Sacking managers, not other boxers

 

Just a year ago Oscar De La Hoya was considered by many to be the top pugilist, pound-for-pound, on the planet. Today he may only be the third-best boxer in Los Angeles. Rest assured, in any case, that there will be an abundance of testimony claiming exactly that if and when a breach-of-contract lawsuit De La Hoya filed this week against promoter Bob Arum ever gets to trial.

Eleven months ago, The Golden Boy tumbled from the ranks of the unbeaten when he was out-pointed by Puerto Rico's Felix Trinidad in what was billed as the "Fight of the Millennium".

Thanks in part to some skilful manoeuvring on the part of Arum, De La Hoya was able to reclaim the World Boxing Council welterweight championship just a few months later.

When Trinidad vacated his 147 lb-titles after defeating David Reid for the World Boxing Association light-middleweight championship, the WBC retroactively conferred championship status on the winner of De La Hoya's February Madison Square Garden fight against Derrell Coley.

Then, in his very next outing, De La Hoya was beaten by his boyhood rival Shane Mosley at Los Angeles' Staples Centre in June.

He had begged out of a rematch, asking time to promote his forthcoming music CD and accompanying videos, and had not been heard from again until he dropped his bombshell on Tuesday.

De La Hoya circulated a press release announcing that he had filed suit in a California Federal Court seeking to terminate his relationship with Arum, a man who had helped him earn an estimated $150 million over the past half-dozen years. Arum's response was swift and to the point.

"He may have run from Trinidad, but he ain't running from me," said the promoter.

Arum said that De La Hoya had "no backbone, no loyalty". Critics of his performances against Trinidad and Mosley would wholeheartedly endorse the former assessment, and the latter is more or less a matter of public record.

When he turned professional following his gold medal-winning performance in the 1992 Barcelona Games, De La Hoya shunned his prospective manager Shelly Finkel, who had out of his own pocket paid the hospital bills and chemotherapy costs of his mother, who was dying of cancer.

He subsequently dumped his original managers Robert Mittelman and Steve Nelson to sign with a Los Angeles automobile dealer named Mike Hernandez. Last year Hernandez got the gate as well.

When it became apparent that his amateur trainer Robert Alcazar was, well, an amateur, De La Hoya sought the counsel of a whole succession of more experienced professionals, and then fired them all.

Jesus Rivero, a mystical Mexican fight guru known as "The Professor", got his walking papers after it was learned that, besides teaching De La Hoya defense, he was teaching him Shakespeare as well.

Emanuel Steward, who has trained a whole host of world champions ranging from Tommy Hearns to Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed, wasn't good enough for De La Hoya. The venerable Gil Clancy, who came out of retirement to work the Golden Boy's corner, was similarly dismissed - and those were all before the Mosley loss.

"Oscar has not learned how to deal with defeat," said Arum. "He looks for a scapegoat, and this time the arrow fell on me. He blames me, maybe because I didn't fix the judges."

Although De La Hoya's contract with Arum's Top Rank, Inc. had three more years to run, the boxer, who is allegedly now being advised by the agents for Los Angeles Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal, filed suit to terminate the relationship.

De La Hoya's complaint cites Arum's ambivalence about his boxing future as revealed in a recent Los Angeles Times interview, in which Arum was quoted as saying he hoped De La Hoya "would go into the music business full time.

"I really like the kid," Arum told the LA newspaper. "Why would I want to see him get hit in the head anymore? I wouldn't have any of my own sons in boxing."

Arum was a star witness for the government in its star-crossed prosecution of International Boxing Federation president Bob Lee. From the witness box, Arum testified to having paid bribes to the IBF in return for favoured treatment, and last month was disciplined by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (Top Rank is headquartered in Las Vegas), which fined him $150,000 and placed him on six months probation for his admitted role.

When Lee was subsequently convicted of lesser charges, but acquitted on the bribery counts, Arum reacted with indignation, pointing out that he had effectively been punished before the fact for paying bribes, even though the jury had effectively ruled that Lee had not been bribed at all.

De La Hoya's suit charged that Arum admitted payments to Lee, and the subsequent fine and sanctions by the NSAC, constituted a further breach of the contract because Arum's admissions in the Lee trial diminished Top Rank's "legitimate and moral standing essential to effective promotion", but the heart of the lawsuit appears to be based upon De La Hoya's claim of what he perceives to be the promoter's lack of enthusiasm about his boxing future.

Arum said on Tuesday that he hadn't spoken to De La Hoya since the day after the Mosley fight. Moreover, Arum, a one-time Assistant US Attorney in the Kennedy administration, maintained that, by going public with his charges, De La Hoya had himself breached their contract, and direly warned of a countersuit.

The timing of the lawsuit almost certainly negates the possibility that a planned January rematch with Mosley will occur on schedule. Meanwhile, the next place you're apt to see the Golden Boy is on MTV. The new CD hits the stands next month.

Regardless of the outcome of any countersuit he might file, Arum doesn't sound as if he expects to promote De La Hoya again.

"If he doesn't really want to fight and he wants to pursue a singing career and he's involving himself with nonsense like this lawsuit," said the promoter. "Sure, he should retire."