Moving on Up
"They're just ignorant," says De La Hoya, 23, of those who resent his defeat of the popular Chavez—not to mention his recent move out of East L.A. to nearby Whittier. "I know I have my fans." Still, there's no denying that the 5'10½", 140-lb. De La Hoya has two tough fights on his hands: one against undefeated Miguel Angel Gonzalez of Mexico (42-0) on Jan. 18 to defend his World Boxing Council super lightweight title, and the other to win over those who accuse him of having abandoned his Mexican roots. "He has a lot of dissenters because the barrio guys are jealous of him," says Johnny Ortiz, the host of a radio show from L.A. on boxing. "They believe he's turned his back on the barrio, feel he's trying to live the white life. He belongs to a country club. He plays golf."
Though De La Hoya—unbeaten in 22 professional bouts—admits he's a golfer, he hardly thinks it makes him a sellout. "I read an article where somebody said, 'Why should De La Hoya play golf if he's not white?' " he says. "Ridiculous. I play golf because I love it." He discovered the game two summers ago when he and a friend trespassed on the private Friendly Hills Country Club in Whittier and hacked their way through 18 holes. De La Hoya liked the game and the course so much that he decided to stick around. "I became a member at Friendly Hills," he laughs. "But I never told them I snuck on."
A 9-handicapper, he even built a putting green at his training compound in the San Bernardino Mountains northeast of L.A., and also spent $1.1 million for a penthouse and two condos in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he's a member of the Cabo Real Country Club. "When I'm not training," he says, "I try to play every day."
The son of Joel De La Hoya, 53, a former professional boxer, De La Hoya has exhibited fierce determination ever since pounding his first heavy bag at age 6. "Boxing is in my blood," he says. "From the day I put on the gloves, it's what I wanted to do." Even his mother, Cecilia, pushed him to excel. "Through boxing it was her dream for me to take our family out of the local neighborhood," he says. "Her words made me want to be a good boxer."
A savage puncher despite his pretty-boy looks, De La Hoya has racked up a 223-5 amateur record since starting at age 7, including a title at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle. His mother delayed radiation treatments for breast cancer to see him win that championship; she died of the disease later that year at age 38. De La Hoya fulfilled a promise to her by winning a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics before turning pro and tasting the good life. "I used to spend $15,000 to $20,000 a week," he recalls, but after his bank account dipped to $7,000 in 1993, he split from his two managers and took control of his spending.
Not that he doesn't occasionally dip into some of the $25 million he has made so far. A bachelor who dates often but who has no steady girlfriend, De La Hoya spared few expenses in decorating his tasteful, two-story Big Bear Lake home, which he lives in while training. De La Hoya helped design the house and plans to become an architect after boxing. "I've been drawing since I was 8," he says. "It's one of my dreams."
Those dreams have indeed taken him out of the barrio, but he hasn't forgotten his roots. Last year, De La Hoya paid $500,000 for the rundown Resurrection Gym, where he used to train, and is spending another $250,000 to turn it into a haven for boxing hopefuls who want to escape East L.A.'s notorious gangs. "My favorite thing about being a champion," he says, "is that I can be a role model for kids." His standing among some adults worries him less. "Life is all about moving up the ladder," says De La Hoya. "It was my mother's dream for us to better our lives. All that talk just gives me more energy to do better."
JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles