A Fighter With a Touch of Gold

Oscar De La Hoya fought his way from the barrio to the boardroom
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In the summer of 1993, during a 10-city press tour for the George Foreman-Tommy Morrison fight, HBO Sports executive Mark Taffet found himself chatting away on the train with heavyweight champion Foreman.

Somewhere between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., the pair started talking about the future of HBO's pay-per-view business, which had officially made its debut in 1991 with an Evander Holyfield-Foreman heavyweight championship from Atlantic City, N.J.

All of a sudden, Foreman pointed his giant finger toward a kid sitting two seats in front of them and told Taffet without hesitation: "That, my friend, is the future of boxing."

Foreman was pointing at a young fighter with a golden smile - a kid, really - who was riding with them and fighting on the undercard of the Foreman- Morrison fight. His name was Oscar De La Hoya, he was 20 years old and a year earlier, he had brought home a gold medal from the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona.

10-TIME WORLD CHAMP
Foreman's forecast, as recounted by Taffet, couldn't have been more accurate. Sixteen years later, by the time of his retirement from the ring in April 2009, De La Hoya was more than just a 10-time world champion in six weight divisions.

He had also become the all-time leader in pay-perview boxing, breaking all records in number of fights, buys and revenues, with a total of 19 PPV fights registering 14.1 million buys and revenue of $696.4 million, the highest number in the history of HBO's PPV business.

De La Hoya, better known as America's "Golden Boy" and the biggest money earner in the history of boxing, is only 37 but will deservedly receive a Lifetime Achievement Award in Hispanic Television from Multichannel News and Broadcasting & Cable on Sept. 29, at the eighth annual Hispanic Television Summit in New York City.

"Oscar De La Hoya led the way toward not only the boom of the pay-per-view business, but the boom of Latino markets in the growth of the boxing business," said Taffet, the senior vice president of HBO Sports. "He set box office records that may never be matched."

Today, De La Hoya continues to make headlines through his rapidly growing enterprise Golden Boy Promotions, his philanthropic ventures, his investment in Hispanic-targeted media, his recent acquisition of interest in MLS's Houston Dynamo and even real-estate development.

Oscar De La Hoya was born Feb. 4, 1973, in one of the roughest areas of East Los Angeles, going to the gym and learning how to defend himself from a very young age. His memories of the very fi rst time he wore a pair of boxing gloves are not exactly pleasant.

"I was 4½ years old and I used a pair of gloves against my 10-year-old cousin," De La Hoya said in a recent interview with MCN and B&C. "He punched me on the nose so badly I started crying [...] and that's how it all started. My dad started taking me to the gym. He wanted me to become a boxer."

As a child, visiting relatives in Mexico, De La Hoya showed a fondness for soccer, playing in dirt fields with the local kids in Tecate, Baja California. The boxing gene ultimately kicked in, though, and the middle child of three went on to make a career of the sport. His grandfather, Vicente, was an amateur fighter in the 1940s, while his father, Joel, boxed professionally in the 1960s. "Boxing runs in my family," he said.

De La Hoya, who always showed a fascination for yet another Olympic gold medalist, Sugar Ray Leonard, began to take boxing very seriously at the age of 15, ultimately earning a spot at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, where he defeated Marco Rudolph by a 7-2 decision in the fi nals to become the only U.S. boxer to win the gold in the 1992 Games.

Footage of the 1992 Olympics shows an emotional De La Hoya upon hearing the final decision: He kneels down on the ring, crosses himself and, looking up to the sky, blows a kiss. The young gold medalist dedicated his victory to his mom, Cecilia Gonzalez, whom a year earlier had succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 39.

"She had told me to continue fighting and win the gold for her," De La Hoya later remembered. "The most important thing I've done in my life was winning the Olympic gold medal for my mother."

The Olympics marked a turning point for De La Hoya, who soon after (in November 1992) won his first professional fight in a first-round knockout of Lamar Williams in California, kicking off an extremely successful record. In 1994, he won his first professional title, the junior lightweight championship of the World Boxing Organization.

On May 6, 1995, De La Hoya made his pay TV debut, fighting his first pay-per-view bout on HBO against Rafael Ruelas. The fight, in which the Golden Boy knocked Ruelas down twice, ending the fight in the second round, generated 330,000 buys and $9.9 million in revenue for HBO, doubling the 165,000 buys and ($5 million) generated by the first Hispanic pay-per-view fight ever: the 1993 Michael Carbajal vs. Humberto "Chiquita" González match.

In the days prior to De La Hoya's first PPV fight, there was tremendous buzz in the media. Here was a humble, U.S.-born Olympic gold medal winner of Latino origin about to face off against a Mexicanborn fighter who was already a star among his countrymen. It was the perfect combination of factors to make an almost-perfect product pitch for the nationwide U.S. Hispanic TV audience.

In no time, De La Hoya became a PPV cash cow for HBO - so much so that boxing historian Bert Sugar once called him "boxing's ATM machine."

De La Hoya's PPV golden touch reached its peak on May 2007, when a fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. generated 2.4 million pay-per-view buys, and total PPV revenue of $134.4 million, according to HBO. After that, De La Hoya would go on to do only one more PPV fight, the historic bout against Manny Pacquiao in December 2008.

PASSING THE TORCH

Billed as "the Dream Match," the fight drew more than 1.25 million buys and generated more than $70 million, officially propelling Pacquiao to superstar status in the U.S., as De La Hoya lost via technical knockout.

For many boxing observers, the December 2008 De La Hoya-Pacquiao bout was the unofficial ceremony in which the Golden Boy "passed the torch" to the young Filipino champion.

Barely four months after his defeat to Pacquiao, on April 14, 2009, De La Hoya officially announced his retirement from boxing.

In his retirement speech, the athlete talked about the need to help the sport of boxing and his being in a privileged position to do so. His boxing firm, Golden Boy Promotions, has grown rapidly to become a major player in the launch and development of young minority fighters.

Founded in 2004 with longtime friend and business partner Richard Schaefer, the Los Angelesbased company now has some 60 fighters under contract and produces more than 70 international events each year, generating annual revenues "in excess of $100 million" and reporting double-digit market share growth, according to the company.

"People made fun of us," Schaefer said of the early days of Golden Boy Promotions, of which he is CEO. "How can a kid from East L.A. who didn't even finish college and a guy from Switzerland possibly succeed?"

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