Added On: Monday, November 16, 2009

IN THE SHADOW OF THE GOLDEN BOY



When Oscar De La Hoya hung up his gloves for good this past February, it prompted the immediate question to fight fans - "Who will be the next Oscar?" The answer may be not as obvious as it seems.
November 2, 2009 - by Dave Larzelere


For nearly a decade, Oscar De La Hoya ruled the fight game as its marquee pay-per-view attraction. Every time he fought, it was an event guaranteed to generate huge amounts of cash and crossover interest. After Mike Tyson exited the stage, De La Hoya was the only fighter left standing who could regularly put boxing on the front of America's sports pages.



When Oscar announced in February that he was hanging up the gloves, the news provoked considerable angst among dedicated sweet scientists. They envisioned a period of waning interest and malaise similar to what the NBA suffered in the post-Jordan years.

Eight months after De La Hoya's farewell, the battle lines of the post-Oscar era have begun to take shape. Two fighters stand poised to inherit the 'crown, both with such compelling (and contrasting) claims on the throne that they may as well represent the houses of Lancaster and York. But as Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather jostle to become the sport's new reigning king, there's reason to suspect that the next generation of boxing will not be dominated by a single, over-arching superstar, but rather by a talented group of worthy contenders all vying for top-dog status.

To hear Floyd Mayweather tell it, however, those contenders are all pretenders. "I'm the cash cow," he says regularly. "All roads lead to me."

Mayweather certainly made a strong case for that claim in his fight with Juan Manuel Marquez in September. In a virtuosic performance, he showed not a trace of ring rust after a near two-year absence from boxing, pitching a virtual shutout on the scorecards against a man deemed among the top two or three pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

At the box office, the event was a blockbuster success, doing a million pay-per-view buys and confounding the predictions of many boxing insiders who thought it would struggle with sales due to the pronounced size difference between the welterweight Mayweather and the lightweight Marquez.

"Floyd proved himself as the A-side of an event-type fight," says HBO boxing analyst, Max Kellerman. "He proved that he is now an event-maker like Oscar was."
The fight was a mismatch, as it turned out, but fans tuned in anyway. For Floyd Mayweather, the star of the show, that success was almost as satisfying as his victory in the ring. "Floyd proved himself as the A-side of an event-type fight," says HBO boxing analyst, Max Kellerman. "He proved that he is now an event-maker like Oscar was."

Mayweather, however, is not the only man to anchor a major boxing event in 2009. In May, Manny Pacquiao generated rave reviews and media buzz when he knocked out Ricky Hatton in front of a packed house at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The fight did 850,000 pay-per-view buys, announcing to everyone that the Filipino sensation known as Pac Man had officially crossed over to mainstream stardom in the U.S.

Most expect Pacquaio's November 14th bout with Miguel Cotto to equal or exceed the Hatton numbers, and though Cotto is acknowledged as perhaps the toughest opponent of his career, Pacquiao remains a heavy favorite to win the fight. If Pacquaio does get past Cotto, and the event matches the PPV success of Mayweather/Marquez, it sets up a natural super-fight for 2010 in which the winner could immediately inherit De La Hoya's place atop the sport. A Pacquiao-Mayweather fight could be the best thing to happen to boxing in a long time, even better than the attention-grabbing mega-fights of the De La Hoya era.

"Sports are at their strongest," says Kellerman, "when their No. 1 box office attraction is also their best participant. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali. The problem with De La Hoya was that during the period where he was the number one box office attraction, he was never the best guy. What's interesting about a potential Pacquiao vs. Mayweather situation is that the winner of that fight would certainly be viewed as the best fighter in the sport and the biggest box office attraction."

Of course, doubts linger about either Pacquiao or Mayweather possessing enough star power to carry boxing in the fashion of De La Hoya. With Mayweather, there's the issue of his fighting identity as a consummately skilled boxer whose bouts are often less than exhilarating to watch. Then there is the simple question of casting. Floyd has played the villain for years now, and though "bad guys" often have been huge stars in boxing, Mayweather may find it hard to reach a De La Hoya-level of universal appeal while working the Darth Vader angle.

For his part, Pacquiao has the good guy role down pat. He's humble, eminently likable, and thrill-a-minute in the ring. His electrifying style has won him a devoted cult of fans among professional athletes—Kevin Garnett, Derek Jeter, and Kobe Bryant among them.

But is he a true Golden Boy? Will the American sports audience ever completely give itself over to a small Filipino fighter who speaks very little English? And will Pacquiao stick around long enough to see it happen? Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, has said that his charge will fight only once more after Cotto, and he's even gone so far as to suggest that Cotto might be his last bout.

There are, of course, many more fighters on the scene today who could become breakout stars—Cotto, Andre Berto, Chad Dawson, Paul Williams. There's a former pound-for-pound king, Shane Mosley, still at the top of his game and holding a major belt at 147 pounds, and a young welterweight in Mexico, Saul Alvarez, is already being anointed the heir to Julio Cesar Chavez.

De La Hoya's retirement ended a chain of dominant superstars in boxing that can be traced back to the 1960's, from Oscar to Tyson to Sugar Ray Leonard to Muhammad Ali. But the baton was not passed seamlessly among that quartet. In the pre-Tyson period from about 1982 to 1986, when Ali had retired and Ray Leonard fought only twice, the sport was dominated not by one gigantic superstar, but a handful of big names, names like Larry Holmes, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran and Ray Mancini.

This is a period remembered by boxing fans as a golden era for the sport. Today, the fight game has the same potential for a group of thrilling and talented fighters, many occupying the same general weight penumbra, to fill the De La Hoya vacuum with a cutthroat struggle for supremacy in which boxing fans are the definitive winners. It's good to keep this in mind as we sit and wonder whether Pacquiao or Mayweather will be the next monarch of boxing's unruly kingdom. Maybe it will be neither, and maybe, the kingdom will be all the better for it.

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