LAS VEGAS — The day after winning the only gold medal for the U.S. boxing team in the 1992 Olympics, Oscar De La Hoya was pulled out of bed to sit next to swimmer Janet Evans and talk about the success of American athletes in Barcelona.
Little did U.S. Olympic officials know that the 19-year-old had gotten so drunk the night before while celebrating his win that his family had to carry him back to his room. Now he sat wearing dark sunglasses in front of a room full of journalists, so hung over that he couldn’t stay awake long enough to answer the simplest of questions.
"I’m sitting at this little table and Janet Evans is next to me with I don’t know how many golds," De La Hoya said, "And I just fall asleep. They’re asking me questions and I don’t know what was happening. I just kept hearing `Oscar, Oscar.’"
The drinking didn’t stop even as he became the Golden Boy and embarked on a spectacular pro career where he pocketed, by his own estimates, $300 million. When it finally ended in December 2008 with a beating at the hands of Manny Pacquiao, De La Hoya’s toughest opponent hadn’t changed.
The bottle remained unbeaten.
"When I fought Pacquiao, two weeks before the fight I was plastered out of my mind," De La Hoya said.
Boxing history is littered with similar tales of fighters and addiction problems. Most don’t end well, though Sugar Ray Leonard and Julio Cesar Chavez overcame the odds to tell their tales of alcohol abuse and drug problems.
De La Hoya wants to tell his story, too. At 41, he finally seems comfortable with himself following a three-month stint in a Malibu rehabilitation center where he wasn’t even allowed to see his wife and six children.
He says he’s finally overcome his demons. It feels good to talk about them because he believes they’re gone for good.
He’s back fighting, this time in the board room instead of the ring. At stake in the battle with his former CEO Richard Schaefer is control of his boxing company, Golden Boy Promotions, and De La Hoya makes it clear that he’s in this fight to win.
More importantly, though, he says he’s taken control of his life after being lost for years.
"I finally feel free. I finally feel at peace for the very first time in my life," he said during an hour-long interview with The Associated Press at the MGM Grand Hotel. De La Hoya is here to promote rising Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez against Erislandy Lara in what he calls "maybe the biggest weekend of my life" because this promotion is his alone.
Before his latest rehab, De La Hoya said, he was content to let Schaefer and others run the company while he tried to enjoy himself.
"I didn’t want the responsibility," he said. "I’m the Golden Boy. I was supposed to have everything."
That it’s taken two rehabs to get to where he is now isn’t lost on De La Hoya, who in addition to his own career takes credit for launching the careers of some of his opponents — most notably Floyd Mayweather Jr. — into big pay-per-view successes. De La Hoya for years was the biggest draw in boxing of anyone not named Mike Tyson, and he says his fights grossed $700 million on pay-per-view sales alone.
He’s still got the money because he was smart about that. Took some advice given to him as boy when his dad took him to a gym in East Los Angeles to get some tutoring from former lightweight champion Ike Williams.
"My dad thought he was going to teach me how to throw a left hook or something," De La Hoya said. "But he said `The only advice I’m going to give you is to keep your money.’ That always stuck with me."
While De La Hoya has stashed some of his money safely away, he’s also invested well. He owns a high-rise in LA, has a piece of the Houston Dynamo soccer club and is the majority shareholder in Golden Boy Promotions, which he called "the best investment of any of them."
And when he drives in downtown Los Angeles he can always go check out his statue in front of Staples Center. The kid from East LA grew up to win titles in six weight classes and was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame last month.
International Boxing Hall of Fame 2014 inductee De La Hoya (right) congratulates fellow inductee Felix Trinidad during induction ceremonies in June 2014.
"This is my passion. This is what keeps me alive," he said. "Boxing literally gave me a life as a kid, promoting gave me another life."
He credits his wife, singer Millie Corretjer, for sticking with him through drunken and sometimes embarrassing times.
"I was there being the Golden Boy but I was emotionally disconnected," he said. "I’ve been disconnected emotionally ever since I was a teenager."
Now he is back in spotlight. De La Hoya thinks Alvarez has a chance to become the richest fighter ever if he keeps improving. The red-haired Mexican — whose only loss was last year to Mayweather — is just 23 and is headlining his second pay-per-view show.
De La Hoya’s falling out with Schaefer — who left the company last month — remains to be settled, but De La Hoya says he’s moving forward. He’s reconciled with promoter Bob Arum and is eager to make big fights with his rival company.
Not that it will be easy. There are plenty of enemies out there in boxing, even if you are the Golden Boy.
"There are people who don’t like it and I understand why," De La Hoya said. "But the sleeping giant has woken up."
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Retirement is tough. De La Hoya fought past his prime. Most boxers do fight too long, he said, mostly because they miss the attention. "I would always ask, `Now what?’" De La Hoya said. "What’s going to fill the void of the adrenaline, the excitement, and the cheers in the ring? It shows you can get lost when you stop doing something you love. You’re not prepared to handle it and you can make some wrong choices."
Pay attention to the bad stuff. De La Hoya has some advice for any athlete, not just fighters. Take a look at the bad things that happen, learn from them, and try to avoid the mistakes others have made. "Take a look at my career and look at all the negatives and just don’t do what I did," he said. "It’s easier said than done but it’s true. Don’t look at the good things we did because that’s too easy. Take the bad and what happens in our lives and learn from it."
Mayweather isn’t unbeatable. De La Hoya might have won his 2007 fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. if he would have kept using his jab late in the fight. Age and a bad rotator cuff prevented that, but De La Hoya says Mayweather can be had if fighters keep calm and follow a good game plan. "What happens now is they lose before they step into the ring," he said. "Mayweather outsmarts them."
Boxing isn’t dead. The problems with boxing are simple and easily solved, De La Hoya says. Top boxers like Mayweather need to fight more often, and different promoters have to match their best fighters against boxers with other promoters to make more big fights. De La Hoya says he is all in now on his promotional company, Golden Boy Promotions, and believes the seemingly insatiable demand by sports programmers for live content will keep boxing popular for years to come. "We haven’t even scratched the surface," he said. "This is a business that maybe one day, 20 or 30 years from now, I will sell and it will be big."