One-on-one with Oscar De La Hoya: Are celebrity fights good for the sport of boxing?

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Oscar De La Hoya remembers the initial surprise, the annoyance and the dawning of reality.

“I could see what was going to happen,” De La Hoya told me this week. “And there wasn’t much we could do about it.”

In the fall of 2017, De La Hoya and his Golden Boy promotional company were about to stage one of boxing’s juiciest clashes of modern times, a long-anticipated war between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin that would determine who could claim the No. 1 spot in the pound-for-pound rankings.

And yet, in the weeks leading up to the clash at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, one thing became resoundingly and painfully clear. In terms of pay-per-view sales and crossover interest, the bout was going to get blown out of the water by a novelty matchup dubbed by many as a “freak show.”

While Alvarez and Golovkin preferred to let their fists do the talking, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor traded insults and outdid each other with crass stunts as part of a wild promotional tour for a clash between a retired boxing icon and a mixed martial arts fighter.

McGregor, many said, had no business being in the same ring as Mayweather, just like Mayweather would have been torn apart had the pair met in the MMA octagon. But the public didn’t care, ramping up the outrageous PR shenanigans and subscribing to the PPV – staged three weeks before Canelo-GGG – in droves.

“Canelo and GGG were these great, amazing boxers, the very best of the best,” De La Hoya said. “But Canelo didn’t speak English and Golovkin didn’t say anything interesting to promote the fight.

“Then you had Mayweather and McGregor who were bigger than life, bringing all the trash talk, always doing something to get people interested and they had a huge following. Not that it was frustrating, but it makes you realize it is all in the marketing. It is a whole new world now.”

In some ways, it was the start of a phenomenon that has taken over boxing and continues to wildly split opinion. The definition of a big fight now can potentially mean something very different from simply seeing two highly credentialed punchers meeting up with a belt on the line.

Mayweather-McGregor was soon followed by a scrap between rapper KSI and YouTuber Logan Paul that started with a Twitter beef and stacked up over a million PPVs. Paul’s brother Jake took things a step further and now has four pro bouts, all wins, under his belt, the latest being a headlining split decision victory over former UFC champion Tyron Woodley on Sunday.

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Mayweather and Logan Paul fought an exhibition earlier this year and there have been many more boxing matches that didn’t necessarily feature two current professional boxers.

Mike Tyson fought at the age of 54, octagon legend Anderson Silva defeated an out of shape Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and, at the more bizarre end of the scale, former NBA star Lamar Odom beat the chorus out of 2000s pop star Aaron Carter, who was about half his size.

Now it is De La Hoya’s turn. At 48 and more than a decade removed from a career-ending defeat to Manny Pacquiao, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist enjoyed phenomenal popularity in his heyday. On Sept. 11 he will face former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort at Staples Center, to be broadcast by Triller Fight Club.

“I grew up with a traditional way of boxing thinking,” De La Hoya added. “But we are in an era of evolution. People are interested in YouTubers and personalities. Having followers matters. People are making fights based off what will sell. I am living in both worlds right now.

“I definitely don’t look down at the (Jake Pauls), I actually look up to it. I see Jake Paul fight and I think ‘all those new fans for boxing.’ When those fans see a fight for a championship they will appreciate and understand it more.”

Boxing is in a strange and fascinating place and there is frenzied discussion about whether the influx of bouts made based on notoriety rather than pure ability is saving the sport or sending it to the gallows.

But Paul’s win over Woodley gained the kind of widespread traction that can’t be ignored. De La Hoya says his fight with Belfort is a proper contest and cites his opponent’s history of having nearly made the Brazil Olympic boxing team as a youngster.

Either way, many will be tempted to tune in simply to see how much the Golden Boy can possibly have left, a couple of decades after his prime.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

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