Pro fight No. 11
Opponent: Narciso Valenzuela (35-13-2)
Date: Oct. 30, 1993, in Phoenix
Result: De La Hoya by KO in 1
Why it matters: Fighting for the 11th time in less than a year since turning pro in late 1992, undefeated De La Hoya, 20, was knocked down for the first time in his boxing life, including his more than 200 amateur bouts. His swift and brutal retaliation gave the first glimpse of a wicked ring tenacity that De La Hoya's charming public persona camouflages -- and revealed his underrated mean streak.
Less than a minute into the fight, De La Hoya stepped forward to land his signature overhand right-left hook combination to Valenzuela's head, but the Mexican journeyman, a veteran of 50 pro fights, took the blows and gave them right back. With De La Hoya's hands still low and his head exposed after the punches, Valenzuela returned a left jab and a short, hard right that caught De La Hoya square on the chin. It sent him back onto the seat of his pants.
The Golden Boy rolled over, stood near the ropes and shrugged to his handlers, embarrassed over the flash knockdown. Then he went back down to his knee to regroup until the referee's count reached eight.
"I got right back up, and then I thought maybe I should just take it easy, go back down, just rest for a while," he said afterward, though he didn't need a rest. "I've watched other pro fighters get knocked down, great champions, and learned from them."
He delivered retribution quickly after that. Four straight brutal punches to Valenzuela's head had the opponent down 30 seconds later, and De La Hoya pumped his fist over his victim, in the kind of vengeful gloating over a rival that would appear later in his snarls over the fallen bodies of Fernando Vargas and Ricardo Mayorga. Valenzuela rose, with the referee needing to hold back De La Hoya, who finished off Valenzuela about half a minute later, putting him down for good with a two-fisted barrage. Valenzuela landed six punches in the fight.
It was De La Hoya's fourth first-round knockout, but he would never have another. He moved up to face more durable competition and won the WBO super featherweight title in his next bout in 10 rounds.
Pro fight No. 19
Opponent: Genaro Hernandez (32-0-1)
Date: Sept. 9, 1995, in Las Vegas
Result: De La Hoya by TKO6
Why it matters: Hernandez, a former and future world champion from South Central Los Angeles (De La Hoya is from East Los Angeles), was seen as the first major test for De La Hoya. By 22, De La Hoya had picked up titles at 130 and 135 pounds but wasn't yet considered among the world's elite fighters.
De La Hoya dominated Hernandez in this lightweight title fight, outboxing a skilled boxer, making an undefeated champion quit.
De La Hoya used newfound defensive tactics to set up his attack (an approach that he carried too far in losing a later decision to Felix Trinidad but that likely will come into play as he battles Floyd Mayweather Jr.). Earlier in 1995, De La Hoya had endured a 12-round war that saw aggressive John-John Molina bull-rush, bang on and frustrate him. After that punishing battle, De La Hoya tuned up his defense. He worked on bending at the waist and moving his head more to make opponents miss so he could exploit their mistakes.
Against Hernandez, De La Hoya showed little respect for his opponent (he had called him "Generic" instead of "Genaro" in prefight trash talk) and displayed new movement, hopping back and forth, slipping under punches. He landed a vicious right uppercut in the fourth. In the sixth, he bloodied Hernandez's nose and began finding opportunities to tee off. A left hook broke Hernandez's nose and ultimately caused the veteran to give up, for his first time, after Round 6 ended.
Hernandez landed only 23 percent of his punches against the newly elusive De La Hoya, who connected on 48 percent. Hernandez would lose only one other time in his 41-fight career -- three years later against Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Pro fight No. 32
Opponent: Felix Trinidad (35-0)
Date: Sept. 18, 1999, in Las Vegas
Result: Trinidad by majority decision, 12
Why it matters: De La Hoya's most famous loss was one of his best performances -- many observers scored the so-called Fight of the Millennium in his favor -- and the way the judges failed to appreciate De La Hoya's boxing strategy in this welterweight title bout against Trinidad might influence how De La Hoya approaches Mayweather.
Undefeated Trinidad came with a reputation as a devastating puncher but a somewhat stationary target. De La Hoya came out with a plan for cautious engagement. He stuck and moved. Rather than standing in front of his opponent and shifting back and forth as usual, from Round 1 he began circling left around Trinidad, flicking jabs.
"People know I'm a warrior. I can stay in there with anybody. But I wanted to demonstrate a boxing show," De La Hoya explained in the ring after the decision was announced. "And I guess people didn't appreciate that tonight."
De La Hoya blocked punches and, when the two fighters engaged, showed a fast and heavy right hand. Trinidad landed punches, too, but De La Hoya ended early rounds with flurries and seemed to be piling up points. In Rounds 6 and 7, he was bouncing, keeping his distance, circling alternately in both directions. But by Round 9, Trinidad began finding his range, pressing and landing shots. De La Hoya started holding on in the 10th and seemed to be running away by the 11th. With 50 seconds left in the fight, Trinidad landed a big left to De La Hoya's cheek, sending him back.
