- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Retired from the ring or not, Oscar De La Hoya will always be a fighter at heart.
He won a 1992 Olympic gold medal -- hence the famous "Golden Boy" nickname -- 10 world titles in a then-record six weight divisions, earned some $300 million as the biggest star in boxing for much of his 1992 to 2008 career and in June was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
As passionately as he fought inside the ring, De La Hoya has that same fierce attitude as he fights to keep his Golden Boy Promotions at the top of the boxing industry in the wake of its recent upheaval stemming from the June 2 resignation of Richard Schaefer, De La Hoya's former friend, company co-founder and its only CEO, who built the company into a powerhouse. The resignation came after a falling out with De La Hoya, who filed a subsequent arbitration against Schaefer seeking $50 million in damages.
The reason for the fracture in the De La Hoya-Schaefer relationship has been portrayed by both sides as stemming from two issues. One was De La Hoya's desire to make peace and to do business again with his former promoter, Bob Arum, whose Top Rank has long been Golden Boy's chief promotional rival. Schaefer didn't trust Arum and was adamantly against it. The other issue was De La Hoya's unhappiness with the fact Golden Boy was promoting numerous boxers under advisory contracts with Al Haymon, who, with Schaefer's OK, refused to sign them to promotional agreements with the company, giving him inordinate leverage.
While those certainly were issues, the real seeds of the falling out were sewn eight days into De La Hoya's rehabilitation stint last September when, according to multiple sources, famed attorney Robert Shapiro, who had sponsored his entrance into a Malibu rehab center just days before his company would promote the highest-grossing fight in boxing history, Floyd Mayweather Jr's win against Canelo Alvarez, presented De La Hoya with a deal Schaefer was negotiating to sell Golden Boy for $100 million, although who the would-be buyer was is unclear.
"Oscar was in an extremely dark place and he was being told, 'This business, boxing, is bad for you. It's time for you to get out,'" a source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN.com. "What was given to him in the condition he was in, there was no way he could process it. It wasn't something he wanted to do but he was told, 'You can get out, you can get away from the pressures, you can make a bunch of money.' He was in a very vulnerable situation."
Another source with direct knowledge of what happened said that De La Hoya was given some 50-plus pages of paperwork on the deal while at his lowest point.
"Oscar was in rehab, medicated and he was being told, 'You're through with boxing. Sell your company.' It was a bad situation. It was a s----- thing for Richard to do the way he did it," the source said.
By around March, De La Hoya had tentatively agreed to sell, but eventually changed his mind, much to Schaefer's dismay.
"The more Oscar peeled back the layers of the deal, the more it was like an onion. It smelled," one of the sources said.
For one thing, De La Hoya, according to sources, was outraged when he learned that Schaefer would remain involved with the entity buying Golden Boy -- and that so would Haymon -- and that De La Hoya would have severe restrictions placed on his ability to use his own nickname, logo and likeness for decades.
"Would it upset him if someone tried to sell that company -- the result of all of his hard work over the last 30 years -- from under him? I think it's fair to say, 'Absolutely,'" said one of the sources with knowledge of the proposal.
On multiple occasions Schaefer, citing pending litigation, declined to address anything related to his exit from Golden Boy Promotions.
De La Hoya said he couldn't go into detail about Schaefer's exit, the arbitration or a possible sale. But a relaxed De La Hoya, who showed up for the 45-minute interview with ESPN.com with no handlers the day before Alvarez-Erislandy Lara, did say, "I don't know [what happened with Schaefer], I really don't know. Maybe greed? But I'm still trying to figure out what did I do wrong? What did I do wrong in order to get a kick when I was on the floor?
"I can't talk about any legal stuff until I get orders from my lawyer. Hopefully, we'll get all of this resolved sooner than later. It's not a dark cloud over my head but it's a distraction."
When asked again about the possible sale, he said, "I really can't comment on it. I will tell you one thing -- my side of the street is squeaky clean, for the first time in my life. That's all I have to say."
Light heavyweight titlist Bernard Hopkins, who owns about 5 percent of Golden Boy, told ESPN.com that he was told by his lawyer, Eric Melzer, that there was a strong possibility that De La Hoya would sell his majority stake in the company (approximately 55 percent) and that the other shareholders, Anschutz Entertainment Group (approximately 20 percent), investor Gabriel Brener (approximately 12 percent) and Schaefer (approximately 8 percent) were on board.
"Eventually, companies are built up and then they are sold," Hopkins said. "Richard mentioned the possibility to Eric, who mentioned it to me. I wouldn't have had a problem with it. I would have made money. I heard the company was going to be sold and Oscar approved it and then changed his mind. My thing is a person has a right to change their mind.
