Fight with Pacquiao is personal for De La Hoya

LAS VEGAS -- Isn't it funny how things work out sometimes?

After all, it was only a little more than two years ago, in September 2006, that a fight with Manny Pacquiao was the furthest thing from Oscar De La Hoya's mind.

De La Hoya was in the midst of a year-long break from boxing following his fight with Ricardo Mayorga. His match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. hadn't even been made yet. De La Hoya was instead focused on promoting Pacquiao, not fighting him, after signing the Filipino icon to a seven-fight contract with De La Hoya's company, Golden Boy Promotions.

Ultimately, Pacquiao never fought for Golden Boy and, after many twists and turns, boxing's most bankable star (De La Hoya) and the pound-for-pound king (Pacquiao) will meet in an unlikely welterweight showdown, the year's biggest fight, at the MGM Grand on Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET).

After everything that happened, De La Hoya is still somewhat surprised the fight is happening.

"No. Never in my wildest dreams," De La Hoya said of the notion that someday he would face Pacquiao. "And that's why this fight is called 'The Dream Match.' I mean, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would fight Manny Pacquiao."

That's because De La Hoya thought they'd be a promoter-fighter team. But what happened in late 2006 -- Pacquiao reneged on the Golden Boy deal after also signing with rival promoter Top Rank -- left a bad taste in De La Hoya's mouth. He viewed what Pacquiao did as a betrayal, which serves as one of the many intriguing story lines surrounding the fight. The incident, De La Hoya says, has made the fight personal for him.

"It's very personal for me," De La Hoya said. "That moment there is what makes it personal, because I don't want him to be talking about honor and how he's honorable and this and that. No, he didn't honor me that night, so I'm not going to honor him come [Saturday]."

"That night" to which De La Hoya refers was the one on which he thought he had signed Pacquiao to become, outside of De La Hoya himself, the franchise fighter for Golden Boy Promotions.

Pacquiao had arrived in Los Angeles from the Philippines ahead of a news conference to announce his third fight with Top Rank's Erik Morales when De La Hoya met him at the airport with a limo and a briefcase filled with $300,000 to serve as a signing bonus. De La Hoya whisked him away for dinner in a private room at an L.A. steakhouse.

During the dinner, which was attended by De La Hoya, Pacquiao, Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, Pacquiao trainer Freddie Roach, Pacquiao attorney Jeng Gacal and a couple of Pacquiao's friends, Pacquiao eventually signed the promotional contract.

A few days later, De La Hoya gloated about signing Pacquiao, believing he had outsmarted Top Rank, which also wanted to sign him.

"It was basically us outthinking the competition," De La Hoya told ESPN.com at the time. "I had a goal and that goal was to sign Manny Pacquiao. We strategized and we figured it out and we were willing to do whatever it took to sign him."

Unbeknownst to De La Hoya, Pacquiao also agreed to a promotional contract with Top Rank, Bob Arum's company, which had long promoted De La Hoya before their acrimonious falling out.

The result of the double signing was a bitter feud between boxing's two biggest promotional powerhouses. There were lawsuits between the companies and a cold war that, to a large degree, paralyzed the sport in the United States because De La Hoya and Arum refused to make deals to match the stars of their stables.

Finally, with both companies drowning in legal bills, they reached a truce in June 2007 with the help of mediator Daniel Weinstein. Under the settlement, Top Rank, to which Pacquiao had pledged his loyalty, retained Pacquiao's promotional rights with Golden Boy receiving a small percentage of his contract.

Since the settlement, the alliance between Golden Boy and Top Rank has been uneasy, but the companies haven't let it stand in the way of their making numerous significant fights, starting with Pacquiao's rematch with Marco Antonio Barrera in October 2007. They've also co-promoted Miguel Cotto versus Shane Mosley and Pacquiao's rematch with Juan Manuel Marquez, and they're putting on the first major fight of 2009, a Jan. 24 fight between Antonio Margarito and Mosley.

But the biggest fight the companies could make was one neither had thought of until HBO's Larry Merchant mused more than a year ago about the possibility of De La Hoya (39-5, 30 KOs), who is coming down from junior middleweight, fighting Pacquiao (47-3-2, 35 KOs), a lightweight titleholder jumping up two weight classes.

It's a fight neither side had conjured up when they reached the settlement.

"We didn't know [about the fight] at the time because Larry Merchant hadn't told us yet," Arum joked.

Even though there has been peace between the companies, De La Hoya said he hasn't forgotten what Pacquiao did to him.

"When he looked into my eyes and I looked into his eyes, and we shook hands and we had a deal, and he talks about honor? I never thought I would fight him," De La Hoya said. "That's also one of the reasons why this fight is so personal to me, because of that night when we signed the deal and he turned his back on me. He's going to have to pay come [Saturday]."

Said Schaefer, "Oscar was very disappointed in Manny. Manny somehow has that ability to attract chaos and I try to tell Oscar it's really Manny attracting this kind of chaos. But Oscar is ticked off. He is very disappointed. And more than once, he said, 'I'm going to make him pay.'"

Pacquiao rarely discusses the episode. When he does, his comments are brief.

When told of De La Hoya's feelings about the situation, Pacquiao offered only, "Well, if that is what he believes, let him do that, let him say that. But for me in the ring, I don't want to make it personal. Nothing personal for me. Just do my job in the ring and win the fight. Nothing personal."

Considering where the sides were two years ago and considering De La Hoya's apparent bad feelings toward Pacquiao, the fight still made for smart business for both sides. De La Hoya will make at least $15 million. Pacquiao will earn at least $11 million.

"Well, I think things happen for a reason," Schaefer said. "And when that whole episode happened -- when Manny signed with two people -- there were some hard feelings between the two promoters. There were some hard feelings on Oscar's part, vice versa with Manny Pacquiao, as well. But, ultimately, once the dust settled, and [what] some writers refer to [as] 'the cold war' was over, the result is you actually come out of these kinds of situations bigger, better and stronger.

"The fact is that Top Rank and Golden Boy in the last 12 months or so have put together some of the biggest fights of our sport. I think we realize we need to do what is the right thing for the sport and for the sport's fans, which is to keep on bringing them the biggest and best fights we can do."

Added Arum, "I also would want to give credit to the mediator, who talked sense into both of us, Judge Daniel Weinstein, who handled the mediation in such a way that it brought both sides together so we could resolve this issue and go on."

Go on to the biggest fight boxing has to offer.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.