After his momentous victory over childhood idol Julio Cesar Chavez on June 7, 1996, Oscar De La Hoya took the rest of 1996 off. He fought only twice that year. As the calendar turned to 1997, “The Golden Boy” embarked on what was perhaps the most productive stretch of his Hall of Fame career.
In an era when world-class boxers were already becoming semi-annual performers, De La Hoya, the sport’s biggest star, stepped into the ring five times — all world title fights. He notched wins over Miguel Angel “El Mago” Gonzalez, Pernell Whitaker, David Kamau, Hector “Macho” Camacho and Wilfredo Rivera.
While it might have seemed like an arduous grind, especially compared to how often boxers fight in the current era, it was anything but that for De La Hoya, who turned 24 that February.
“Believe it or not, that was actually the easiest year for me in boxing,” De La Hoya tells ESPN. “I actually lived in Big Bear [California] in the mountains where I used to train. I lived there for the whole year. I never stopped training, and you don’t stop training when you don’t have distractions, when you have your whole circle of friends and family that are understanding and support you.
“When you want to make history and fight the best, it makes it easy,” he says of his year-round commitment. “So when you’re fighting once or even twice a year, you have distractions, you have things that you want to accomplish outside the ring. So that year for me in ’97 was the easiest year in boxing.”
While common sense would dictate that fighting less is safer, by limiting the amount of danger a fighter can absorb, it can be argued that fighting with more frequency alleviates another key issue, as boxers who maintain their conditioning year-round can reduce the severity of their weight cuts.
“I never gained more than 10 pounds after a fight,” De La Hoya says. “I was always in shape because I knew I was going back to camp. I was always ready. I just had to sharpen up my tools and take it from there.”
Once he was in the midst of his 1997 campaign, De La Hoya was able to keep his momentum rolling. But he likely wouldn’t have been able to pull it off in such a successful way had it not been for a lengthy recovery period after that Chavez fight.
“I wanted my body to rest. I took my body through hell for three months when I faced Chavez,” De La Hoya says of his 22nd professional contest. “I basically wanted to rest. It was time where the exposure that I received, my celebrity took off to a whole new level. I wanted to exploit it, and rest the body, rest the mind. Going into ’97 was like, ‘Hey, let’s go full steam ahead.'”
His celebrity status drove the public’s appetite for more fights, and De La Hoya was in the perfect mindset to fulfill that desire. Everything De La Hoya did in 1997 was about continuing to build his burgeoning brand. And he succeeded. Four of De La Hoya’s five fights in 1997 aired on pay-per-view, with the Kamau fight on HBO.
Mark Taffet, the former longtime head of HBO pay-per-view, says De La Hoya’s popularity negated any potential risk of having more supply than demand.
“He became the biggest Latino star in the country and he was crossing over and people couldn’t get enough of him,” says Taffet, who points to De La Hoya reshaping the boxing audience.
“He was so hot, he was such a phenomenon and he was riding — if not creating — the Latino wave, the growth and the boom in the media world in America,” Taffet says. “They couldn’t get enough of him. Quite frankly, he brought a lot of Latinos to the pay-per-view marketplace and every time he fought, new households came on board buying pay-per-views. He led the growth.”
The high-water mark in 1997 was reached in the Whitaker fight, which had 720,000 buys, netting $28.8 million in PPV revenue. The four pay-per-view fights totaled 1.865 million buys and $72.9 million in revenue.
In thinking back on that monumental year in his career, here’s how De La Hoya remembers each of those fights.
Oscar’s five fights in 1997
Miguel Angel Gonzalez
Record at the time: 41-0
When: Jan. 18
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Result: UD12, for De La Hoya’s WBC junior welterweight title
“My right rotator cuff was torn — I remember tearing it, I’m not sure where it was. I couldn’t throw my right hand, so I threw I don’t know how many jabs, and I was snapping his head back. It was a relatively easy fight. I remember him catching me with a few right hands where he closed my [left] eye at one point. But yeah, it was a great win for me, it was a fighter who was undefeated. I felt a little satisfied, not too satisfied, but enough for me to say, ‘You did OK.'”
