Oscar De La Hoya is working out in a red, white and blue basketball shirt with the number 92 on the back. It is not, he said after a recent workout here, in tribute to a favorite player. Rather, it's a none-too-subtle reminder of the gold medal he won in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
De La Hoya nimbly stretches as he discusses those Olympics, contorting himself like Gumby, all the while flashing that million-dollar grin.
"That's a long time ago," he said, shaking his head. And a lot of weight as well. De La Hoya won his gold medal -- and earned his "Golden Boy" nickname -- by fighting at 132 pounds. When he steps in the ring Saturday night at MGM grand to fight Felix Sturm, he will be making his debut as a middleweight.
The move will bring perhaps boxing's biggest star to one of its most storied divisions -- and in so doing, promoters and observers hope, restore the allure to a weight class that has been home to such legendary fighters as Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns.
De La Hoya is not the only big gun going to the land of the 160-pounders, where Bernard Hopkins has reigned as the undisputed champion since September 2001. Also adding presence to the division are former 147-pound champion Ricardo Mayorga and Felix Trinidad, who comes out of a two-year retirement Oct. 2 to fight Mayorga.
The plan is for De La Hoya and Hopkins to meet on Sept. 18 in one of boxing's richest events should De La Hoya beat Sturm and Hopkins get past Robert Allen. Trinidad-Mayorga is scheduled for two weeks later. If the winners should meet, the purses -- and hype -- would only grow.
"These middleweights are scary guys," De La Hoya said, only half in jest.
Hopkins has held at least a share of the middleweight title since 1995, when he knocked out Segundo Mercado at USAir Arena. He has since made a record 17 successful defenses.
Hopkins is 39 and will be only four months shy of his 40th birthday if he and De La Hoya meet as planned in September. But he has gotten more dominant as he has aged and no one has given him a truly competitive fight in at least five years.
There have been the inevitable comparisons between a potential De La Hoya-Hopkins bout and Hagler-Leonard, the 1987 middleweight classic. Leonard won in a controversial 12-round decision.
But while Hagler was equally as dominant in his era as Hopkins is now and Leonard, the star from Palmer Park, was then boxing's glamour figure, there is a big difference between De La Hoya and Leonard.
Even Bob Arum, who promoted Leonard-Hagler and will promote De La Hoya-Hopkins, concedes that point.
"The thing that makes [a possible De La Hoya-Hopkins fight] compelling is that no one ever expected Oscar to make this move," Arum said. "He's not a big, huge guy who is naturally moving to another weight. And so the story is as much, 'How is he going to be able to handle someone so big and so strong?' as it is anything else."
The leap from welterweight, Leonard's natural weight, to middleweight, was not a big one. But De La Hoya began as a super featherweight and only weighed 128 when he won his first title in 1994.
The division, though, isn't bubbling over with dangerous contenders. That, and De La Hoya's status as boxing's biggest attraction, made a challenge of Hopkins a natural, many boxing observers believe.
"Oscar is a special fighter and the same rules don't apply to Oscar that apply to the vast majority of fighters," said Nigel Collins, editor of Ring magazine. "Every now and then, a guy with such outstanding ability comes along that he can jump weight, going through multiple classes on occasion, and not struggle.
"The division is not stocked with great fighters, partly because Bernard has beaten a lot of them, but there are a lot of guys at junior middleweight who I think can be special and will eventually make the middleweights very interesting."
One of those is Kassim Ouma, a Ugandan who was set to fight Verno Phillips on Saturday for a version of the 154-pound title before he had to pull out because of a muscle strain. Collins said Ouma could be a major factor in the middleweight division in the not-too-distant future, as can undisputed junior middleweight champion Winky Wright.
Then, of course, there is Trinidad, who lost to Hopkins nearly three years ago, the only blemish on a 41-1 record. He will meet Mayorga, who stunned the boxing world in 2003 by twice beating welterweight champ Vernon Forrest. He then lost his title late last year, moved up to 154 in April and has to be considered a threat because of his style and power.
There are enough names out there, Hopkins said, to make the division compelling.
"I'm not even looking ahead to Oscar De La Hoya because I got Robert Allen in front of me," Hopkins said. "And if you watched Antonio Tarver and Roy Jones, you understand that in this game, anything can happen. I know that whenever any of these guys face Bernard Hopkins, it's the Super Bowl for them.
"They are better when they see me than they are against anyone else. Whatever the best they have is, I get it. That's why I have to be as good as I can be every time out."
But while a potential Hopkins-Ouma fight won't get the juices flowing the way a Leonard-Hagler fight did in 1987 or a Sugar Ray Robinson-Jake La Motta fight did in 1943, there would be considerable buzz over Hopkins-De La Hoya, or such rematches as Trinidad-De La Hoya or Trinidad-Hopkins.
"It almost seems to me that when you have a dominant champion, everyone will say there is no one for him to fight and when you don't, they'll say there's no one good at all," Collins said. "But when you look at Bernard, who is clearly a terrific fighter, and look at some of the guys that are out there, starting with Oscar, I think it's obvious that there are going to be some attractive bouts that can be made and that we will hear from this division."
De La Hoya says he understands the risk he is taking, but said he felt the reward justified it. He says by moving to middleweight, he knows he is helping create an event that will energize a sport so frequently mired in controversy.
"I know these middleweights are big and strong and they can punch," De La Hoya said. "And if I lose my concentration for even a second against Hopkins, he can hurt me. But I've watched him and I think I've seen something. He's a great champion, but I think I've seen something and I believe I can do this. And so it made sense for me to go ahead and give it a try."