LAS VEGAS -- After his most recent championship match with Miguel Gonzalez in January, Oscar De La Hoya, his handsome face marred for the first time by a bruised left eye, shunned the customary sunglasses at the post-fight news conference.
"This is what boxing is all about," said De La Hoya, wearing his slight blemish like a badge of honor.
It was as if by incurring his first ring injury, boxing's new golden boy could ingratiate himself with boxing fans who favor warriors in the mold of Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano and Carmen Basilio.
It is all part of the rapid maturation process of De La Hoya, 24, who will be bidding for his fourth title at the Thomas & Mack Center tonight against World Boxing Council welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker.
It could be the best non-heavyweight matchup since the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler middleweight fight a decade ago. And De La Hoya ($10 million) and Whitaker ($7 million) are earning heavyweight bucks.
"This is truly a match between the two best fighters in the world," said promoter Bob Arum, casually dismissing light heavyweight Roy Jones. "For years, Whitaker has been rated the best fighter 'pound-for-pound,' while De La Hoya has had a meteoric career and is now bidding to claim that mantle."
A few years ago, Whitaker (40-1-1) was considered boxing's top practitioner. But at 33, he has looked vulnerable. He needed an 11th-round knockout in January to salvage his title against Diobelys Hurtado of Cuba.
At the same time, De La Hoya seems to be coming of age as he continues to add weight and power to his 5-foot-11 frame. The 1992 Olympic gold medalist has not been seriously tested in winning his first 23 professional fights -- 20 by knockout -- while capturing titles at 130, 135 and 140 pounds.
"People think I've had this success overnight, but I've had to work hard for it," said De La Hoya.
Against Gonzalez, he won by using his left hand almost exclusively.
"That's all it took that night," he said. "And I'll beat Whitaker by using my right hand."
That may sound as if De La Hoya's ego has surpassed his skills. But it is really just the deep belief he has in himself when he steps between the ropes.
"I respect my opponent outside the ring, but when I'm in there punching on someone, there's no respect whatsoever. I just want to destroy the guy," he said. "I'm a fighter, a warrior. There are times I just want to get in a brawl and show people I have guts."
Still, several knowledgeable trainers believe De La Hoya lacks the experience and all-around ring skills to beat a clever, defensive boxer such as Whitaker.
"On one hand, I keep thinking that De La Hoya's speed should be too much for Whitaker," said Emanuel Steward, who groomed Thomas Hearns. "But Whitaker has this weird ability to get away from punches and he has so much mental toughness. I don't think De La Hoya has reached that stage yet."
Angelo Dundee, who helped guide Muhammad Ali to the heavyweight crown, says it is too late in the game for Whitaker's big heart to matter.
Said Dundee: "De La Hoya is getting better with every fight while Whitaker appeared to be in decline in his fights with Wilfredo Rivera and Hurtado, who had him down twice. Right now, Oscar is just too big and strong and all of Whitaker's smarts will be to no avail."
Who: Pernell Whitaker (40-1-1, 17 KOs), Norfolk, Va., vs. Oscar De La Hoya (23-0, 20 KOs), Los Angeles
What: For Whitaker's World Boxing Council welterweight title, scheduled 12 rounds
Where: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Purses: De La Hoya will make $10 million, Whitaker $4 million
TV: TVKO, pay per view. Suggested price, $39.95.
Time: Telecast begins at 9 p.m.
Pub Date: 4/12/97