LAS VEGAS - The professional athlete as corporate dynamo isn't really that new or unique a concept. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus made many times more money through their various business enterprises than they did for their victories on the PGA Tour, and Tiger Woods has taken his storied predecessors' blueprint for success to an even higher level. Michael Jordan was just as comfortable negotiating deals in a tailored suit as he was weaving through the lane in baggy shorts for one of his signature slam dunks.
With a gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and world titles in six weight classes, Oscar De La Hoya's place in boxing history is secure. Boxing's most bankable star, and the highest-grossing non-heavyweight ever, De La Hoya, 34, could live comfortably for the rest of his life off the $350 million (including endorsements and returns on investments) he already has earned with his sweat and his fists, a figure that will swell by more than $30 million when the accountants finish tabulating his take for Saturday night's scrap with Floyd Mayweather Jr. here at the MGM Grand.
But De La Hoya does not want to settle, any more than Palmer, Nicklaus and Jordan did, for the very sizable financial gains he has achieved during his relatively short career as an athlete. Nor does he want to perpetuate the stereotypical image of the boxer as an uneducated waif, powerless to prevent the erosion of his fortune at the hands of unscrupulous promoters, managers and hangers-on riding the gravy train until it finally runs out of track.
As De La Hoya (38-4, 30 KOs) prepares to defend his WBC super welterweight championship against Mayweather (34-0, 27 KOs), his focus is entirely on the task at hand. But he realizes that nights such as this must end, as they do for all athletes, and he wants to make sure that he and his company, Golden Boy Promotions, are positioned to carry on well beyond the scope of his finite boxing life.
Some have said that De La Hoya wants to evolve from active fighter into the next Don King or Bob Arum, but clearly this product of the East Los Angeles barrio seeks to achieve more than that. What he really hopes to do is to attain a status on par with such moguls as Donald Trump, Steve Wynn and Kirk Kerkorian. He wants to become boxing's first billionaire, the first fighter to make the transition from blood-stained rings to mahogany-paneled boardrooms.
Toward that end, he and his business partner, Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, are depicting Saturday's pay-per-view fight with Mayweather (suggested retail price $54.95) as not only a matchup of two terrific fighters, but as a model for how all future megabouts should be packaged and sold to a business community heretofore untapped by boxing.
"This by far has to be the biggest," De La Hoya said when asked if this event is the most significant fight in which he has participated. "Being involved with every aspect of the promotion, it just feels that much bigger than any fight I've ever been in.
"If my other big events had been promoted through Golden Boy, we would have gone through the roof. The synergy for this fight is incredible. All eyes will be on that ring, and on boxing. All we have to do now is perform. It's up to us."
Schaefer, a former Swiss banker, said the procurement of corporate sponsorships - Tecate beer, Dr Pepper, Southwest Airlines, Cazadores tequila, Bally's Fitness and Subway - has served to elevate a major fight into a happening, boxing's answer to the Super Bowl.
"We have fully integrated sponsorship packages," Schaefer said. "These sponsors are not just paying to put their logo on the ring mat. They are putting millions of dollars from their advertising budgets into the event. I'm talking print, radio, TV, billboards.
"I'm getting sick and tired about people talking about how the sport of boxing is dying. It's really a handful of promoters, and we know who they are. They keep hissing on the sport. It's just wrong. The sport of boxing is not dying. Look at the numbers we're doing for this fight. It's unparalleled.
"If they think boxing is dying, they should stop promoting. Just retire."
De La Hoya and Schaefer did not mention the "handful of promoters" who supposedly are hastening boxing's demise, but then they didn't have to. De La Hoya's company has been duking it out with septugenarean counterparts King and Arum as hard or harder than the "Golden Boy" has been between the ropes with the likes of Mayweather.
Madison Avenue will be watching developments on the business front - the new way represented by De La Hoya and Schaefer, in which fighters have a greater say in the determination of their careers, as opposed to the more traditional approach embodied by King and Arum - as closely as fight fans will the purely boxing end of it, with De La Hoya and Mayweather the only principals that matter.
Arum served as De La Hoya's promoter for most of his career and the two men did very well together, each making millions. Arum even admitted to almost paternal feelings toward De La Hoya, and he was devastated when their personal relationship deterioriated.
But only temporarily. Now Arum is fighting for the maintenance of his version of truth, justice and the old American way of boxing promotion, and his former surrogate son and Schaefer have become the enemies.
At a press conference to hype the April 8, 2006, bout between the then-Arum-promoted Mayweather and the King-promoted Zab Judah, longtime rivals King and Arum seemed more intent on presenting a unified front against Golden Boy Promotions than in squabbling themselves.
"Recently, unfortunately, what's happening in boxing, fighters - encouraged by various entities involved in the sport - felt that they could be fighters as well as their own promoters," Arum said. "Well, they can't be, just as I can't go in the ring and jab and throw left hooks and right crosses. Neither can a Swiss banker who has no background in boxing and no background in meeting the public, call himself a promoter. But as long as networks encourage that type of action, we're going to have a rough patch in boxing."
Arum sees HBO, which has a cozy relationship with Golden Boy Promotions, as the hammer being used to dent, if not destroy, the high profiles he and King have worked so long to craft.
With his back up, the pugnacious Arum - whose June 9 bout in Madison Square Garden between his fighter, Miguel Cotto, and Judah will be televised via HBO Pay-Per-View - independently promoted a PPV card in San Antonio, Texas, headlined by the matchup of Manny Pacquiao and Jorge Solis, which was an artistic and financial success.
"We're getting on in years," Arum, 75, said of himself and King, 74, "but I think we're still very vigorous."
So are the relatively youthful De La Hoya and Schaefer. Golden Boy Promotions has made a few missteps, but the inclusion of several prominent fighters as limited partners - most notably Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley and Marco Antonio Barrera - has made the company seem more appealing to the rank-and-file, who would like to believe they aren't puppets tethered to someone else's strings.
"Golden Boy will be around forever," De La Hoya said. "I plan on doing this for as long as I can. This is my great passion. It's fun, and it's a great opportunity to really change the sport. We can do it. There's no stopping us now." *