Can Oscar Save Boxing?

The Golden Boy. . . .

When was the last time you saw boxing on network television? When's the last time you saw a boxer you really loved? It's been a long time since Louis and Marciano, Ali and the Sugar Rays. When boxing makes news these days, it's usually because of a scandalous decision or because someone has bitten off a piece of someone's ear. If ever the sport needed a savior, it's now.

Enter Oscar De La Hoya from East L.A. He's been called the Golden Boy ever since he won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. 60 Minutes II Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

He's fought 30 professional fights since winning the gold medal, and he's won them all. He is a champion--and a star.

But all that seemed to be fading away this past February in Las Vegas. De La Hoya had fought 11 rounds, he'd been knocked down and the fight was not going his way. He just couldn't find his footing against Ike Quartey, a tough, undefeated challenger. Oscar was being overly cautious, and his corner was concerned.

"Was I worried? Yeah, sure I was worried," says Bob Arum, who is Oscar's promoter. "I was worried because I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

Then, as in a movie, Oscar De La Hoya sprang to life in the 12th and last round. He summoned the energy to knock Quartey down. Seconds later, he pounced on his wounded prey, pummeling Quartey against the ropes. It was one of the most dramatic final rounds in boxing history. Quartey stayed on his feet, but it was all over. De La Hoya had kept his welterweight crown. He was still the Golden Boy.

How did he come up with that 12th round? "It's just in my blood," De La Hoya says. "If I'm tired in the 12th round, if I can't pick up my gloves, my fists up, I'll do so, I'll dance around, I'll box to the last minute. I will do whatever possible to win my fights."

That night in Vegas confirmed him as arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport today. But De La Hoya's stunning popularity isn't entirely dependent on his skills in the ring.

Women love him, furiously. And the affection is mutual. Says Oscar: "I've autographed from little baby shoes, Pampers. I've autographed underwear, bras, body parts. I mean, you think of it, and I've autographed it."

Oscar is also vain. As proud as he is of his fighting, he also likes the way he looks. In fact, he says that his looks are more important to him. He looks almost too delicate, too handsome, to be a boxer. "A lot of people have told me that," he says. "And I'm fortunate. I'm very happy that people tell me that. You know, it's a gift."

This gift translates into cash. Nearly 40 percent of the buyers of his pay-per-view fights are women. And when he fought in El Paso last year against an undistinguished French boxer, 46,000 people turned out. More than half were female.

He's not only the hottest boxer today. He's the hottest property in boxing and, quite possibly, with the retirement f Michael Jordan, in all of sports. At 26, Oscar has made $96 million just from boxing, not counting endorsements. This year, he figures to take in another $40 million. That will make him the highest-paid athlete in the world.

Oscar thinks he is earning every penny: "I'm carrying boxing on my shoulders. And I feel the responsibility of trying to enhance the image in a positive way. I have to do it."

Call him a white collar boxer. He's probably the first Latino athlete to cross over into mainstream America. But if he has won over the Anglo fans, he has paid a price for that back home. For years, his old neighbors in East L.A. didn't forgive him for his success with the country club crowd. What was this son of poor Mexicans doing on the golf course? They saw him as a sellout, a traitor.

The reaction troubles Oscar. "That hurt a lot," he says. "I mean, what do they want me to do? Build a home right in East L.A. and live there? Who's gonna want to do that? I mean, if there was a kid who won the lottery, first thing he's gonna do is buy a home far away from that neighborhood."

Oscar not only moved away from his Latino fans. He refused to play the role they had always assigned their fighters. Mexicans like their heroes to walk the stations of the cross. They want their boxers to bleed, not to look pretty. The gentle manners and the polite smile didn't impress East L.A. Oscar may have fathered a couple of children--maybe more--out of wedlock. But he's never been in a street fight and he's never spent a day in jail.

He doesn't consider himself macho: "I don't. Inside the ring, I'm a warrior. But outside the ring, no. I'm a sensitive guy."

