Arguably the most controversial win in the career of Oscar de la Hoya came on April 12, 1997, when the undefeated, barely 24-year old "Golden Boy" squared off with future Hall of Famer Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whitaker, the former lightweight champ and junior welterweight titlist who by then was WBC welterweight titleholder.
Whitaker came into the fight with a 40-1-1 record, the loss and draw both dubious at the very least. Many felt he he deserved a perfect record, and still many believed so after his fight with Oscar.
Oscar was 23-0 at the time, a budding phenomenon five years past his stirring rise to fame as a gold medalist at the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona. He already had several wins over good to very good fighters, but Whitaker promised to be his toughest test ever, and after titles at 130, 135 and 140, he was moving up in weight yet again. How much was too much, too soon?
But was Whitaker still truly great? His defensive mastery had slowed a bit by 1997, as he was 33 years old and time, clearly, was starting to take a toll.
Still, Pernell was regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, and Oscar, at least in his own mind, was coming not just to take Whitaker's welterweight title, but that mythical crown as well.
Let's take a look back at one of the more controversially-scored fights of the 1990s, and maybe the most controversial fight of Oscar de la Hoya's entire career. It's been over 12 years, but this one still gets some motors running when the topic comes up.
"Pound for Pound" - WBC Welterweight Title Fight
(40-1-1, 17 KO, WBC Titleholder)
OSCAR DE LA HOYA
(23-0, 20 KO)
April 12, 1997 | Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV
Referee: Mills Lane | Judges: Chuck Giampa, Dalby Shirley and Jerry Roth
Thirty seconds, three clinches, and you can hear a smattering of boos early as the crowd doesn't appreciate Whitaker's rhythm-disrupting tactics. The size advantage for Oscar was no joke at all. This is pretty much the same size difference many thought we'd see in Oscar's fight with Manny Pacquiao, except Oscar isn't shop-worn here and Pernell still had a couple inches of reach more than Pacquiao did/does.
And very early, you can see Pernell's pumping jab and movement to the right giving Oscar more to think about than he's used to. Oscar throwing uppercuts, not landing them. Pernell continues to jab and frustrate with clinches and that great lateral movement. Oscar tries to unleash a flurry when Pernell gets close again, but little lands. A lead right does, but Pernell comes back with a nice body blow. A tentative, ineffective round for the younger, bigger man.
First minute and change goes much like the first round did, but then Oscar lands a couple of sharp shots, and just misses on a left hook, which for those of you who just came around to boxing in the last two years or so, was Oscar's money punch when he was at his best. His left hook could be lethal, and it's obviously Whitaker's desire to take that away, first and foremost.
Whitaker eats a right to the body, but counters back with a potshot left to the head. Oscar leading with his right is just ugly. He never looked comfortable throwing his right hand, and taking away the left hand really flustered him. But there are two strong rights inside for Oscar. Whitaker continues to play strong D, but Oscar takes this round on better punches.
de la Hoya 10-9
Watching Whitaker can be a real joy. He's short, so he makes himself even shorter by dipping down almost to where his ass is on the mat, which really throws Oscar's timing. Oscar trying open up with good shots early, but it's a Whitaker left that is the first really good punch of the round. The crowd may "ooh" and "aah" for Oscar, but most of his work here is missing. Oscar does land a nice uppercut there, but now Whitaker starts jabbing again, a 5'6" guy jabbing back a guy who's just under 5'11". Mills Lane tries to worn about headbutts, and moments later there is one. Whitaker pushes Oscar down, and after breaking them up, Lane notices some blood on Oscar, and rules the butt after ruling the slip. Oscar gets feisty and starts throwing bombs, and a left uppercut and left hook both land, though neither caught Whitaker flush. Pernell heads back to the jab. Whitaker obviously thinks he won this round, but it's quite arguable.
de la Hoya 10-9
Note: With the headbutt infraction here, the WBC had a rule that the uncut fighter on an accidental headbutt was docked a point. This was a moronic rule thought up by idiots, and made this a 10-8 round for Oscar if you scored it for him, and 9-9 at best for Pernell.
Oscar tries to stick a right hand, but he's short or just over the shoulder too often. There's one that lands, and now Pernell leads with his head and starts doing some work inside. Most of this round is Pernell's defense just frustrating the shit out of Oscar, with Oscar trying to land quick lead rights and following up with nothing. Oscar does starting swinging his hands all over the place at the end of the round, landing nothing but getting a rise out of the crowd and Jim Lampley. It was Pea's defense that won this round.
