Every time he stepped into the ring during his 16-year, 45-fight pro career, Oscar De La Hoya was always at an emotional disadvantage. If you were an opponent of "The Golden Boy," fighting him represented your defining career moment. If you were De La Hoya, each superfight was just one in an endless string of superfights.
One man is seeking his holy grail. The other bears the burden of being the grail.
De La Hoya's welterweight title bout with Sugar Shane Mosley at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the hometown of both combatants, was a classic example of this phenomenon. Oscar was just two fights removed from the biggest non-heavyweight fight in pay-per-view history (at the time), his highly controversial decision loss to Felix Trinidad. In the previous two years alone, he had also fought Julio Cesar Chavez and Ike Quartey, both major PPV events. In that context, how "up" could you expect him to get for Mosley, a star but far from a superstar?
On the other hand, this was Sugar Shane's first time headlining a pay-per-view. He had reigned for two years as the lightweight champion, knocking out all eight of his challengers, and he was undefeated through 34 fights - but he'd never taken on an A-lister. De La Hoya was as top-tier as it got. This opportunity would make or break Mosley's career.
And it was a chance that came about in part because of the inventive mind of HBO color analyst Larry Merchant (who, several years later, would conceive the De La Hoya-Manny Pacquiao fight).
"At a press dinner in 1999 that [De La Hoya promoter] Bob Arum threw, I suggested-and at that time Mosley was still a lightweight-I suggested to Arum that a De La Hoya-Mosley fight would be a big fight. And he leaped out of his chair and said something to the effect of, 'You're right! Two local kids, attractive, outstanding fighters.'
"On the eve of the fight, Oscar was staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, so we had to go there for our pre-fight meetings with the fighters. And after our meeting, as I was walking out, Oscar came up to me and took me aside and said, 'This is the fight you wanted to see.' It was said with the suggestion of, 'Now you will see me win.'"
De La Hoya wasn't the only one assuming he would be victorious. The Golden Boy was a heavy favorite, thanks primarily to the fact that he'd been a welterweight for three years and Mosley had just recently moved up from two divisions below.
"I wasn't surprised that people thought Oscar would win," Mosley recalled in 2009, "because he fought in the weight class longer than I did. So I could see why people would think Oscar would have the advantage in that fight. But I knew, in my heart, that I wanted to make history, I wanted to be the best, so I planned to win that night."
What Mosley also knew, and many people at home didn't, was that he was already a full-fledged welterweight. He'd fought at 139 pounds as an amateur, had been killing himself to make 135 in the pros, and was actually the same size as De La Hoya. Mosley was a couple of inches shorter, but his reach was one inch longer and, on HBO's unofficial fight night scale, he outweighed De La Hoya, 155 pounds to 152.
"It was one of those surprising tales of the tape, where you have a sort of expectation in your head as to what these guys are physically, and then the tale of the tape shows you something different," HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley remembered. "The week of the fight, when we started looking at a tale of the tape, we saw that Shane was just as big as Oscar. We realized Shane was heavier boned. Oscar is light boned and delicate framed for somebody who spent most of his career at 147 and 154. So there were kind of hidden elements that began to show us in the days leading up to the fight that this was not a De La Hoya walkover, this was going to be close."
On fight night, with the HBO cameras rolling, Lampley declared it the biggest fight in the history of Los Angeles. Indeed, you had two local fighters, one a bona fide superstar, the other on the verge of superstardom, and a crowd filled with everyone from hardcore L.A. fight fans to the famous faces of Hollywood. This was not your typical hometown fight, with a local hero scoring an easy win in front of his fans. This time, one of the hometown fighters had to lose.
Mosley predicted in a cover story for KO magazine that this fight would be like the legendary first round of Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns. If you've ever seen Hagler-Hearns, you know that was a nearly impossible goal to reach. But from the start, both fighters did their best to back up Sugar Shane's words-Mosley doing so because a fast pace suited him, and De La Hoya doing so because he wanted to erase the image of his retreat in the championship rounds against Trinidad.
De La Hoya had the majority of the crowd of nearly 20,000 on his side, but Mosley went a long way toward winning them over in the opening round. Both fighters unloaded hard jabs and powershots, but it was Mosley who was a step ahead at every turn, handcuffing Oscar with his speed and repeatedly dropping in right hands over the top of De La Hoya's guard. According to CompuBox, Mosley out-landed De La Hoya 25-9 in the round.
But The Golden Boy shook it off and won round two, walking right in without a jab and landing effectively to Mosley's body. This time it was De La Hoya whom the stats favored, landing 22 punches to Mosley's 11.
The next five rounds weren't so clear-cut in terms of who was victorious. The action remained fast-paced and competitive, but to most observers, it was De La Hoya doing the slightly better work. His left hook probably edged the third round. The fourth was almost too close to call, with Mosley starting fast and De La Hoya ending the round in control. Mosley landed a sweet right uppercut in the fifth, but De La Hoya came back and took the round with a left hook that forced Mosley to hold. De La Hoya was busier in the sixth, but Mosley seemed to be landing the more effective punches, particularly to the body. De La Hoya jabbed beautifully in the seventh and out-landed Mosley 26-15, according to CompuBox.
