After decades of trying to live up to outsized expectations – and escaping the pressure through drugs, alcohol and sex – Oscar De La Hoya is questioning the life he once lived. But he is unsure at times where happiness fits in.
“I still ask myself that,” he says. “If I deserve to be happy.”
Of course, happiness is hard to define. Glory, fame, money, adoration – do they make someone happy? For De La Hoya – who won 11 boxing world titles across six weight classes – they did not. Now, though, he has found new routes.
“I’m making myself happy for the first time ever,” he says. “I’m living free. I’m thinking about myself first. But sometimes I have to ask myself, like, ‘Wait, do you really deserve to be happy?’”
Watching The Golden Boy, a new two-part documentary which debuts on HBO on Monday, we see a young boy from East Los Angeles who was, as De La Hoya says, pushed into an existence of athletic training. He lives out his father’s dreams and eventually the dreams of his family, neighborhood, city, culture and country. Part one of the documentary begins with De La Hoya in black-and-white talking about the “darkness” that arose as a result of living out others’ goals.
De La Hoya, who was known as “The Golden Boy” during his career, is accomplished. He is also as handsome as a movie star, blessed with a smile that stretches for days. But without the proper support system, addiction and abuse can quickly follow. And De La Hoya was not immune. In the documentary, he details how he drank with uncles at family get-togethers before he even turned 10. Later, he looked to drugs and alcohol as releases from his “bullshit” life. And there were allegations of sexual assault, which were either dropped or settled. De La Hoya touches on a great deal in the film – the good, bad and the ugly.
“I was prepared,” he says of the film’s release. “I wanted this documentary for years now and the reason why I was pushing for it was for myself. Just to set myself free from my past. I found peace at 50.”
Some viewers will wonder if De La Hoya is telling the truth or if he is genuine about his transformation. Surely he must have felt moments of clarity in his younger life? But now is unlike any other time in his life, he says.
“It doesn’t feel fake,” De La Hoya says. “It doesn’t feel like I’m being controlled. It doesn’t feel like anybody’s controlling me. I’m in control now of my own destiny, I’m in control of my own choices. I’m in control of my own thinking. I was basically a robot. I was conditioned to fight from the start, from five- or six-years-old. To become world champion, to become this person that I don’t think I wanted to be.”
These days he sleeps up to 10 hours a night. That’s how “relaxed” he is. Legal cannabis gummies help, too. He doesn’t stay up, worried about the documentary. But he could and others might if they were in his shoes. The two-part film includes the admission from De La Hoya that he lied in the early 1990s when he said he’d promised his mother, before she died from cancer, that he would win the 1992 Olympic gold for her. The truth is that he never made the promise. Rather, his mother used to beat him. And he would transfer the brutal pain onto his opponents in the ring.
The film also talks about the children De La Hoya fathered as a young man, kids he all but abandoned with their mothers until recently. And then there’s the infamous pictures of him dressed in women’s clothing, from fishnets to tutus. For years, he claimed they were Photoshopped. But that was another lie meant to keep the profitable Golden Boy image intact – he wore them while cutting loose with exotic dancers. “The documentary is as real as it gets,” De La Hoya says. “It’s as raw as it gets. It’s genuine. And that’s exactly what I wanted. What I needed.”
Truth, the fighter knows now, will set you free. Today, De La Hoya still works with the boxing promotion he co-founded, Golden Boy Promotions, but his life is more balanced, he says. He credits his girlfriend of two years, Holly Sonders, his “best friend,” with the support that helped him to make changes. The two are practically inseparable. “We don’t spend nights apart from each other,” he says. De La Hoya, who has six children, has been married once before to singer and actor Millie Corretjer. But today, he says he feels the bliss of two-way connection.
It was that connection he says he sought when he was boxing.
“I don’t think I can say that I really loved getting hit,” he says. “What kid wants to get hit in the face? I was just conditioned. I had to do what I had to do. I was living through my father’s dream, and I was trying to make my parents proud. I don’t think I really loved it – I was just good at it. Focused and condition to do it, to become world champion.”
Nevertheless, boxing was De La Hoya’s outlet. He calls it a “double-edged sword.” It was his place to put his frustrations, his anger with the world, his dismay and sadness that his mother hit him. It was “liberating” and without it, he says, he’d “probably be in jail.” But it was also a curse.
“It changed my life but then again it ruined my life for many years,” De La Hoya says. “I was trapped in my own body, living somebody else’s dream.” And in so doing, he didn’t know how to release his emotions, didn’t know how to talk about them. But through the four-year journey of making the film, he says he has found peace. “This documentary really helped out a lot,” he says.
That’s a message De La Hoya wants to impart – relationships and people can change, even later in life. Sadly, he can’t share a moment with his mother today. No chance at forgiveness there. Without her, De La Hoya wouldn’t have had “that anger”. He wouldn’t have been “like a volcano inside, ready to erupt because of her abuse.”
“It’s interesting,” he says. “Because all those years, all I wanted to do was make my parents proud. But at the same time, I had this anger towards them. Anger towards my mother especially. The only way to let it out was by beating somebody’s brains out in the ring.”
While De La Hoya says he has never talked to his peers about abuse, he has heard anecdotally that many of them have similar pasts. From athletes to entertainers, they feel “the same pain,” he says. That’s one thing he is excited about when it comes to the documentary’s official release. People will see his story and perhaps relate to it, seeing themselves in his life. “It’s pretty cool that people are going to watch it and say, ‘You know what? I went through that as well,’” De La Hoya says. “Different but the same.”
The documentary concludes with the final fight of De La Hoya’s career, against Manny Pacquiao. We see Pacquiao dominating De La Hoya from the start, but The Golden Boy goes out for more. Perhaps, he says later, thinking that if one punch were to end his life, it would be OK. “I just didn’t care anymore,” De La Hoya says. Death by knockout? Sure, why not?
But he didn’t die that day. Instead, he retired. Subsequently, though, he says he felt “empty” and turned again to alcohol, drugs and sex. Thankfully for De La Hoya he made it through. And thanks to the work making the documentary and meeting Sonders, De La Hoya says he has found solid emotional footing.
“I refocused,” De La Hoya says. “I rebalanced. I have that fighter’s mentality. I have that mentality of just keep going and not giving up.”