Whitaker with a right-left combo, both stinging blows. Pernell starting to really use the jab to control offensively again. Oscar still swinging, but it's Whitaker landing the cleaner shots early in this round. 1-2 from Pernell as he completely controls the action with his jab and movement. Whitaker showboating now, trying to draw Oscar in. Oscar switches southpaw, as he did at the end of the fourth, and tries to jab back with his right. Pretty easy round to score for Whitaker, really.
Oscar comes out this round in the southpaw stance. Straight left by Oscar.
Larry: "Now why would a fighter, who has been a great young fighter like de la Hoya, feel he's gotta change his natural, best style?"
Merchant says there have been no positive results from the switch, Lampley continues cheerleading for Oscar, which he's done basically the entire fight. Oscar goes righty, then moves back lefty moments later. Whitaker swings a big left, misses, and Oscar barely lands a shot and Lampley has a near-orgasm about it. Lampley and Merchant are really not seeing the same fight, and that's kind of entertaining. Whitaker goes back to the jab. Oscar keeps on slumping his shoulders, trying to fight at Whitaker's height, and it's just not working for him. Oscar with a right, Whitaker goes back to the jab and again uses some, well, "ring general" tactics to keep Oscar off-balance and out of a rhythm. Whitaker with a good left hand, and as Oscar tries to steal another round, Pernell suddenly gets aggressive and seals the round.
Harold Lederman and Merchant discuss the terrible WBC rule, and Roy Jones jumps in and pretty much agrees with them. Pernell continues to control where the fight goes, when it goes, and how it goes, and then the feet get tangled and Pernell accidentally tackles Oscar. Why not another point off?
Whitaker with a nice body shot, Oscar clips him with a right hand. The 1997 Oscar having his left hook basically eliminated is interesting. It left him stone cold off his game. Long right comes in for Oscar. Oscar keeps feigning and doing nothing with it, then he showboats and pumps his fist after the bell sounds. Tough round to score, but I felt Whitaker again pretty much controlled the action. He plain had Oscar going to places he'd never had to go before.
It is at this point in the fight I feel you sort of have to look at this fight in one clear way, and Lampley addresses it at the start of the next round. What do you like? Pernell's landing more punches and at a better connect rate. Oscar's landing more power shots, at least in the official numbers, though few of them if really any at all are landing hard on Whitaker.
For a contemporary comparison, it's sort of like Diaz-Malignaggi, if Diaz was as good as Oscar or Malignaggi was as good as Whitaker. Your scorecard reads in clear connection to the style you prefer, because there's not REALLY a lot separating these two. If you like great defense and pace control, you're with Pernell right now. If you like the guy who's at least trying to land the bigger blows and is doing less "running," you're probably with Oscar de la Hoya.
Frankly, I think the fact that the power connects for Oscar are so ineffective kind of takes the steam out of his argument to be winning this fight at this point, but you could form an argument. I wouldn't agree with it, but you could form it.
Roy Jones looks for bigger shots to start landing as they keep inching closer, with Whitaker trying to land bigger shots. Whitaker continuing to use his defense, his jab, his timing disruptions, and his flair to control the fight. He's in Oscar's head at least a little bit. And there's a right hook by Whitaker, then moments later Oscar finally lands a decent left hook. Oscar starts landing some good shots. Oscar misses two straight rights, and tries to steal the round again. And again, Pernell quells that by launching into his own offensive stand.
de la Hoya 10-9
Whitaker is told by his corner that he's losing, to which Whitaker responds, "Well, then I'm gonna lose."
Whitaker keeps wrestling, and Lampley keeps cheering for Oscar, this time drawing the ire of Roy instead of Larry. Whitaker is again controllingthe action with his jab and his defense. It's an art, and it gets Oscar to switch back southpaw again. Suddenly, Oscar hits the canvas with Pernell throwing, with his knee touching. He bounces right back up, and Mills Lane rushes in from his seat across the freaking ring to start the count. It's ruled a knockdown, and it was a knockdown.
Whitaker with a left to the body, Oscar tries to flurry again when the gavel sounds, and yet again, Pernell fires and wins the final moments.
Between rounds, you can clearly see how totally frustrated Oscar is.
