WASHINGTON -- From the upper balconies of the main hall of Union Station's subway system - a replica of a Roman bathhouse lined with statues of gladiators holding shields - fight fans craned their necks to see the combatants.
The large crowd cheered challenger Floyd Mayweather Jr. yesterday and mostly booed World Boxing Council 154-pound champion Oscar De La Hoya as each strode down the runway to a stage flanked on each side by seven flags representing countries that included Mexico, England, El Salvador, Italy, Japan and the United States.
"On May 5 in Las Vegas, I'm going to fight Oscar toe-to-toe," said Mayweather, at various points peeling off his shirt to reveal a chiseled abdomen, staring down De La Hoya, nose-to-nose and waving a flag to indicate he would "make Oscar quit."
"Floyd wants to be me. Deep down, Floyd is just envious," said De La Hoya, whose popularity has dwarfed Mayweather's since each was promoted by Bob Arum, and who, according to his publicist Debbie Caplan, has filmed a role as a doctor on the ABC sitcom, George Lopez.
De La Hoya will earn at least $20 million compared with Mayweather's $12 million minimum in a clash that should rival heavyweight Lennox Lewis' knockout of challenger Mike Tyson in 2002 as the sport's richest fight in history.
"The name of this fight is, 'The World Awaits,' " said Mark Taffet of HBO, which will televise the bout on pay per view. "The tension is almost overwhelming."
A winner of six titles in as many different weight classes, De La Hoya (38-4, 30 knockouts), who turned 34 on Feb. 4, will have been out of the ring for nearly 12 months when he meets Mayweather at the MGM Grand Hotel in a bout for which tickets sold out in three hours.
De La Hoya made an impressive return to the ring from a 20-month absence on May 6 by dethroning Ricardo Mayorga in the sixth round, showing little rust after having been knocked out for the first time in his career by Bernard Hopkins in his previous fight.
Mayweather (37-0, 24 KOs), who turns 30 Saturday, is considered the sport's top fighter, pound-for-pound, and comes off a lopsided 12-round victory over undisputed welterweight (147-pound) champ Carlos Baldomir, for his fourth crown in as many weight classes.
Mayweather's trainer and uncle, Roger Mayweather, will be released from a Nevada detention center in March to complete a jail sentence, and will report directly to his nephew's training camp.
Mayweather's father, Floyd Sr., was De La Hoya's trainer but has been replaced by Freddie Roach. Still, each fighter hints that Floyd Sr.'s counsel could be a factor in the other's demise.