Record at the time: 40-1-1
When: April 12
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Result: UD12, for Whitaker’s WBC welterweight title
“I didn’t know what to expect. I obviously knew who he was and what he accomplished. His style was tricky and difficult. I had sparred with him when I was an amateur. Southpaws have always been very difficult for me to figure out. It was one of those fights where I felt I won. It was a close fight, but I felt I won and it gave me a lot of exposure. It took my experience and my technique to a whole new level, that’s for sure.”
Record at the time: 28-1
When: June 14
Where: Alamodome, San Antonio, Texas
Result: KO2, for De La Hoya’s WBC welterweight title
“Here’s a guy who gave Chavez a hell of a fight [a few years earlier]. I believe people were saying [Kamau] might have beaten him, or it was a close fight. But I knew he was dangerous because from my experience fighting African fighters in the amateur days, I knew they were very, very tough.
“I’m telling you, I would go to the gym to train and literally on the roof, people were climbing on top, trying to get a glimpse of me training. It was so amazing.”
Hector “Macho” Camacho
Record at the time: 63-3-1
When: Sept. 13
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Result: UD12, for De La Hoya’s WBC welterweight title — Stream the fight on ESPN+
“The first thing that pops up to my head is that curl [of Camacho’s hair] and that bet we had for $200,000 he [reneged] on.”
Reportedly, De La Hoya and Camacho made a bet that allowed Camacho to collect $200,000 from De La Hoya if he won, and allowed De La Hoya to cut Camacho’s curl with a De La Hoya victory.
“Let me tell you, Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho, this guy’s a true warrior. Yeah, he’s a boxer, he’s a dancer, he’s this, he’s that, but he can fight, he can punch, actually. It was a very tricky fight, a southpaw.
“I wanted to knock him out because of how angry he made me. I remember after the last and final bell rang, I went straight to my cutman, Chuck Bodak, asked him for scissors so I could go straight to Camacho and cut his curl. I remember him looking into my eyes and pleading to me not to cut his curl. It was hilarious.”
Record at the time: 27-2-1
When: Dec. 6
Where: Caesars Atlantic City Hotel & Casino, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Result: TKO8, for De La Hoya’s WBC welterweight title — Stream the fight on ESPN+
“He was a strong man, the strongest fighter I’ve faced,” De La Hoya told The New York Times after the fight. ”He had such a big heart. I really felt strong in there. I felt like a real champ. When I had him cut badly, my corner told me to behave like a champion, take my time and take him out like a real champion, like a Sugar Ray Robinson would.”
What made De La Hoya’s 1997 so remarkable was that he did it as the biggest name in boxing, one who transcended the sport and entered the mainstream. Just imagine Canelo Alvarez, Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder or Anthony Joshua fighting four or five times a year.
“I think by that time it was clear that Oscar was the next big thing happening in front of us,” says Larry Merchant, who for years was part of HBO’s broadcast crew. “Aside from everything else, his looks, his gold medal, he was a very television-friendly boxer. I mean, he fought guys, he had good fights, he never ducked anyone.”
In the 1990s, De La Hoya wasn’t alone in staying active. In 1998, Shane Mosley fought five times as he defended his IBF lightweight belt. And from 1991 to 1994, James Toney competed a total of 23 times as one of the last well-known boxers to engage in non-title fights and perform on smaller platforms for lesser money in between his appearances on HBO and pay-per-view cards.
But if you take a look at the fighters on the current ESPN pound-for-pound list and gauge their activity from 2017 to 2019, none of the elite boxers has fought more than seven times. The majority have fought six or fewer times during this three-year period.
Nonito Donaire defended his titles four times in 2012 and Gennadiy Golovkin, as he introduced himself to the American public, fought four times in 2013, three times in 2014 and another three times in 2015, before eventually settling into a less ambitious activity level.
Nowadays, boxers are hemmed in contractually by deals that are certainly lucrative, but also demand exclusivity to a particular network, which can slot them only a couple of times a year. Those who want to be busier in plying their craft might not even have that option.
There are many reasons why we won’t see another year like Oscar De La Hoya’s 1997, but there’s no denying the impact this 12-month span had on his career.
Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum puts it into simple perspective: “He became the face of boxing.”