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The Passion and Power of "Sugar" Shane Mosley

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

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!"  

As he matured, Mosley rose to the top of the national amateur ranks, winning his first national title -- at 132 pounds -- in 1989. Despite fighting in extremely competitive weight groups, always one class higher than De La Hoya, he won two more championships (in 1990 at 132 pounds and 1992 at 139 pounds). His amateur contemporaries were Stevie Johnston, currently 30-1 as a pro and the reigning WBA lightweight champion, and undefeated welterweight Vernon Forrest, 31-0. Factoring in Mosley's 34-0 slate, the three are a combined 95-1 as professionals, with two world titles in the books.

Yet much of what Shane remembers from those days took place outside of the ring -- and the United States. A big perk of the amateur boxing world is travel, and he still talks excitedly about his globetrotting experiences. "Having never really been outside the area where I lived, going around the world to places like Italy, Poland and East Germany was incredible, especially because we had a little free time, and we could explore some and just observe people, which is what I do anyway, but to experience those other cultures, that was a great experience."

AS THEY WERE WITH DE LA HOYA AND SO MANY OTHER BOXERS, THE OLYMPIC Games -- especially the gold medal -- are often a launching pad to success in the professional world. Mosley was the heavy favorite going into the 1992 Olympic trials. But it was the first year the controversial touch-pad scoring system was used, and Jack still believes that it cost Shane -- who lost to the lanky Forrest -- a spot on the Olympic team. In retrospect, it was clearly a turning point in his career. "At the time I didn't think much of it, just another tough loss and that was it," says Shane. "But looking back, I can sure see how my life would have been different if I did go and maybe win the gold like I'd always planned."

Without Olympic gold, fighters turn pro quietly. After the loss to Forrest, the Mosleys' options were limited. "Some people made us offers, but not like we'd expected, and we ended up going with a local guy, Patrick Ortiz," recalls Jack, who made the decision. The business of boxing is all about power and connections, and Ortiz proved to be a small fish in a murky, shark-filled pond. His lack of national connections rendered him impotent in trying ä to get Shane the type of fights that would showcase his talents.

Inside the ring, Shane was developing a more aggressive approach, focused on knockouts. "When I turned pro," he says, "I vowed never to lose a fight because I didn't give everything I had, and knocking people out was part of that, not leaving any chance for the judges to get involved. As a pro, you fight for your livelihood, and also to provide for others, so I definitely took my competitive nature up a whole other level." With 32 KO's in 34 fights, Shane has been giving far more than receiving, and is quite candid about that as well: "It feels good when I hit a guy with a clean shot, because it means I'm doing things right, and the result tells me that."

He was doing the right thing when he got the chance, but the Mosleys were getting increasingly frustrated at what they saw as Ortiz's inability to make deals. "I was wiping guys out in the ring and tearing better guys up in sparring, and we couldn't get a real fight, so you can imagine how I felt," says Shane. For a moment, it looked as though Top Rank's Bob Arum, whose work with De La Hoya is a blueprint on how to build a talented young fighter, would come to their rescue. "They needed help and I'd followed Shane, so I knew he was a quality kid and certainly talented as hell." In the end, Arum says, he was unable to help the Mosleys because of their contract with Ortiz.

For his part, Ortiz doesn't want to talk about the issue. "I really don't like to comment about that stuff that happened in the past. I wish Shane all the best. Sure there were issues towards the end of our relationship, but again, I will just say no comment about all of it and appreciate the opportunity you gave me to talk about it, but I'd much rather talk about the fight, which I think Shane will win in the later rounds."  

Eventually, unable to resolve his issues with Ortiz, Shane simply waited out his contract, working out downtown at the L.A. Boxing Gym, learning, and stewing. "That was definitely the low point for me as a pro, working with world champions like Azumah Nelson, Genaro Hernandez and Zack Padilla at the gym and more than holding my own, then not being able to fight, having to be patient."

Mosley had fought 16 times in 1993 and '94, knocking out all but one opponent, but made less than $50,000 in purses. Embroiled in the contract squabble for most of '95 and '96, he fought only five times, earning around $15,000 in the two years, minus expenses, which are considerable for a fighter. All told, in his first four years as a pro, Mosley went 21-0 with 20 KO's, yet earned only $65,000 or so. Subtract taxes and expenses, and you're looking at close to minimum wage.

