THE FIRST TIME THEY FOUGHT, THEY WERE JUST KIDS, A COUPLE OF LOCAL pre-teen hotshots. One was from East L.A. and had an entire community behind him; the other, from Pomona, was a year older and a little faster -- and he won. Today, one lives in a Bel Air mansion and is known around the world as the Golden Boy; the other still lives in Pomona, and you've likely never heard of him. On June 17 at the Staples Center, they will fight once again, this time for the World Boxing Commission welterweight championship of the world -- and guaranteed takes of $8 million and $4.5 million, respectively. For Oscar De La Hoya, the bout represents an opportunity to erase the memory of his controversial loss to Felix Trinidad last September 18, and re-establish himself as one of boxing's very best. For "Sugar" Shane Mosley, it's the chance he's been waiting and fighting for since turning pro in 1993 -- the chance to prove to his hometown, to his hometown newspaper (the L.A. Times has steadfastly ignored him), to the boxing establishment and to his old friend De La Hoya that he is what HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant calls him: "the most thrilling fighter in the sport."
Although Mosley's numbers are only half the story -- his passion is what makes him a truly great fighter -- they effectively back up Merchant's claim. With 34 professional fights under his belt, Shane is undefeated, with 32 knockouts -- the highest KO percentage of any of the top fighters in the world. After dominating the lightweight (135 pounds) division for most of his career, he recently jumped to the welterweight (147 pounds) division, bypassing junior welter (140 pounds) on the way. And if he defeats De La Hoya, he will join Hall of Famers Barney Ross, Henry Armstrong and Roberto Duran as the only boxers in history to have successfully made the leap straight from lightweight to welterweight champion.
But Mosley's journey to this point has not been a smooth one, despite the talent he showed from the very beginning. Mosley was just 9 when his father, Jack, began training him, which he does to this day. "Shane had all this energy," says Jack, "and he just couldn't stop moving, whether running or jumping, whatever, and that's when his mother told me to take him to the gym so maybe he'd focus a little bit and wear himself out."
Shane felt at home in the atmosphere. "I remember going in there and seeing everyone working out, working hard, sweating, and I just liked it, liked trying all the stuff," he recalls. "I was always real quick with my hands and feet, and very competitive, so I took to it pretty quickly." That's an understatement.
"We entered him in a tournament for 10- and 11-year-olds even though he was 9," says Jack, "because no kid he worked out with could handle him -- up to 13- and 14-year-olds. Shane beat three or four of 'em and won the tournament." In short order, Shane had established himself as the fastest young gun on the local boxing circuit.
Mosley was the obvious choice, then, when a group of men in East L.A. sought to test their hot preteen pugilist, 10-and-a-half-year-old De La Hoya. "I remember it only because we'd heard he was good, and they thought he could beat me," says Shane. "I was much quicker and just kind of overwhelmed him with punches, but I remember he was pretty good."
De La Hoya, who four years ago laughed off his long-ago loss to Mosley saying, "He was older than me and a little faster, and I remember he just threw a lot of punches," suddenly can't remember any specifics. "I know lots of people say they remember, but I really don't, not for any reason. I just had a lot of fights then, and don't remember it being special," he says. Of De La Hoya's apparent gamesmanship, Mosley says evenly, "I know and he knows, but if he wants to say that, it doesn't affect me, so it's no big deal."
Nor was the first De La Hoya fight a big deal to Shane. "I always felt like I was special, not better than other kids, just different in a good way, ever since I was real little, like 6 or so. I always felt kind of invincible, like I could do anything if I just tried hard enough." For Jack Mosley, it was when Shane was 15 that he came to believe his son really had what it took. That's when Shane got into the ring to spar with Azumah Nelson, a world champion at the time. "We were up at Broadway and 108th, in that gym, and Azumah hit Shane a good hook and stepped back like he'd hurt him. But Shane motioned him back in, then got Azumah into a corner and started throwing all kinds of combinations on him, and kept him pinned there. You could've heard a pin drop in there when they rang the bell to end that round. The great Azumah Nelson!"