Just over two weeks ago, boxing's heavyweight champion of the world fought and it was not even carried on live television in the U.S. So clearly, the sport needs a hero outside of the ring as badly as inside. And the man who may be right for the job has carried the sport once before: Oscar De La Hoya.
One of the most decorated fighters of all time, no boxer has ever generated more pay-per-view revenue, as the wildly popular De La Hoya captured an Olympic gold medal, several championship belts and the adoration of tens of millions of fans along the way. But now retired and branching into business, De La Hoya is ready for what may be his toughest battle yet: getting the murky business of boxing cleaned up and back on top of the world.
Under his Golden Boy banner, he is building a boxing empire while also branching out into several other endeavors, from real estate to owning a piece of Major League Soccer's Houston Dynamo.
On Sept. 29 in New York, De La Hoya will be honored for a lifetime of achievement in Hispanic television at Broadcasting & Cable and Multichannel News' eighth annual Hispanic Television Summit. Prior to that, he sat down at his Golden Boy offices in Los Angeles for a wide-ranging interview with B&C editor in chief Ben Grossman. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
How is business?
The business of boxing is going great considering the economy. People are not spending many dollars these days, whether it's in the movie business or on television or in sports. But boxing seems to always survive. Even if you are living paycheck to paycheck, you seem to find a way to gather up friends and buy a pay-per-view fight. But our business in real estate development has been put on hold. It's too hard to be in the positive these days.
Do you have a typical week?
I don't have a typical week. Depending on what kind of business we are tackling, any given day is different. Right now, I am busy with the Houston Dynamo. We just got approved to build a stadium. I sometimes travel to games; I am very hands-on with what we are involved with. And we are doing more than 70 fights a year all over the world. I go to about 20 a year, so that keeps me pretty busy - and with a lot of frequent-flier miles. A lot of times I come to the office; we have a lot of meetings. We also want to make Golden Boy a lifestyle brand with things like cologne and clothing.
Are you worried about the state of boxing?
No. Boxing, like every sport, has its ups and downs. A peak of popularity, and then a downturn to a sport where people still watch. There are times the NBA ratings spike, but then there are games that are not so interesting. Boxing right now needs superstars; it needs names to bring in the general audience. That's what we are lacking, but it will always be a sport that will survive no matter what. From Muhammad Ali to Sugar Ray Leonard to Mike Tyson to Oscar De La Hoya, there have been people to carry the sport. We just need to wait for that next superstar. We have to be patient, but it will happen.
The heavyweight division has long defined boxing for mainstream sports fans, and the champion just fought untelevised. Is this the low point for that division?
The heavyweight division basically doesn't exist. And that hurts to attract the general audience. When you talk about boxing, yes, you talk about heavyweights like Joe Louis and Ali and Tyson, because they are strong and big and can knock you out. Everyone wants to see the heavyweight champion of the world. It hasn't taken boxing back a step, but it has neutralized it a bit popularity-wise.
But that's OK; within Golden Boy, we are planting those seeds and in the next two to 10 years we are going to have many new superstars of the sport. We have identified many young fighters - 17 and 18 years old - who are going to be ready for the big-time stage in the next five years. In boxing, you have to be patient. We are not a sport that is an organized sport or a unified sport like the NBA or baseball or MLS; we have many promoters in the business, which is obviously a negative. So, it's very difficult to make the right fights, but Golden Boy has been able to sign big fighters, to now be the primary sponsor for HBO, and we do all the exclusive shows on Univision-about 50 a year.
Isn't boxing's biggest problem its lack of one organization? Doesn't the sport need one commissioner and organizing body?
The Don Kings and Bob Arums have had a chokehold on this sport for the last 40 years. They've been able to put great fights on, they've been able to promote the sport, yes, but I believe the days are long past of the way they promote. Now, we have to think outside the box; we have to think like the NBA and MLB and have one commission and one major promoter in the sport.