With five rounds to go, most at ringside had De La Hoya ahead, either by one point or three points, and it was clear that Mosley needed to make his move if he wanted to score the upset and hold onto his unbeaten record. Mosley knew it, and he just needed his body to cooperate.
"What happened, early on, all of a sudden my back started getting tight on me," Sugar Shane recalled. "The first couple of rounds, I think I started too fast and my back started tightening up. And I was thinking, This is the wrong place to be-in the ring with Oscar De La Hoya-and have a stiff back. So I modified myself to slow down a little bit, and in return, Oscar started landing more shots. But then my back started loosening up, and I just went to work. My back loosened up after round seven, and from then on, I won all of the rounds."
At the very least, Mosley won four of the final five rounds, mounting one of the great sustained rallies in recent boxing history.
In the eighth, Sugar Shane switched to a southpaw stance that made De La Hoya uncomfortable and carried the round with his renewed energy and crisp shots with both hands. The ninth was an all-out thriller, with Mosley bouncing on his toes, jabbing beautifully, and maintaining his energy boost, while De La Hoya dug deep in an effort to keep pace with him. Mosley's right hand was on point, but De La Hoya battled back with perhaps his best punch of the fight, a left hook that snapped Mosley's head back. A furious exchange ensued with 45 seconds left on the clock, and the quicker-fisted Mosley got the better of it.
The 10th was almost too close to call, with Mosley starting and finishing strong and De La Hoya controlling the middle portion of the round with combinations and bodywork. The 11th was also close, but appeared to belong to Mosley, who again used the southpaw stance to befuddle his opponent.
With three minutes to go, the outcome was still in doubt. And neither fighter was in the mood to play it safe, setting the stage for one of the most exhilarating final rounds since Larry Holmes-Ken Norton.
"My thinking was, I'm going to give the fans what they want to see," Mosley reflected. "I'm not going to go out there and box around. I believed that I was winning the fight at that point, but I'm not going to box around, I'm going to give the fans what they want. I'm going to stand in the ring and fight him. I felt like if he knocks me out, he knocks me out, but it's going to be a classic. And if I knock him out, it's going to be a classic."
Even without a knockout, it was a classic. The crowd was on its feet almost the entire three minutes. There were no jabs, just wild exchanges-and Mosley got the better of almost all of them. De La Hoya's nose was trickling blood, and Mosley homed in with right hand after right hand. De La Hoya loaded up for a left hook downstairs, and Mosley got there first with a sensational right, his best punch of the fight. Sugar Shane unloaded with both hands until the final bell-a bell you could barely hear over the earsplitting Staples Center crowd.
Judge Marty Sammon's 115-113 scorecard in De La Hoya's favor was hard to figure. Lou Filippo's 116-112 and Pat Russell's 115-113 for Mosley both seemed right on target. Mosley captured the split decision and the welterweight title and De La Hoya was left with his second defeat in nine months-but with nothing to be ashamed of.
"I'm not disappointed. We had a great fight," De La Hoya said afterward. "What can I say? We had a hell of a fight, and more power to him."
As classy as De La Hoya was in the ring afterward, he eventually found himself looking for someone to blame and proceeded to split with promoter Arum (for the first of two times) and to dump trainer Robert Alcazar.
"It was a devastating loss from Oscar's point of view, or from the point of view of Top Rank, because they genuinely believed he would become the next Sugar Ray Leonard," Merchant remembered. "I think going in, this fight was how they were going to make up for Oscar's mistake in the Trinidad fight, the mistake of not trying to win the last couple rounds. When he lost to Mosley, there were accusations fired afterward that led to the breakup of Arum and Oscar. Some ugly things were said. It was another close fight that he had lost. The first loss was seen as an error in judgment, but there was nothing that they could rationalize here."
For Mosley, on the other hand, the win over De La Hoya launched him to the top of the pound-for-pound lists and to a level of stardom he hadn't previously sniffed. Ups and downs followed, including a controversial rematch victory over Oscar in 2003, and then Mosley closed his decade the way he began it: with a defining upset win at Staples Center, knocking out Antonio Margarito in 2009 to again claim a welterweight title.
"I'd have to say the Oscar fight was the best win of my career, better than Margarito," Mosley said. "That let people know exactly who I was, that I wasn't just a great lightweight fighter, that I also could be a great welterweight fighter as well."
"Shane's win over Margarito was more surprising," Lampley analyzed, "but on the other hand, the Margarito win is set up by the taint of Margarito trying to cheat and not getting away with it. De La Hoya-Mosley was straight up, both guys at their best, near the peak of their careers, 20,000 intensely involved fans, great night. Bigger night than Mosley-Margarito. I still have to call that Shane's biggest win. Just a great, straight-up prize fight with an intelligent decision."
And the intelligent decisions didn't stop there. De La Hoya and Mosley were able to compartmentalize their pugilistic rivalry from their personal relationship and went on to become successful business partners in De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions.
"It wasn't surprising to me that we went from fighting each other to being business partners," Mosley said. "I was always friends with him, we traveled around the world in the amateurs, we hung out together a lot. I never had any animosity towards Oscar, I never was a hater. And I think he realized that. So it's always been a good friendship. When we fought, it was competitive, just two guys trying to be the best. It was a professional rivalry, not personal."
In other words, the Mosley vs. De La Hoya story had a satisfying ending-particularly for the fighter who got the decision both times.