De La Hoya Retires, Legacy Is Mixed Bag

With the words, “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s over,” Oscar De La Hoya did as was expected today and announced his retirement from boxing. Admitting that he couldn’t perform any longer at the highest level, De La Hoya said that it wasn’t fair to him and it wasn’t fair to the fans for him to continue in the sport.

He leaves behind him one of the most high-profile, well-remunerated and hotly debated careers in the history of the sweet science. On one hand, you have a man who was THE face of boxing for the last 10 years, who literally carried the sport on his shoulders in one super-fight after another. On the other hand, you have a man whose fighting legacy is at least as entwined with his humiliations as his triumphs, a fact that makes him a complicated figure for the hardcore followers of the fight game.

What is the defining moment of De La Hoya’s boxing career? Unfortunately for Oscar, most fight fans would answer “Tito Trinidad,” his welterweight opponent in 1999 in what was one of the biggest non-heavyweight fights in history (and one should note right here that just about ALL of the biggest non-heavyweight fights in history, money-wise, have involved De La Hoya).

In that fight, which was billed as much a major installment in the rivalry between Mexico and Puerto Rico as it was a fight between Oscar and Tito, De La Hoya famously dominated the start of the fight only to seemingly take the last three rounds off, choosing to circle out of danger and coast to what he thought would be a certain victory on the scorecards rather than put himself in the way of a potential equalizer from the hard-punching Trinidad.

The result was the darkest moment of Oscar’s career, as he lost a controversial majority decision and was left to face the question that would haunt the rest of his career -- why, WHY, would you turn tail and run from Trinidad, essentially giving away precious rounds (and credibility) in the biggest fight of your life?

One could argue that De La Hoya, already on shaky ground with passionate Mexicans for his glitzy look and style and his two defeats of Mexican icon Julio Cesar Chavez, never again would recover the good graces of the Mexican fight community. He acquired the reputation of a pretty-boy front-runner, a rich quitter. It was a reputation that he didn’t quite deserve -- one need only consult the tape on his wars with Fernando Vargas and Ike Quartey to know that much -- but one that he couldn’t shake nevertheless.

There would be two more high-profile incidents to add fuel to that fire. In 2004 he challenged his future business partner Bernard Hopkins for the middleweight title. In the ninth round, Bernard caught Oscar with a solid shot to the liver and De La Hoya went down, grimacing and pounding on the canvas. He did not beat the 10-count, and yet a minute afterwards he was up on his feet showing very little accrued damage from the fight. Now most fighters will tell you that a hard shot perfectly placed to the liver will paralyze you for a while and there’s nothing you can do about it, and that’s what Oscar always claimed happened to him that night. Nevertheless, his petulant show of frustration was anything but a manly display, and it seemed yet another moment where the rock-star De La Hoya took the easy way out rather than walk through fire in a big moment.

Then there was the fight that retired him just this past December, when he was brutally dismantled by the much smaller and much more determined Manny Pacquiao. In that bout, utterly drained after making 147 pounds, a weight he hadn’t fought at in over seven years, De La Hoya was a shell of his former self, and the beating that he received at Pac Man’s hands prompted him to quit on his stool after the eighth round. This was a classic changing of the guard in the manner of many that boxing has seen before -- the young gun out-dueling the old hand -- and anyone who watched the fight knows that in quitting when he did, Oscar made a sensible decision, because he was getting destroyed in there and showing no signs of turning the tide.

But going out on your stool is never looked upon kindly in this hardest of games, and many fight fans saw it as just another beat in the old De La Hoya tune of throwing in the towel when the going gets tough.

After today’s announcement, it appears that the Pacquiao embarrassment will be Oscar’s last trip to the ring (although, when it comes to fighters, one can never say never). De La Hoya is a businessman now, an enormously successful one, one of the two marquee promoters in the sport, which is a remarkable achievement for a man who wore the gloves for so long.

If the Pacquiao bout is to be Oscar’s last, it leaves one with mixed feelings as to his career as a fighter. You think first of all the high-octane evenings, all the juice he brought to the sport. You think of De La Hoya/Mayweather in 2007, a mega, MEGA fight that single-handedly brought boxing back to the front pages. You think of all of that and you can’t help but feel gratitude for all of the exciting nights he provided us.

But then you think back on his career fight-by-fight and you realize that most of his defining moments in the ring were failures. The finest fighters he ever beat -- Chavez, Camacho and Whitaker -- were way past their best, and many don’t think he actually beat Pernell even then. His best wins against guys in their prime were the Vargas and Quartey fights, and while those were thrilling bouts, no one is going to class Vargas or Quartey with the all-time greats.

And then the rest of his distinguished opponents ... they all beat him, and often in fights where it seemed that Oscar simply wasn’t willing to go to that next level to achieve the true greatness that we always expected of him. Only against Shane Mosley did he go to that place, perhaps, and yet still he came out a loser in two tries.

So Oscar rides off into the sunset today with a mixed legacy, to put it mildly. We will no doubt remember him as one of the great salesmen and stars the sport has ever known, a star so powerful that he could carry boxing through a dark period where marketable heavyweights all but disappeared on us.

But when it comes to being remembered as a great fighter, I think that most fight fans will agree that Oscar, as he did in so many of his most famous fights, comes up just a few rounds short of the decision.

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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