That's one of the reasons I commend UFC for what they have done in such a short period of time; they are the only real player in their category, the mixed martial arts world. They have been able to organize themselves, have all the TV dates, a pay-per-view every month; that's why they are valued at more than $1 billion. They are doing the right thing, and it's time for boxing to do the right thing, as long as we don't have those obstacles named Don King and Bob Arum.
How does that actually happen? You want Golden Boy to replace them?
Absolutely. We need to sign all the talent and get all the TV dates; then you can have your own agenda and have a schedule for the fans and the sport. You can do a monthly PPV, a bi-weekly HBO fight, you can have the best fighters fight each other. When you have five or six promoters, it's very difficult.
So, is your plan to take over boxing?
My plan is not to take over boxing, but really do what no other promoter was able to do, and that is have unified rules and one commissioner and make sure the fighter is taken care of and is not cheated out of anything. That's one of the reasons boxing hasn't really taken itself to the next level, because we cannot make those big fights and a lot of times promoters are the ones in the way. We are very transparent with whatever we do with our fighters, and in a way, yes, we do want to take over. Well, we don't want to take control of boxing, but we want to do the right thing for the sport. Have one [entity] running it like UFC. It's very confusing with all these championship belts-my idea would be to have one champion in each division. There should be one heavyweight champion, not 20 like we have now. Too much confusion. We have to weed out the bad and bring in the good.
The only fight everyone wants to see is Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Will it ever get done?
I believe so. My philosophy is Mayweather just fought two or three months ago. Floyd is saying, "I just made $65 to $70 million in two fights. Why am I going to rush to fight again; why should I be pushed? I will fight when I want." We feel that early next year, first quarter of next year, we are optimistic it will happen. It has to happen. Floyd knows it's the biggest fight out there, and they don't call him "Money Mayweather" for nothing.
So, is Floyd scared of Manny?
No. There is no fear in boxing.
I don't mean scared of getting punched in the face; I mean scared of losing his legacy.
He probably does have fear in losing. He does have fear in having that one loss, and probably thinks people will not accept him anymore. But all the experts know that Floyd will outbox [Pacquiao], probably easily. Styles make fights, and Floyd is a special fighter inside the ring. Outside the ring is a whole other story.
Floyd made a rather profane and racist video and then had some problems with the law in the last couple of weeks. Has this hurt him?
Has it damaged his legacy? I don't think so. Once he steps inside the ring and wins, people tend to forgive. People tend to forgive winners and champions. There is no room for what he said [about Pacquiao in the video], from anybody's mouth. But once he steps inside the ring, America is very forgiving.
We have heard some concern from cable and satellite operators about a lack of big PPV fights coming in 2011. Are you concerned?
I'm really not concerned, because next year you will be having Manny fight, you will be having Floyd fight, and those are the two fighters driving pay-per-view. When you have Floyd's number and Manny fighting a Joe Schmo generating 600,000 buys, next year will be a big year for boxing once again. You never know what's going to happen; right now people are saying boxing is declining or dying. But as soon as we have that next big fight, it will be a big sport again. Boxing is a roller coaster and that's what is frustrating to us, because we don't have control over it, but eventually I strongly feel it can change because it is a sport that everyone loves.
How are things with your TV partners?
Obviously, HBO and Showtime and ESPN have done a great job. [HBO's reality series] 24/7 is fantastic. But our ultimate goal is to [also] have boxing on free TV, on the ABCs, CBSs and NBCs of the world; we feel eventually it's going to happen. Now that we've attracted corporate America with our sponsors like McDonald's, AT&T and DeWalt, we have many sponsors that are now realizing through boxing that you can promote your brands at pennies on the dollar compared to the other sports out there.
Have you spoken with any broadcast networks yet?
I don't think it's time now. We have an agenda and lots to do, but it's not ready yet.
You co-produced an MMA event with Affliction and Donald Trump. Will you do more in the MMA world?
It was a huge success, but we have to focus all our energies in the sport of boxing because there is so much room for growth. We don't want to veer off and lose our focus, so no more MMA.
