Since he returned home from the Barcelona Olympics with the only U.S. boxing gold medal more than a quarter-century ago, Oscar de la Hoya has been a trailblazer.
He won the first of his six world titles in his 12th pro bout. The son of Mexican immigrants and at the beginning, a lightweight, he became a crossover star in a market that loves its heroes both big and American. Along with Roy Jones Jr., he is the co-owner of a boxing record – 32 fights on HBO – that will never be broken now that HBO has gotten out of the fight game.
His fights were truly happenings, with weigh-ins that rivaled Beatlemania for sheer number of squealing teenage girls, and he was one of those rare fighters who seemed to grow more popular in defeat than in victory.
And after his retirement, he blazed another trail becoming the first person of Mexican descent to head a boxing promotional company, Golden Boy, which took its name from his nom de guerre.
But where de la Hoya really made his mark was on pay-per-view. He was the first non-heavyweight to attract over 1 million pay-per-view buys, a ceiling he shattered four times. His fights against the likes of Manny Pacquiao, Bernard Hopkins, Felix Trinidad, Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather generated an estimated $700 million. Even with the advent of triple-digit pricing for pay-per-view fights, his 2005 fight against Mayweather bout still ranks as the third-highest grossing PPV boxing event in history.
Regardless of what you thought of de la Hoya as a fighter, two things are not in dispute. One, he was never afraid to take risks. And two, he always knew how to make a buck.
Both those attributes are on display in de la Hoya’s latest venture, the $365 million, 11-fight deal he negotiated for Canelo Alvarez that kicks off with his challenge to WBA super-middleweight champion Rocky Fielding Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
It is the richest guaranteed contract ever paid out not just to a boxer, but to any athlete in any sport, and likely to remain so even after Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign their free agent deals sometime this winter.
Because unlike the ballplayers, who will need to play between seven and 10 years to earn their pay, Canelo figures to knock off those 11 fights in four years or less. That would put his rate of pay at approximately $100 million a year.
Not bad for an athlete in a supposedly dying sport who speaks very little English, was entangled in a PED scandal last year and whose three highest-profile fights – one with Mayweather and two with Gennady Golovkin – have either ended in defeat or controversy.
And unlike the pay-per-view revenue stream of de la Hoya’s era, Alvarez’ money will be generated through the digital platforms of DAZN (pronounced Da-ZONE), a streaming service that sells for about $10 a month.
“Pay per view is dead and we’re going to bury it," de la Hoya said over lunch Tuesday in a Manhattan steakhouse. “I have mixed feelings saying that. My career was built on pay per view and I know to make this move is ballsy, but I believe in it. It’s now. It’s the future. I’m betting Canelo’s future on it."
In reality, all the risk seems to be on DAZN, which is spending billions in trying to seize the U.S. sports market away from the likes of ESPN and Fox. With HBO having abandoned boxing and pay-per-view audiences dwindling because of the high prices – last weeks Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury heavyweight title fight drew just 300,000 buys, about half of de la Hoya’s lowest number more than 20 years ago – the time seems ripe for a new business model to deliver boxing to the masses.
Shrewdly, DAZN chose not Wilder, but Canelo to be the face of its boxing launch; he is widely considered the most talented all-around fighter in boxing today, and is immensely popular among Hispanic sports fans, a group that makes up boxing’s most loyal audience in the U.S. With a promise of 70-plus boxing events a year, DAZN believes it can generate enough monthly subscriptions to make its investment in Canelo a profitable one.
“I think it’s a great deal if you’re a fight fan," de la Hoya said.
Certainly, it was a great deal for he and Canelo. When HBO announced in late September it would no longer produce live boxing after 2018, it came as a blow to de la Hoya, both emotionally (“I grew up on HBO," he said) and financially.
It seemed as if there would be one fewer bank for Golden Boy Promotions to draw on.
But within a week, de la Hoya said, DAZN came calling, inquiring about Canelo, who a couple of weeks earlier had come off a thrilling but close decision win over Golovkin, which drew 1.1 million pay-per-view buys.
De la Hoya said he just threw a number out there - “close to a half-billion dollars" and to his surprise, DAZN didn’t flinch. They came back with a deal that not only guarantees Canelo $35 million a fight starting next year – he is guaranteed $15 million for Fielding – but includes room to negotiate a higher purse in the event a rematch with Mayweather or a third fight with Golovkin could be made.
“It was a really easy deal to make," de la Hoya said. “We literally pulled it out of our ass."
On its face, de la Hoya and Canelo appear to be holding all the cards. In addition to the guaranteed windfall, de la Hoya says Golden Boy has full approval on all opponents. Meaning, theoretically, Canelo could fight Rocky Fielding or someone of his caliber 10 more times and still get every dollar of his contract.
De la Hoya says that will not be the case.
“We want to give fight fans some bang for their buck," he said. “And Canelo is driven. He wants to make history. He wants to be among the elite in Mexico to capture a world championship in 3 different divisions. He wants to be remembered along with all the great Mexican boxing champions."
Sounds a lot like what was driving Oscar de la Hoya, circa 1992. As a fighter, he virtually made pay-per-view boxing. Now, as a promoter, he is doing his best to kill it.
Of all the gifts he gave to fight fans through the years, that may turn out to be the greatest gift of all.'