A FIGHTER'S hands are the tools of his trade. Like all tools, they are subject to chipping and breaking from repeated usage. But whereas a carpenter can go to a hardware store and purchase, say, a new hammer, a fighter with damaged knuckles can't send out for a replacement fist during the course of a bout. He has to finish the job with the same physical equipment with which he began.

Oscar De La Hoya knows what it's like to fight through hand pain, but for him it's only an occasional dilemma. For Floyd Mayweather Jr., however, chronic hand soreness has been the burden he has borne throughout much of his 10 1/2-year professional career, and even well before that.

"My wife is from Grand Rapids, Mich. [Mayweather's hometown], and when we went there to visit her family I sometimes would go over to Buster Mathis' gym," recalls boxing

historian and author Bert Randolph Sugar. "I remember seeing this little 8-year-old kid, who even then was magnificent. And even then that kid's hands were very fragile."

That was 22 years ago. Mayweather (37-0, 24 KOs) is now 30, widely regarded as the world's finest prizefighter, but his hands, if anything, are more tender than ever. Those hands hold the key to Mayweather's pay-per-view showdown with De La Hoya (38-4, 30 KOs) Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a bout that has a chance to become the highest-grossing boxing event of all time.

"Pretty Boy Floyd" has ignored his throbbing mitts long enough to defeat everyone he has faced as a pro, but in De La Hoya he will be going against a future Hall of Famer who should pose a much sterner test than was offered by such recent

Mayweather victims as Carlos Baldomir, Sharmba Mitchell, Arturo Gatti and Henry Bruseles.

Make no mistake, if Mayweather goes back to his corner after an early-round wincing and shaking either or both gloves, De La Hoya and his new trainer, Freddie Roach, will know what to do.

"I see any hand injury as being a possible detriment to Floyd," Sugar says. "Oscar doesn't have Floyd's foot speed, but his hands are nearly as fast. If Floyd's hand or hands go, he goes."

Asked if he was cognizant of Mayweather's history of hand soreness and hoped to use it to his advantage, De La Hoya, who will be defending his WBC super welterweight championship, said he knew about it but wasn't taking anything for granted.

"It really hasn't been an issue in our training camp," De La Hoya said. "We haven't really discussed it. We're preparing for the best of Mayweather.

"But if he hurts his hands and I smell blood, I'm going to go for it. That's just who I am. I close the show. If you see a wounded animal, you finish him off. I would do everything I could to take advantage of that situation."

ESPN2 boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, however, says too much is being made of Mayweather's frequently achy hands. A lot of great fighters, including Muhammad Ali, had the same problem and they accepted hand pain as part of their job description.

"In the old days, fighters fought longer fights, they fought more frequently and with less protection for their hands,"

Atlas notes. "The gloves had horsehair padding, which could separate.

"Nowadays, you can get injections. There are more forms of treatment and therapy available. I've never seen evidence that Floyd was in that much pain in any fight. He's never come close to dealing with what Ali had to deal with.

"I don't believe in giving a fighter a potential excuse for underperforming. Can someone use bad hands as an excuse? A lot of guys do. The really tough ones don't whine and complain.

"There are a lot of people who don't make millions of dollars, but they get up early every morning and go outside to work, whether it's 100 degrees or

10 degrees below zero. They're digging ditches, they're swinging sledgehammers. Their hands probably aren't feeling so great, but they do what they have to do. I mean, come on. Boxing is a tough business. Sometimes I think we baby these guys too much."

Sugar said not all fights, or all fighters, are the same. He tells a story about Jack "Kid" Berg, a British junior welterweight whose hands were so ill-suited for his line of work that he required pain-killing injections in them before every bout. There were a lot of them, too; Berg was 157-26-9 in a career that spanned 1924 to '45. One doctor, believing Berg's pain was more in his mind than in his hands, once gave him an injection of water instead of novocaine - a placebo, in other words. Berg finished that fight and won, but he was in such agony that he knew something was wrong. It wasn't until later that he discovered what happened.

Mayweather's hands might be sturdier than Berg's and Ali's, but the discomfort he feels on a fairly regular basis is nothing to casually dismiss.

"The only knockdown of Floyd's career, against Carlos Hernandez, wasn't really a knockdown," Sugar says. "His right hand was hurting him so much that he doubled over in pain and his glove brushed the canvas. The referee saw it and called it a knockdown, which, technically, I guess it was.

"Against Baldomir, Floyd went all-out early, going for the knockout, but he hurt his hands so badly he could barely use them in the later rounds. Against Oscar, he might be cautious early on, to try to save them. Now, at some point, the adrenaline will kick in and he'll just fight. Too much is at stake for him not to. But the hand issue could be a major factor. I'm not sure Floyd can win this one fighting one-handed."

'Eye' on Cavallo

It will be light-heavyweights Chucky "The Italian Assassin" Cavallo (14-0, 5 KOs), of Trenton, N.J., and Dannon Svab (5-2-1, 3 KOs), of Akron, Ohio, in the eight-round main event of promoter Joey "Eye" Intrieri's six-bout pro fight card Friday night at the Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge in Fairless Hills, Bucks County. *

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