When Shane's contractual obligations to Ortiz ended in early 1997, the Mosleys signed not with the gun-shy promoter Arum but with a local adviser-consultant, Tom Loeffler of Mouthpiece Promotions. Loeffler was connected enough to quickly secure a few fights, then put the Mosleys in touch with Cedric Kushner, a South African who had begun promoting rock concerts before moving into boxing. No Arum or Don King, Kushner was nevertheless powerful enough to arrange a title shot for Mosley in fairly short order. The fight was August 2, 1997, on HBO, against the undefeated International Boxing Federation champion, a slick boxer named Phillip Holiday, who had successfully defended his title five times.

Despite contracting a debilitating case of stomach flu the day of the fight, Mosley easily outboxed Holiday, won a unanimous decision and became the IBF lightweight champion of the world. "That was a great moment for me and my dad," says Shane. "When they put the belt around my waist in the ring, because of everything we'd gone through, and to have it finally happen, it felt awesome." The win, and the increased purses that followed, allowed Jack, who had worked for the county for 25 years, to retire and train Shane full time.

Larry Merchant, considered by many to be the most knowledgeable analyst in the sport, was ringside for HBO. "I'd been told about Shane a bit earlier by a friend close to the L.A. boxing scene who said he was an excellent amateur and something of a local gym legend. HBO got me some tapes, and I watched them in a state of surprise, high excitement and stunned disbelief. I asked myself, 'Can anybody be this good that I haven't heard of or seen?' I told myself to just trust my eyes, and though I knew his level of competition wasn't much, the way he went about it was so pure, such a throwback, that going into the Holiday fight I said on the air he was as close to Sugar Ray Robinson as anyone I've ever seen."

Invoking comparisons to Robinson in boxing is akin to comparing a young jazz musician to Miles Davis, and many insiders and old-timers were leery, to say the least. "Of course, he had the stomach problems and didn't do his normal thing against Holiday, and I think my comments actually hurt him and took away from his victory," admits Merchant. But Merchant's faith in the boxer would soon be validated.

SHANE FIRST DEFENDED HIS TITLE THAT NOVEMBER, KNOCKing out tough Manuel Gomez in 11, then in February he blasted out number-one contender Demetrio Ceballos in 8. "Ceballos had said some rather provocative things about Shane at the press conference, and Shane didn't really respond at the time," recalls Merchant, who was again ringside. "But when the bell rang, he just broke him down piece by piece in the ring, showing all his skills and power." After the sixth round, a prominent official who'd made light of the Sugar Ray Robinson comment caught Merchant's eye. "He gestured toward Shane's corner and said, 'You were right.'"

Mosley merely shakes his head when Ceballos is brought up. "Boxing is a business, but he said some personal stuff about my manhood and my family, so I made sure he understood what I was all about and made him pay before I knocked him out."

The Mosleys refer to Shane's style as "power boxing." Merchant loves it: "First, there's the beautiful balance -- when he throws a punch it can be followed in sequence, or, if necessary, he's in position to deal with punches coming back at him." The Mosleys also talk about punching at whatever target the opponent leaves open, most often, of course, the body. Merchant points to this as another example of why Shane is such a crowd-pleasing, entertaining fighter. "To commit to a body attack means putting yourself at risk, and Shane does it as a matter of course, much like Sugar Ray Robinson. He's quick enough and confident enough to go for it with a vengeance, fully understanding the potentially brutal consequences. [That] is all too rare these days, especially with the guys making real money. What more can you ask of a fighter?!"  

Three more defenses followed Ceballos, all on the East Coast, each more spectacular than the last. By this time, the normally crusty East Coast press were taking to Mosley. "Shane had those four title defenses right around the tristate area, and frankly, none of us had seen anything like him in years," says veteran Boston Herald boxing writer George Kimball, who was impressed not only by Shane's ability, but also by his humility. "The thing was, he's this sweet kid, still young, totally open and engaging, and yet when the bell rang, there he was, all business and very old-school in his approach, breaking guys down to the body, then finishing them off with those furious flurries of his."

The boxing writers named Shane fighter of the year in 1998. Every boxing magazine in existence has featured him on its cover, and Sports Illustrated, which has cut way back on its boxing coverage, ran a four-page feature on Mosley last year. Yet, the L.A. Times has still run almost nothing on the fighter. "The Times is in bed with Oscar, and that's their business," says a disappointed Shane. "It used to bother me, but with everything I've achieved to this point, that's their problem, not mine."

