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December 18, 2014

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On day of big fight, De La Hoya contending with a demon of his own

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Steve Marcus

Oscar De La Hoya, president of Golden Boy Promotions, attends a news conference at the MGM Grand Wednesday, May 1, 2013.

De La Hoya Retrospective

Oscar De La Hoya celebrates his win over Julio Cesar Chavez on the shoulders of his trainer at Caesars Palace in 1996. Launch slideshow »

Discussions with Oscar De La Hoya about his sobriety came with a caveat, a disclaimer he provided: He slipped up occasionally.

Addicts often do, though because this was the Golden Boy, master of his own narrative, he declined to delve into specifics, whether it was a sip here or a bender there. Still, because he is a born raconteur, De La Hoya could not help but slip in a clue every now and again. He often noted his ability to manipulate those closest to him, not sure if this was a good thing, bad thing or both.

De La Hoya checked back into a treatment center this week, perhaps his biggest week since he retired as one of the most popular boxers ever. He will miss the fight of the year, set up by him and his Golden Boy Promotions.

It all aligned so perfectly, the way De La Hoya’s stories tend to. Here was his protégé, Saul Alvarez, who is known as Canelo, against his nemesis, Floyd Mayweather Jr. Here was a fighter mentored by De La Hoya who could blemish Mayweather’s perfect record, who could do tonight in Las Vegas what De La Hoya never could: shut Mayweather up.

Instead, De La Hoya will stare at another sort of fight: his own, akin, he says, to facing Mayweather, Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins and Manny Pacquiao all at once. The public has seen, and will continue to witness, the dichotomy that his struggles with sobriety have highlighted: the gulf between a life that seems so perfect and a man who is so tortured.

“I’ll always carry that,” De La Hoya said last month on a golf course in the Los Angeles area that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. “Even though it got to the point where it almost destroyed everything I have.”

In the weeks leading up to the fight, De La Hoya gave The New York Times access to his inner circle, to golf outings, television appearances and business meetings in Los Angeles and New York. He wanted to present, again, the perfect image to the world: that of the husband who turned 40 in February, of the father reconnected with his children, of the rare fighter who conquered boxing promotion after he retired.

But the tension between De La Hoya and his old nemesis drew him back into the story line. Even in retirement, he played the chief Mayweather antagonist, which meant he would have to tell and retell his own story, from the Olympic gold medal to the pictures of him in fishnets and boxing gloves.

He went to rehab two years ago for alcohol and cocaine abuse. He stopped denying that the scandalous pictures that surfaced on the Internet were of him. He revealed how trying to live up to his nickname, to that mythical ideal, had left him suicidal.

Even when De La Hoya did right, he couldn’t do right. When he knocked out an aging Julio Cesar Chavez, the Mexican boxing icon, and returned for a parade in his old neighborhood, East Los Angeles, the assembled booed and threw eggs in his direction. So many of those critics were, like him, of Mexican descent. He harbored that for years, the idea he was not Mexican enough.

The controversial loss to Felix Trinidad, the lawsuit with Top Rank Boxing, the way Pacquiao rearranged his face — he never felt accepted. De La Hoya put together an album of ballads in his mother’s memory, and he took the process seriously and earned a Grammy nomination alongside Christina Aguilera and Shakira. He could see the other fighters, their reaction to his makeup artists and hairstylists. He could hear the whispers: “There goes Ricky Martin.”

He grew up in a household devoid of emotion. He took his first sip of booze at age 9. He took all those insecurities, all the rage that surged inside him, and he channeled it into the perfect image, or the appearance of one, anyway. Away from the fights, he crashed. He drank. He snorted. He did what he calls “the dressing up” in the pictures he swore he did not remember taking.

It took so much out of him to enter the ring — every fight a Super Bowl, the lights on, the cameras flashing, alone in there, exposed. Even after he retired, dozens of people depended on his success: those who worked for him, their families, his family and all the hangers-on.

He hid all signs of weakness. He was good at that. Yet, he would return home from nightclubs, the entourage in tow, and they would stay up all hours, blasting music, until everyone left and he sat there on the couch, alone and sobbing.

“I’ve always tried to please everyone,” he said. “To convince you that I’m a good person, that I’m a good guy. I’ve always gone out of my way to paint the perfect picture of myself. I want that acceptance. I want you to like me.”

He took a particular interest in Alvarez. It was as if De La Hoya believed his prodigy could contribute to his salvation. Alvarez is not only the best Golden Boy boxer its best since the Golden Boy himself. That Alvarez is Mexican, redheaded, freckled and hits with the force of a demolition crane caught even Mayweather’s attention.

De La Hoya told Alvarez he changed, same as De La Hoya told everyone he changed, and the facade held until this week, when something — something significant enough for De La Hoya to miss his apex as a promoter — waylaid him.

In recent years, De La Hoya said he always fought various urges, be they booze, drugs or even golf. This summer he played 43 days in a row before he forced himself to take a break. And a year ago he asked his wife for permission to box again — she responded with classic wife-speak: “Do what makes you happy” — even if that meant a return to the life where his spiral started.

Whether lacing up his gloves was simply naïveté or a legitimate possibility is unclear. Large parts of De La Hoya’s life remained blurry by design. He would say, “This is what it feels like to start all over again,” and then he would say, “My story isn’t about redemption, no.”

There was one thing of which Oscar De La Hoya was certain — one particular metaphor he used to explain his story, tidy as it may be. He said the hardest thing in boxing is when a fighter is knocked down and must lift himself from the canvas, knowing he will inevitably lose.

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