorga was his first fight in 20 months.
Despite his success in the ring, such lengthy layoffs and distractions, combined with his overtly polished exterior, make De La Hoya a tough pill to swallow for many boxing fans, particularly those who see his slick image as a departure from his East LA roots. And De La Hoya did nothing to help his image when he defeated Mexican champion Julio Cesar Chavez, an icon in the Hispanic boxing world, to claim the super lightweight title in ’96. More recently, he’s endured a feud with Fernando “The Aztec Warrior” Vargas, who aggressively asserts his own Hispanic heritage and has publicly derided De La Hoya for not doing the same. As a result, De La Hoya’s attractive features, flashing smile, and cosmopolitan demeanor have come to be coded as signs of a sellout among many in the Hispanic community, who see him not as a champion of their culture, but as a deserter and a turncoat.
What’s missing for De La Hoya’s detractors is that all-important, though frequently elusive, quality of street cred. Much like African American basketballers, Hispanic fighters enter their profession with a burden of expectation: that they’ll represent their family, neighborhood, community, or country inside the ring. Their success is not simply the victory of one fighter over another; it’s a moral accomplishment to be enjoyed by a host of people who can identify with the fighter’s upbringing, struggles, and values. The problem with De La Hoya, however, is that he’s effectively shed this burden, unable (if not refusing) to represent in that way that other athletes-cum-folk heroes have before him. Of course, it’s not necessarily fair to hold De La Hoya to standards set by the fans. Nor does it seem to be the case that ambivalent support in the Hispanic community has affected his career one iota. Still, the problem of Oscar De La Hoya is notable insofar as it articulates a unique paradox that threatens to push the sport of boxing as a whole even farther into the margins from where it dwells today.
In the wake of Mike Tyson’s downfall, and the subsequent, attendant dervish of media neo-cannibalism and unchecked athletes’ psychopharmacology, boxing has been experiencing a precipitous decline. Though the sport has always been understood as a breeding ground of corruption, there have always been compelling figures and accomplished champions to compensate for such a distasteful perception. Still, those champions must be both rugged enough to be credible as fighters and polished enough to be accessible to fans. Today, there is a distinct lack of fighters that can negotiate such a tightrope. De La Hoya perhaps comes closest: his pay-per-view fight draw is nearly double that of other boxers. And yet, his problematic smile and perfectly mussed hair ensure that he’ll never be able to galvanize the full support of fans and lead boxing back to prominence.
In this way, boxing is much like basketball in its demands that the athletes to stay true to their roots. Its stars must be consumable by the public, but they must also be credible actors on a brutal stage. Getting punched hundreds of times, it seems, is not enough to convince the skeptical audience, who also demand that the hard knocks of life (the same harsh blows they seek to escape by idolizing athletes) register in some meaningful way on their fighter’s person. De La Hoya, in this sense, would do well to lose more often than he does, perhaps even suffering a fractured cheekbone or busted jaw in the process. At least then he would look the part — assuming a role that so many boxing fans (like the sport itself) need him to play.