Jack Mosley sees a clear bias on the part of the paper. "Here Shane is, born and raised in L.A., three-time U.S. amateur champion, does charity work, never been in trouble, the only African-American lightweight champ in the history of California, named fighter of the year by the boxing writers, and it's like he doesn't exist. It ain't right."

Merchant is equally perplexed. "Speaking as a former sports editor, the negligence of the Times toward Shane is just stunning to me, and troublesome as well. They appear to have developed a policy toward boxing that unless a celebrity fighter, like Oscar or Tyson, is involved, they don't cover it. To me, here's this great athlete who is also a good guy, in their circulation area, and he's ignored because he's a boxer?"

Indeed, Shane Mosley has everything you would think a mainstream sportswriter would kill for: the talent and drive, the passion to be the best, and a lifestyle that would make a politician envious. He signs every autograph, poses for every picture and, in sharp contrast to most top athletes, looks his fans in the eye, completely in the moment and honestly appreciative of their support. "I don't take anything for granted. I think I appreciate what I have now because it took me so long to get it," he says. "That keeps things in perspective -- keeps me hungry too, which is good. Also, I've been in Pomona my whole life; I bought my house here, raise my son [Shane Jr., age 8] here, so I'm part of a community, just maybe a little more famous than people who do other types of work, that's all."

Mosley, who signed a long-term contract with HBO early in 1998 and has earned close to $3 million since, even owns the Little Citizens Day Care Center, which is run by his sister and has about 90 children currently enrolled and a lengthy waiting list. He also sponsors a Little League team and is involved with the Corporate Kids Cyber-Club, a group that helps children learn about computers and do projects like making their own business cards and comic books, one of which is scheduled to feature Shane as a superhero. "I'm for anything with kids. In fact, I own a building that we're planning on turning into a gym later this year, a place kids can go to, work off some energy and find some discipline in their lives," he says, sounding much like his own father.

WHAT SETS SHANE MOSLEY APART AS A PERFORMER IS HIS passion. His energy level and devotion to his craft generate the sense that something special is about to happen, that a truly great artist is going to put on the show of a lifetime. Philadelphia is known as America's best and toughest fight town. When Mosley defended his title there against Wilfredo Ruiz at the Apollo of Temple in June 1998, the building was alive, crackling with energy. Shane displayed all the weapons in his considerable arsenal, and with each dazzling combination, all of which were as powerful as they were fast, he drove the crowd to a frenzy.  

The same phenomenon took place outside under a full moon at the Pechanga Tribal Casino in Temecula the night he made his debut as a welterweight, against rugged Wilfredo Rivera. By the time Shane stepped through the ropes, the crowd, eagerly anticipating his arrival, had already risen to a fever pitch. Shane responded by throwing everything he had at the veteran warrior in the first round, and again, with each attack, pushed the crowd ever forward. After nine tough rounds, Shane was ahead, but the fight was still surprisingly close, and his father was concerned. "You've got to close the show," Jack told his son, "otherwise they can take it away from you. You got that?" Nodding, Shane came out of his corner and unleashed a fury on Rivera that can only be described as shocking. Overwhelmed, Rivera went down a minute into the round. It was the first time anyone, including De La Hoya, had ever knocked the granite-chinned contender out.

British boxing writer Claude Abrams, who's attended every fight of consequence for the past 15 years, remarked immediately afterward, "That's boxing, mate, all of it right there, as good as I've seen. Ever. The skills, the passion -- beautiful stuff."

A great boxer is an artist. Sugar Ray Leonard reached that level because when tested, he proved he had tremendous courage, along with all the speed and flair anyone could hope to have. Mike Tyson had it for a while, adding pure fury to the mix of skill, speed and passion. Roy Jones Jr. is the contemporary fighter closest to this level now, but lacks the passion and naked aggressiveness. De La Hoya has the charisma, speed and technique, but his unwillingness to let it all go, dare to be great and damn the consequences, is what keeps him from joining that select group.

"Sugar" Shane Mosley lacks only a stage big enough to demonstrate to the world that he too belongs in such lofty company. He has put himself in position -- and De La Hoya has given him the opportunity -- to perform on such a stage, in his hometown on June 17.

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