The rough-and-tough champion has worn his belts for more than nine years, successfully defending his titles an unprecedented 18 consecutive times. The challenger is the more beloved fighter, a former Olympic gold medal winner whose charisma and good looks have helped him transcend the sport.
If the plot for Saturday night's middleweight championship fight between Bernard Hopkins and Oscar De La Hoya at MGM Grand Garden Arena sounds familiar, it's because the same storylines played out just down the Las Vegas strip more than 17 years ago. Marvin Hagler, the undisputed middleweight champion in 1987, fought Sugar Ray Leonard, who had been idle for three years because of a damaged retina in his left eye. Leonard, the underdog and younger fighter, pulled off one of the sport's biggest upsets with a 12-round decision in what, at the time, was the richest fight in boxing history.
Like Leonard, De La Hoya (37-3, 29 knockouts) is the underdog. And like Leonard, he is the more popular, wealthy and younger fighter. The 31-year-old will earn $25 million for the fight, plus a portion of the pay-per-view revenue. The 39-year-old Hopkins (44-2-1, 31 KOs) will get $10 million, plus a cut of the pay-per-view.
And, with a $54.95 price tag on the pay-per-view and organizers expecting at least 1.5 million buys, this bout is expected to be the richest non-heavyweight bout in the sport's history. The 17,157-seat arena is sold out, with ringside seats going for as high as $12,000 Friday night.
"As soon as we made this fight, I compared it to the Hagler-Leonard fight," said Bob Arum, who promoted the 1987 fight between the Hall of Fame middleweights, which was fought outdoors at Caesars Palace and watched by more than 300 million viewers on closed-circuit television.
The parallels extend to the approaches the fighters are taking to the bout. Against Hagler, Leonard used his superior foot and hand speed to frustrate the champion. He took a hit-and-run approach, often finishing rounds with a flurry of combinations to impress the three judges -- a tactic De La Hoya has also employed, with varying levels of success.
"Oscar's been rocking fighters to sleep, conning them like it's business as usual," Hopkins said. "Ray Leonard was a master at conning you until you got into the ring and you realized this was not the same man that was putting his arms around you, showing you his pretty teeth. Ray conned the hell out of Marvin Hagler, to the point where Hagler didn't come in with a killer instinct. I'm aware of the con. . . . This is war."
Countered De La Hoya, whom oddsmakers have made about a 2-to-1 underdog: "I fought tons of more skilled fighters than him. His style is to be in shape and bully an opponent around the ring. I'm going to be in good condition and have a great, stiff jab. I'm not going to let any pair of 40-year-old legs wear me down."
Said Hopkins: "Nobody likes a bully. I want him to stand up to the bully. Be a superhero, Oscar. Put on your cape and stand up to the bully."
Palmer Park's Leonard was the people's choice in '87. Hagler, by contrast, was more stoic, anti-establishment. Hopkins, an ex-con who spent 56 months in a Pennsylvania prison for armed robbery, is self-promoted and self-managed and fights with a chip on his shoulder. Like Hagler, who claimed he could never win a bout in Las Vegas because of crooked judging, Hopkins has been fighting the sport's establishment, mainly promoters Arum and Don King. He often has been passed up for big pay-per-view fights because promoters claim he's troublesome and difficult to deal with. Hopkins, the IBF, WBA and WBC middleweight champion, hasn't lost in 11 years -- the same length of Hagler's unbeaten streak before he was upset by Leonard.
When Leonard fought Hagler, most boxing observers thought he'd have to knock out the champion in the early rounds because he couldn't carry the extra weight. Leonard began his professional career as a welterweight and worked his way up to boxing's heavier divisions, winning titles in five weight classes. De La Hoya made his pro debut as a junior lightweight in 1992, and has won titles in six weight classes, adding the lightly regarded WBO middleweight in June, when he fought for the first time at 160 pounds.
For this fight, De La Hoya demanded a weight limit of 158. At Friday's weigh-in here, he tipped the scales at 155; Hopkins came in at 156.
"I'm a natural [middleweight]," Hopkins said. "He's not a natural middleweight. He's an artificial middleweight. When an artificial middleweight gets in the ring, the impurities will show."
Arum said De La Hoya needs to stick to his game plan, just as Leonard did 17 years ago.
"Leonard fought Hagler the only way he could beat him," Arum said. "That's what Oscar has to do. If he gets hit by Bernard and reacts the way Oscar usually reacts and gets in a slugfest, there's only one fighter who can win and that's Bernard. Oscar has to play to his strengths for 12 rounds."