Oscar De La Hoya looks to move on

For the average person, admitting flaws can be embarrassing.

For a fighter, it could be fatal.

Admitting there are problems with his style, his power, his focus or his lifestyle can cause doubts to creep in. And a man who walks into the ring with doubts is a dead man.

So it's understandable Oscar De La Hoya would never publicly accept that might have been responsible for some of his defeats in the ring. I'm sure he avoided even accepting it internally. That's why the interview I did with him this week on ESPN was surprising and refreshing.

The headlines are about his alcoholism, his drug addiction, his infidelities and the fleeting thought of suicide that flashed through his mind. But what might have gotten lost in the footnotes was his admission that his addiction might have taken five years off his career.

It might have also taken away his chances for victory in some of his biggest fights.

Before one can be free of an addiction, one has to accept the fact he or she is an addict. That's what De La Hoya learned during his stay in rehab and it is a lesson he has taken with him out into the world. That means acceptance of the limits he placed on himself in life and in the ring.

De La Hoya was torn about becoming a fighter since the day he took his first punch in the face at age 4 from a cousin in a makeshift ring in an uncle's backyard. He left the ring crying that day, vowing he'd never put on the gloves again. But knowing his father and grandfather had been boxers, he ultimately decided he wanted to follow them down that bruising, bumpy road.

Still, part of De La Hoya also wanted to emulate his mother's artistic side. He sang with her as a youngster and went on to record a Grammy-nominated album. He talked about becoming an architect.

So there were two sides to him. There was Oscar De La Hoya and there was the Golden Boy.

Even after all the success he achieved with his fists, after winning a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics and becoming a champion in six weight divisions as a pro, he struggled with his identity.

"Sometimes," he once told me for a story in the Los Angeles Times, "I don't want to be the Golden Boy."

One night during the peak of his career, he came back to his suite in Las Vegas and found a wild party going on, including people he didn't even know.

He walked over to the window, stared out at the bright lights of the Strip, thought back to simpler times at home with his father, Joel, mother Cecelia (who had died years earlier of breast cancer), his brother and the rest of a huge family of aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of the Mexican border.

Feeling like an uninvited guest at his own party, his emotions engulfing him, De La Hoya broke down and started crying.

Perhaps his drinking was caused by a search for solace that he found in a bottle. Now he finally concedes he paid a price for all that drinking. He talked about how, when playing golf, he would shoot around par on the front nine, but go 6 or 7 over on the back side.

What was the problem? Now De La Hoya says he understands. It was the drink cart. The cumulative effect of grabbing a bottle hole after hole caught up with him.

I think we saw the same effect in the ring. I'm not saying he was drinking in the locker room before bouts or that his trainer was spicing up his water bottle between rounds. But his years as an alcoholic obviously took their toll on his conditioning.

One of the great mysteries of De La Hoya's career was how he could look so good in the early rounds of some fights, but then fade in the later rounds.

I think he beat Felix Trinidad in their blockbuster 1999 fight. I and nearly every other boxing writer ringside that night had De La Hoya winning seven of the first nine rounds before running during the last three. Those judges who gave Trinidad a victory by majority decision were wrong.

But it wouldn't have come to that if De La Hoya hadn't spent those final three rounds backpedaling while throwing few punches.

He has since said that he was following orders from his corner, his trainer, Gil Clancy, confident victory was already assured. We all speculated that it was more a matter of Oscar running out of gas. If that was indeed the case, perhaps now we know why.

Had he been sober all those years, who knows how many more fights De La Hoya might have won, how many more years he might have fought?

But he doesn't seem to wallowing in what might have been. He appears more focused on what he still might be. He talks about keeping his family together, being a successful promoter, counseling young fighters on avoiding the pitfalls he fell into and even harboring the fantasy dream of perfecting his golf game to the point that he might compete on the Senior PGA Tour at age 50.

Why not, he still has 12 years to get ready, and has expressed an unconditional resolve to stay away from the drink cart.

Steve Springer is a freelance journalist and the author of 11 books, including "American Son: My Story," with Oscar De La Hoya. He was an award-winning sports writer with the Los Angeles Times for 25 years.