Former five-time world champion Roberto Duran, looking several pounds heavier than when he last fought, was sitting in a ballroom near the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Thursday when a reporter asked where he would rank Oscar De La Hoya among the great middleweights. "He wouldn't be on the list," said Duran, whose contemporaries at 160 pounds included Hall of Famers Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler.
De La Hoya is the most popular fighter of this era and easily the richest. He has won championship belts in five weight divisions, six if you include the lightly regarded World Boxing Organization middleweight title he currently holds. His bouts have earned an estimated $400 million from more than 8.5 million pay-per-view buys, riches usually reserved for the sport's most popular heavyweights.
But as De La Hoya prepares to fight Bernard Hopkins in a middleweight unification bout at MGM Grand on Saturday night, he finds himself having to justify his illustrious career, and it's not only former fighters who are questioning him. De La Hoya has lost three times in his last nine fights, and some observers argue he has won only one bout that mattered during the last five years -- an 11th-round knockout of Fernando Vargas for the 154-pound title in 2002.
Still boyishly handsome at 31, De La Hoya's popularity transcends boxing. He recorded a Grammy-nominated album in 2000 and he regularly appears in various national publications' list of beautiful people. West of the Mississippi there is no bigger boxing attraction, yet the Angeleno's legend remains fodder for debate in the days leading up to this fight.
During the last five years, De La Hoya (37-3, 29 knockouts) has lost to Felix Trinidad and twice to Shane Mosley. In his last fight, against unheralded German Felix Sturm, De La Hoya looked out of shape and sluggish in winning a controversial 12-round decision. Based in part on that mediocre performance, De La Hoya goes into Saturday night's fight as an underdog for the first time in his 40-fight career (Las Vegas oddmakers have made Hopkins, 39, a nearly 2-to-1 favorite).
"He's ready for this fight," said his father, Joel De La Hoya. "He's ready to go 12 rounds. This fight, he's focused. He wants to fight this guy."
De La Hoya's critics say he hasn't faced a boxer as menacing as Hopkins (44-2-1, 31 knockouts), an ex-con who has defended his WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight titles a record 18 consecutive times, last losing to Roy Jones Jr. in a narrow decision at RFK Stadium in 1993. And his biggest victories, critics argue, were against fighters who were not at the peak of their powers when De La Hoya stepped in the ring with them. Two examples:
* De La Hoya fought the great Julio Cesar Chavez when the Mexican was near the end of his career -- De La Hoya knocked him out in the 99th and 105th fights of Chavez's career.
* De La Hoya's 1997 win over Pernell Whitaker, a fight that many feel established him as a major figure on the boxing landscape, came at the twilight of Whitaker's career. Whitaker, 33 when he fought De La Hoya, would fight only three more times after losing the decision -- losing twice and vacating a win in the other bout after he tested positive for cocaine.
De La Hoya, due to earn $25 million Saturday, plus a percentage of the pay-per-view revenue, has been criticized for jumping weight divisions to avoid stiff competition, once earning him the nickname "Chicken" De La Hoya. After he beat little-known Dane Jimmi Bredahl for the WBO 130-pound title in 1994, he defended the title only once and didn't fight Hall of Famer Azumah Nelson. He won the 160-pound WBO title by narrowly beating Sturm, who has fought three times outside of his native Germany, only once in the U.S.
Still, he seems a lock to make the sport's Hall of Fame. Yet he realizes a loss to Hopkins will further fuel criticism that his reputation is more of a product of his handsome face and "Golden Boy" image rather than what he has done in the ring since winning a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. De La Hoya has said this will be the last blockbuster fight of his career; he could face one more opponent -- a bout his handlers call a "victory lap" -- win or lose against Hopkins.
"This is the fight where I just suck it up and let everything loose," De La Hoya said. "This is for all the marbles. This is the fight that will define my career."
Hopkins, who knocked out Trinidad in 2001 to become the sport's first undisputed middleweight champion since Hagler in 1987, says De La Hoya's success and wealth -- he has earned an estimated $200 million -- have made him a complacent fighter. Hopkins, who fashions himself as a boxing historian, has spent the last several months watching tapes of De La Hoya's fights, from his amateur career, which culminated in Barcelona, through his climb from 133-pound junior lightweight champion to the ranks of the 160-pounders.
"I went back and saw his development from the amateurs all the way up to his first big televised fight," said Hopkins, whose take Saturday will be $10 million plus a cut of the pay-per-view. "I've been watching those fights because when you look at De La Hoya then, you know he had his best. He sees it now. I look at those fights and say, 'This is De La Hoya when he didn't have $200 million. When he didn't have the $100 million. This was De La Hoya when he was staking his claim to be what he is today.'
"To me, you can't get any better blueprint of a guy that's hungry, a guy that's not trying to make any mistakes, a guy that's not talking about rolling with shoulders because he doesn't want to burn out in the later rounds because he doesn't want to use his legs," Hopkins said. "He [was a] guy that had his heart and soul in it to get to that next level of a world champion."
De La Hoya's legs are his biggest question heading into his fight against Hopkins. De La Hoya has faded in several of his big fights -- he was ahead of Trinidad after nine rounds, but fought conservatively in the last three and lost on two of the three judges' scorecards. De La Hoya was ahead of Mosley after eight rounds in their first bout; ahead after six rounds in the rematch. In preparing for Hopkins, De La Hoya said he sparred 130 rounds in camp at Big Bear, Calif., compared to his usual 80, and fought 12 rounds four different times to build up his stamina.
"I hope it's a fast fight because I'm not going to let 40-year-old legs beat me," De La Hoya said.
Floyd Mayweather Sr., De La Hoya's trainer since 2000, said his fighter has nothing to prove.
"Do you think they're going to stop Oscar from going to the Hall of Fame?" Mayweather said. "As long as you're going to the Hall of Fame, what do you have to prove? They can say what they want to say, but he's one of the greatest of all-time."