In the ring though, he becomes a killer. "This is a character who kind of translates from a shy person to a terror in about 30 seconds," says Tim Kawakami, who has written a book about the boxer.

But one man has not yet accepted that Oscar is someone extraordinary. Oscar's severest critic is an ex-fighter himself, a man who once dreamed of becoming a champion, a man who pushed a reluctant six-year-old into a ring in East LA.: Oscar's father, Joel

Joel has never congratulated his son for fighting well. Ever.

"He probably never will now, until I retire," Oscar says. "That's the way my father is. I mean, every fight I've had, people are telling me, 'oh, it's a great fight, you did well,' you know. And I would be happy about that, you know? But my father would never say, 'Hey, son, you know you did well'."

Oscar says he understands now why his father is so tough on him. Says the son: "It's like if he tells me one day, you know you're the best champion in the world, I'll believe it. I mean, I will believe it. It would--it would get to me. And I would never, ever train the way I'm training now."

Joel De La Hoya refused a CBS News request for an interview.

But if his father was tough on him, there was always one womahe could run to: his mother. Oscar himself says he is a mama's boy. Maybe that was because Cecilia De La Hoya gave her son unconditional love, however he did. But if his mother was adoring, she wasn't protective. If Oscar became a killer in the ring, she was his most fervent accomplice.

"She would scare me," Oscar remembers. "I mean she would tell me, you know, knock 'em out. And you know, hit this man with the left hook, and right hand. And I was like 'whoa!' I mean, a mother shouldn't be saying those things."

Just weeks after he won the 1990 Goodwill Games, Cecilia De La Hoya died of breast cancer. She was 38. Oscar was 17.

Oscar was devastated. But he rebounded. At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Oscar De La Hoya won the only gold medal for the U.S. boxing team. He gave the gold medal to his mother. Says Oscar: "I took it to her grave. Once I got back from Barcelona. And stood there, and I gave it to her. It's like, here it is. Here's your gold medal. And now that, now that grave stone, that stone, has her picture. And the picture of the gold medal. So that it will always stay with her, and will always be in my memory." He pays tribute to his mother before every fight, ignoring his opponent to look to the sky.

If his mother were still alive, he says, he would probably already have retired. As it is, he plans to retire in just a few years. He has seen what he has done to the faces of other fighters. And after 20 years of boxing, miraculously, he doesn't have a single scar. He says he wants to win two more world titles and retire undefeated before he's 30, before it's too late.

After the Quartey fight, when he saw his swollen face in the mirror, he was disturbed. "I was saying to myself, 'Man, I have sensitive skin.' I really do, because that was just one punch," he remembers. "That was just one punch he caught me with. And my eye, my eye just swelled up. I mean, I'm not made for this sport, am I? Those are the times, you know, that I kind of realize that, hey, little by little, just get away from boxing, you know? Because you can seriously get hurt."

He has already signed a recording contract. And there is talk of Hollywood once he leaves the ring. But boxing is littered with former champions who couldn't give it up. Can Oscar walk away and stay away?

Perhaps not, says Kawakami: "He's into boxing because he's great at it. This is Oscar De La Hoya, where he's at his most loved. Not with his father. Not with his family. Not with anything. It's in the boxing ring, where there's 14-year-old girls by the millions screaming his name. I'd find that hard to give up, I think."

And Oscar is the first to admit there is one thing he still has to achieve in the ring no matter how long it takes. And it has nothing to do with medals or money. He wants to hear Joel praising him. "A kid wants to impress his father," he says. "I want to go out there and just impress my father anjust try to do my best, you know. Because I know that one situation that I'm looking for where he's going to tell me, 'Hey, son, you know, you're doing good'--I'm looking for that. I can't wait for that moment."

Oscar dreams of this moment, which he says would be more important than any fight he has had: "That'll be the final chapter, the end of the book, where he hugs me and tells me, 'Son, your career was great. You were awesome, you did well. I love you and that's it'."

Site produced by David Kohn. Segment produced by Draggan Mihailovich