Is MMA succeeding at the expense of boxing?
I don't buy that. The audience is different. MMA has its die-hard fans who generate 300,000 to 500,000 payper- view buys on a monthly basis. So, they have that audience, that diehard fan base. If they do a major fight - I think the biggest one was Brock Lesnar, that generated close to a million buys - do we feel the boxing fan is overflowing into MMA? No. Because when we do a big event, we break records and do 2.4 million homes. MMA has only broken a million a couple of times. We're not worried; we don't feel the fans are running toward MMA. As long as we put on the best fights, we will keep our fans and hopefully attract new fans. I think both sports help each other.
Could you have ever fought in MMA?
If I had trained for a couple of years. I once wanted to take [second-tier] boxers who can still strike and train them for about two years for MMA, but I just never followed through on it. I would love to see an Anderson Silva go up against a Bernard Hopkins or Chad Dawson in the boxing ring. He would get knocked out with ease.
Why did you get involved in soccer?
Anschutz Entertainment Group is an investor in Golden Boy, and we were talking about soccer with [AEG chief] Tim Leiweke and my CEO, Richard Schaefer. Soccer - especially for Latinos - and boxing are the sports that capture the imagination, going back many years. The opportunity presented itself; Tim mentioned that if we wanted to get involved, there is a team for sale in Houston. Obviously we were pushing to be involved with the Los Angeles Galaxy, because this is my home, but we made the perfect choice. Now that we are approved for a stadium, I think the Houston market will be one of the most important for Major League Soccer. And it's not just driven by the Latino community, which is a plus for us. We just had 19,000 people the other day and we are in last place. And the stadium we are playing in is a dump. We are optimistic that once we have a brand-new stadium, we can sell out every game.
Were you always a soccer fan?
Absolutely. It was either soccer or boxing and fortunately-or unfortunately-I was forced into boxing. It was us kids playing soccer in the street barefoot. We would travel almost every weekend across the [Mexican] border to a little town called Tecate, where they make the famous beer. Most of my relatives worked there, and that's another sponsor we were able to attract [to Golden Boy]. We would play soccer every weekend. Then sometime the fathers would be hanging out drinking their beers, and they would bring out the boxing gloves and start matching the kids up against each other for their enjoyment. That's how it all started.
Any other places in sports entertainment you want to expand into?
We are going to stick with boxing and soccer. There is still tremendous potential there.
What if Los Angeles gets an NFL team? Would you want to be involved?
We have talked to a few people. We've obviously mentioned it to Tim Leiweke, and he has his partners. We've discussed that it would be wonderful to have an L.A. kid like me to be involved with a football franchise. But that's a few years away.
I've heard that others have pitched a boxing or fighting channel. Is that something Golden Boy should be pursuing?
Absolutely, especially with the library we have. We are always building our library, fights and interviews past and present. I wouldn't make it a boxingspecifi c channel, but a fight channel. Richard Schaefer's kids, who are 13 or 14, looked up online any sport having to do with fighting, and there were just tons and tons of sports that most of us have never heard of all across the world that fall into the category of fighting. So, the idea would be to not just showcase boxing, but everything else like karate and mixed martial arts. That is part of the long-term plan; one day we will have the fight channel.
How are you feeling these days?
I feel really good, actually. The wife asks me every day, "Are you OK?" I did have tests done after every single fight. My last fight, they found something that they couldn't really understand in my head. It didn't help me to make my decision to retire, but it was obviously a concern. I had second and third opinions. It was something in my head that they thought could maybe have an effect 30 years down the road, but they just weren't sure. Maybe they were being extra-careful. So, the wife asks me every day how I am, but I don't feel like I was a fighter for the last 30 years.
Do you miss fighting?
I miss it to an extent where I sometimes wake up in the morning and go jogging; then I'll sometimes shadow-box in the local park in Pasadena where I live, and I will say to myself, "You know, I still have it." But then all of a sudden my back starts hurting or I pull a hamstring, and there's the reality check.
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