Win or lose, De La Hoya will be due for criticism

The word from Oscar De La Hoya's camp in the weeks leading up to Saturday's bout with Manny Pacquiao was that he was sporting a skinny physique, largely thanks to a new diet that includes kangaroo meat.

But although De La Hoya can shed weight, he can't shed the image he has going into the bout: that he's a substantially bigger man facing a fighter who began his career at 106 pounds.

If Depression era heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey were alive, he might've warned De La Hoya to steer clear of Pacquiao because fighting a small opponent can be a no-win situation. Sharkey never lived down the fact that the pint-sized Mickey Walker once held him to a 15-round draw.

The New York Times' James P. Daley lambasted Sharkey after the fight, who outweighed Walker by 29 pounds when they met at Ebbets Field in 1931. "It was like a clumsy St. Bernard, cumbersome with his own size, charging after a cagy, elusive bulldog," Daley wrote.

Other news agencies tore into Sharkey as well.

"He looked ridiculous at times, valiantly holding on to the little fellow who hardly came up to his chin," The Associated Press reported. Most scalding was the headline for Henry McLemore's UP column: "Sharkey may now battle flyweights!"

No matter the outcome, the bigger fighter is the one due for criticism. If he wins by decision, he's criticized for not scoring a knockout. If he scores a knockout, he's labeled a bully and criticized for picking on a little guy.

The smaller fighter always is the one who gets the acclaim in these matchups. Walker, a former welterweight and middleweight champion, was praised eternally for the performance he put forth against Sharkey. Perhaps this is why the De La Hoya camp has talked so long and loud about his weight loss. If it can convince the paying public that De La Hoya has starved himself, people might forget his size advantage and stop referring to the bout as a mismatch.

Sharkey told author Peter Heller in 1970 that the bad press following the Walker bout didn't bother him. "As long as I got paid, I minded my own business and went home, banked my money and laughed all the way to the bank," Sharkey said.

The bank is always the key factor when these sorts of matches are made, as was the case in 1983 when middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler agreed to face former lightweight champion Roberto Duran. It was Hagler's first serious payday, and Duran was the first recognizable fighter on Hagler's ledger.

Duran, a legend at lightweight, briefly held title belts at 147 and 154 pounds, but he was a 4-1 underdog against the naturally bigger Hagler. Virtually every writer in the country had picked Hagler to win by an easy knockout.

Somehow, Hagler got the notion that Duran still packed the same punch he'd had as a lightweight. The bout turned into a teaser, with Hagler lying back, content to land counter shots, while Duran huffed and puffed, landing just enough right hands to keep things close. To the surprise of most, the fight went the distance, and Duran nearly stole the middleweight title. The scorecards were for Hagler, but one judge had him ahead by just one point.

''I got to blame myself,'' Hagler told The New York Times about his cautious performance. ''I was a little tight."

Some complimented Hagler for handling the spotlight of his first major Las Vegas fight, and in recent years, Hagler has spoken proudly of the night he beat Duran.

At the time, though, many thought Hagler's cautious approach undid his reputation as a destroyer. "The fight belonged to Duran, even if the decision didn't," Bert Randolph Sugar wrote in The Ring, referring to Hagler as "Marginal Marvin."

Fortunately for Hagler, he fought several more times and erased the memory of his dull tussle with Duran. De La Hoya, though, is talking retirement. He might not make another fight to erase the memory of a subpar performance against a smaller fighter if he fails to impress.

De La Hoya also should take note that the smaller fighter sometimes gets a break from the judges. For instance, most observers agreed that Sharkey and Hagler were disappointing in their bouts against Walker and Duran, respectively, but most disagreed with the closeness of the scorecards.

Maybe the judges focused so much on Walker and Duran that they didn't pay complete attention to what the larger fighters were doing. Couple this with the fact that Pacquiao's electric style has impressed judges in the past, and there's reason to believe that if Pacquiao is still standing at the end of 12 rounds, the decision could go his way.

Perhaps like Sharkey, De La Hoya will just laugh all the way to the bank. He's certainly done so in the past. He was doing it long before he introduced kangaroo meat into his diet.

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring magazine.