Starr: Boxing's Last Great Fight

Ever since Oscar De La Hoya returned from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with a gold medal, fulfilling a deathbed promise to his mother, he has been boxing's "Golden Boy"—in and out of the ring. He has long been about the only bankable fighter outside the heavyweight ranks and now is virtually the only genuine contender at any weight whose name is familiar to the average sports fan. Through 15 years, 42 pro fights and six world championship belts, De La Hoya has taken on the challenge of the fight game's best—from Julio Cesar Chavez to Felix Trinidad, from Shane Mosley to Bernard Hopkins. But he probably never imagined there would come a day when he would enter the ring as a 2-1 underdog.

That's the challenge facing De La Hoya—now 34 and with only one fight since he was KOed, for the first time in his career, by Bernard Hopkins back in 2004—when he steps into the ring Saturday night in Las Vegas to challenge Floyd Mayweather Jr. for the WBC super welterweight title. Mayweather is 30 years old, undefeated in 37 career fights and has himself held four titles. But even more notable, among boxing insiders, he now reigns as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, and is regarded as such a dazzling talent that he would rate consideration for that unofficial, but prestigious title in any era.

A De La Hoya victory would be a stunning capper to a standout career, one that would elevate him from almost certain Hall-of-Famer to true legend status. For Mayweather, a triumph over this unrivalled fan favorite would finally give him the public recognition his record warrants and the respect he has been demanding—in outspoken, provocative and often profane fashion—for years now.

The famous boxing cliché insists that styles makes fights. But fighting style only counts once the two boxers step in the ring. Before that moment it's the names that make the fight. And this title bout harkens back to the days, almost three decades ago, when fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvelous Marvin Hagler were mixing it up in various combinations and providing some of the most compelling entertainment in all of sports. For boxing fans, this match-up is a godsend.

The hype surrounding the fight reflects that. Both Sports Illustrated and USA Today headlined their cover stories with "The Fight to Save Boxing."And HBO backed its pay-per-view telecast with a reality show De La Hoya/Mayweather 24/7 that followed the two boxers as they prepared for the fight. With ringside seats going for $20,000 and people paying four figures for seats that require a telescope, the fight is projected to set a record—almost $20 million—for live gate. And it will be the biggest pay-per-view score ever—at $54.99—for a non-heavyweight fight and may even top the record of 2 million sales set by Tyson-Holyfield II.

The contrasting styles are conspicuous out of the ring. De La Hoya has been a model champion— the rare modern fighter who doesn't reflexively spew trash talk and isn't embarrassed to be polite and gracious. He is a cult figure for Mexican fans (and many Mexican nonfans as well), though early in his career some lamented that he was too pretty and smooth. It is Mayweather who actually carries the nickname "Pretty Boy," though he has never been confused with a "Golden Boy." Some fighters assume the bad-boy role reluctantly, recognizing its occasional necessity in selling a fight. But Mayweather has appeared to relish that casting and has played the part with relish. He genuinely begrudges De La Hoya his elevated stature—he's been calling Oscar out for years now—and resents any suggestion that his rival is the main attraction Saturday night. In other words, he doesn't have to feign the bitterness. And while De La Hoya's own company, Golden Boy Productions, is staging the fight, Mayweather has insisted, "I'm the one who made the fight, and I'm the one who's selling it."

As for their styles in the ring, nobody is entirely sure what they will see, particularly from De La Hoya. Mayweather's reputation is that of an extraordinary defensive fighter, with blinding speed and effective power as a counterpuncher. In 2005, when he fought Arturo Gatti, a boxer with a reputation as a fearsome warrior, some observers thought it was possible that Gatti didn't land a single punch before he was stopped by a TKO in the sixth round. (Gatti is the only common opponent for the two fighters; back in 2001, De La Hoya also defeated him by a TKO in the sixth round.) In Mayweather's last fight, he destroyed the rugged and well-regarded Carlos Manuel Baldomir, winning all 12 rounds on two of the three official scorers' cards.

While clearly past his prime, De La Hoya remains a stylish fighter with a powerful knockout punch. He has the advantage of having fought at the higher weight, 154 pounds, for six years now, while Mayweather has never before fought above 147. De La Hoya will likely have to be the aggressor, using his size advantage to get inside where he might be able to unleash his primary weapon, a fearsome left hook. If there is a rap on De La Hoya, it has been that he is a little soft. I've never believed it. Which is good because he may have to endure a beating if he ever hopes to be in position to get off his knockout punch.

Whatever happens in the ring Saturday night, one fight can't save a sport that, after years of ruinous mismanagement, is standing on rubber legs. But most of us boxing fans, who spend most of our time wallowing in nostalgia, would settle for one more great fight—a throwback classic that, for once, is worthy of its hype.