It took that last round for Trinidad to win it, narrowly, on the judges' scorecards (115-114 and 115-113 for Trinidad and one at 114-114).
"I thought I put on a boxing lesson of a lifetime," De La Hoya said afterward, smiling but disappointed, as falling confetti stuck to the sweaty fighters in the ring. "People were expecting me to duke it out but I was making him miss, and making him pay, and, uh, I'm hurt. I'm hurt inside emotionally. Next time, I'll be a brawler."
Trinidad's style isn't much like Mayweather's, but prefight speculation about De La Hoya's strategy seems split on whether he should put constant pressure on Mayweather or play a strategic chess match, as he did with Trinidad. The latter strategy, even if effective, has burned De La Hoya before.
Pro fight No. 34
Opponent: Shane Mosley (34-0)
Date: June 17, 2000, in Los Angeles
Result: Mosley by split decision, 12
Why it matters: Mayweather might be the quickest fighter De La Hoya has faced yet. That's not good. De La Hoya's worst problems -- almost his only problems in the ring -- have been in trying to handle quick-handed, elusive boxers. Rabbit-quick Mosley beat him twice. Pernell Whitaker and Ike Quartey both knocked De La Hoya down and frustrated him as they slipped his shots, both losing close, disputable decisions.
De La Hoya returned to his usual style in this first Mosley bout, standing square to his opponent and mostly flat-footed in the center of the ring, looking for openings for his left hook and right. For defense, he tried to catch Mosley's gloves with his own. But Mosley was jabbing well and landed sharp rights over De La Hoya's lowered left hand. Mosley said afterward that he was able to score with his right effectively because De La Hoya "wanted to land the left hook so bad."
The two fighters mixed it up in furious flurries nearly every round. De La Hoya was mostly the one walking forward, but Mosley got punches off faster and countered well. In Round 7, Mosley followed a left to his body with a hard right to De La Hoya's face. The better Mosley did, the looser he got, and the looser he got, the better he performed. He became more active, throwing a fight-high 76 punches in Round 9. Round 12 climaxed with a wild slugfest, as Mosley seemed to land the better blows.
The back-and-forth battle between two exquisitely conditioned boxers was difficult to score. Neither man was hurt. Mosley ended up landing 42 percent of his punches to just 36 percent for De La Hoya, with Mosley's advantage surprisingly coming from "power" (nonjab) shots, which he landed at a 57 percent rate. Mosley got the split decision. In the end, he just "outhustled" the 27-year-old De La Hoya, as TV commentator George Foreman put it.
In their 2003 rematch, De La Hoya jabbed and moved to neutralize Mosley's speed successfully in early rounds, but Mosley's late surge won him a disputed decision. It's no surprise De La Hoya is sparring with Mosley to prepare for Mayweather's quickness.
Pro fight No. 42
Opponent: Ricardo Mayorga (28-5-1)
Date: May 6, 2006, in Las Vegas
Result: De La Hoya by TKO6
Why it matters: For De La Hoya, this junior middleweight comeback bout was a win-or-go-home proposition. He had taken nearly 20 months off after his 2004 loss to bigger Bernard Hopkins in an unwise campaign at middleweight. His business success and seemingly fading ring skills made him a good candidate for retirement at 33. But his decisive victory made a statement that he wasn't finished yet, and it earned him a ticket to the possible $30 million payday against Mayweather.
De La Hoya always has eaten up opponents like Mayorga who stand in front of him with a disregard for the finer points of defense, with minimal lateral movement or head motion. Julio Cesar Chavez, Vargas, Arturo Gatti -- even Trinidad -- usually were cooked when they stepped into De La Hoya's kitchen.
Mayorga was considered a crude boxer, but this was his WBC junior middleweight belt at stake. And he had lineal superiority over De La Hoya. Mayorga had beaten Vernon Forrest twice. Forrest had beaten Mosley twice, and Mosley had beaten De La Hoya twice. None of that seemed to matter, though, as this matchup was a mismatch.
Less than a minute into the fight, De La Hoya dropped Mayorga to the canvas with a picture-book combination (right cross-left hook) like the ones he threw a dozen years earlier. Mayorga hung in there, though. He cracked De La Hoya's chin with a monster uppercut in the third as De La Hoya moved straight back. He landed more shots in Round 4. Ultimately, De La Hoya's skills prevailed. He staggered and dropped Mayorga in the sixth, then unleashed the kind of furious two-handed finish he'd used so many times before, with Mayorga defenseless on the ropes, to persuade referee Jay Nady to stop the fight.
De La Hoya showed he could still be a closer. He rediscovered his comfort zone offensively -- and might not stray much from it against Mayweather. But Mayweather will be much harder to hit and a more accurate puncher, and De La Hoya will need to figure out how to balance constant defensive movement with his attack.
Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.