And that frustration continues, as Oscar just can't get going. Oscar tries to get some offensive flurries going, but he's just not landing anything clean. He gets a dogfight going, and there's a flurry from Oscar. Pernell fires back, but this time Oscar probably does steal the round, and Pea hadn't done much beforehand to dissuade any judges.
de la Hoya 10-9
Whitaker goes back to the boxing, and shoves Oscar again. It's now you start wondering if Oscar's stamina was already a problem. Body shots from de la Hoya, kinda, and Whitaker showboats out of it. Whitaker with the jab again. Oscar trying to move and stay out of that jab's wheelhouse, but he's not getting anything done. Switching back to southpaw again. Lazy chopping left by Oscar, really nothing on it at all. Whitaker smells some blood, and senses Oscar is tired, and starts landing some of his best shots of the entire fight, taking over this round in dominant fashion. Great round for Whitaker.
Roy thinks Oscar needs a knockout. Larry thinks the fight could be in the balance in this 12th round. Harold Lederman has it 104-103 for Oscar. Merchant has Whitaker up a point or so, and then he says, "I don't know if any fighter deserves to win this fight if it ends this way."
Oscar tries to do what he did in his previous 12-round engagements, come out big in the final frame, and Pernell knows what he's going to do, so he starts moving around the ring, looking for openings. Oscar briefly has Pernell backed toward a corner, but doesn't press. Oscar busy in the round, trying to get some combinations going, and this time it's Oscar clinching up on Pernell. Closing seconds, and a stealable round -- it's Oscar who takes it home, as Whitaker just stooges.
de la Hoya 10-9
THE FINAL TALLY
|de la Hoya||9||10||10||9||9||9||9||10||8||10||9||10||112|
Chuck Giampa: 115-111 Oscar
Dalby Shirley: 116-110 Oscar
Jerry Roth: 116-110 Oscar
When decisions are announced, sometimes you get fighters feigning disbelief that they lost. They know they lost, but they pretend to be shocked anyway. Here, Pernell Whitaker is pretending at all. He's legitimately so stunned he can't help but laugh at the scores.
Pernell Whitaker is one of the greatest pure boxers to ever walk the planet. That's a fact. The man was a genius in the ring. But in this fight especially, his style did not lend itself well to judges, to the crowd that responded and can sway judges, and he was dealing with a stacked deck.
I'm not saying that Mr. Roth, Mr. Shirley or Mr. Giampa had any bad intentions whatsoever, but judges are human, and they love a good story, perhaps especially if they can be a part of that story. Oscar was 24 years old, rising fast, the most exciting young fighter the sport had seen in a long time, and was making a ton of waves. He was becoming a huge attraction even by 1997. He had the attitude, the looks, the Olympic pedigree, the great story, and he was a really good fighter.
Oscar might well have won this fight before it even took place, but as much as I genuinely believe Pernell Whitaker won this fight, Whitaker did himself no favors with how he fought. And he shouldn't have fought any other way, either. He did what he had to do. He was in against a younger, bigger, stronger, and supposedly faster man, even though "faster" didn't really turn into a problem at any point, and frankly neither did "bigger," because Oscar didn't use his size worth a crap, and "stronger" didn't really mean much either, since he barely landed anything clean on Whitaker, who could take a shot anyway.
The major problem I have with how this fight was scored is not SO much that Oscar came out the victor on the record sheets, it's the margins of victory. 116-110? Really?
Oscar and Whitaker maybe could have met again, but they didn't, and again, Whitaker really has only himself to blame there. Perhaps he could have landed that fight after a close win over Andrei Pestriaev. Hell, Oscar had shown no problem taking a second fight with a fading fighter when he mauled Julio Cesar Chavez in a totally unnecessary rematch. But Whitaker tested positive for cocaine after that fight, so the result was changed to a no-contest, and then he was dominated by Felix Trinidad in February 1999. Trinidad was the only man to score a solid, clean win over Whitaker, and it came when Whitaker was quite well worn out. "Sweet Pea" fought once more, losing to Carlos Bojorquez after three rounds and 27 seconds, when Whitaker broke his clavicle and the fight was stopped.
As for Oscar, he beat the tar out of David Kamau, Hector Camacho, Wilfredo Rivera, Patrick Charpentier and Chavez in the rematch before he ran into a brick wall in 1999 named Ike Quartey, another controversial win for the "Golden Boy." He suffered his first defeat at the hands of Trinidad in September '99, a fight that many felt he won.
So it goes.