"To know that a relationship broke up, it's a shame if it's over that. They had a great situation going on. Richard ran the company. Oscar was dealing with his own demons and Richard was a hard worker, but there are some 'buts' in there."
When Schaefer resigned there were many who thought Golden Boy would be in deep trouble, especially when Mayweather, the pay-per-view king, said he would no longer work with Golden Boy. After all, Mayweather and Schaefer are close and the fighter said Schaefer was the only reason that he worked with Golden Boy on a fight-by-fight basis for his past nine bouts (beginning with his 2007 pay-per-view record-breaker against De La Hoya).
But in the aftermath of Schaefer's resignation, De La Hoya made two important moves that showed his strength. The first was to get Mayweather, Haymon's most important fighter, to change his mind and stay with Golden Boy, at least through his Sept. 13 rematch with Marcos Maidana, although he had no other realistic option with the fight so close.
"The bottom line is we bring a lot to the table to a promotion," De La Hoya said. "We have the infrastructure and I would hope that with these last nine fights they are pleased with what Golden Boy can do for them. History shows we've been doing pretty well for him for a long time. The way I see it why should they change?"
The second was to secure a commitment from Hopkins to remain with the company. Hopkins is also close to Schaefer and many thought he would leave Golden Boy upon Schaefer's exit, perhaps to join Schaefer, who has told those close to him that he plans to remain in the promotional business once his legal situation with Golden Boy -- which claims he is under contract until March 2018 -- is clarified.
On July 10 at the MGM Grand, two days before Alvarez-Lara, De La Hoya, Hopkins and other company officials had an intense, two-hour meeting. Hopkins emerged from it believing in De La Hoya's vision for the company and pledging his loyalty.
"I'm the most loyal guy in the world as long as you have my back. I wanted to hear from Oscar about what was going on and I got the answers," Hopkins said. "Some I liked, some I didn't. But I came out with a clear head about whether I still want to be part of the company. The answer was yes, I do."
In his personal life, De La Hoya has spent years fighting a substance abuse problem that he long hid -- he admitted to being drunk two weeks before his final fight, a brutally one-sided knockout loss to Manny Pacquiao -- until he could no longer do so. Having already been to rehab for his drug and drinking problem in 2011 and been through scandals, none more embarrassing than when photos of him in drag during one of his binges hit the Internet, De La Hoya hit bottom again and returned to rehab last September before Mayweather-Alvarez.
Claiming to be clean and sober now, De La Hoya has taken the day-to-day reins of Golden Boy Promotions, the company he used to ignore for months on end, rarely showing up at its downtown Los Angeles headquarters and leaving the heavy lifting to Schaefer.
Now, by all accounts, he is a regular in the office and involved in all aspects of the company. And guess what? He's having fun. During the promotion earlier this month for the Showtime PPV fight between Alvarez, Golden Boy's biggest star and most important fighter, and Lara at the MGM Grand, De La Hoya ran the show and seemed comfortable doing it with no Schaefer to lean on.
He handled the final news conference as well as any he has been involved in and mingled with media members throughout the week, something he has rarely done.
"I seriously thought that running a promotional company was difficult. But it's not. It's not difficult. It's fun," De La Hoya said. "I mean this is my life. This is what I know, this is what I breathe, boxing.
"Right now we're in this transition we're making, which is a very smooth one. We're going through the storm right now but the way I see it we're going through a California storm, which means it's not a Florida storm, a category 5. It's a lot smaller, a lot smoother. Companies go through transitions left and right all the time. There are CEOs who get fired and CEOs who resign and the show must go on. I think people were expecting a transition that was going to be a lot more difficult."
De La Hoya has cleaned out the supposed Schaefer loyalists at Golden Boy, firing at least four staffers. He wants everybody to know he's in charge, although he said once the legal situation with Schaefer is ironed out he'll probably hire a company president and give himself the title of chairman. One name that has emerged is Jeff Wald, who is well-connected in Hollywood, has a good relationship with De La Hoya and is best known in boxing circles as the driving force behind "The Contender" reality series.
"People from really high positions and all walks of life are calling me," De La Hoya said. "When I make the decision, and I have the green light from my lawyers [to hire someone], I'm gonna make that decision collectively with my team. For the time being, I'm taking the helm."
De La Hoya relies heavily on vice president, matchmaker and, more important, lifelong best friend Eric Gomez, to have his back in business and life.
"I rely on Eric Gomez. He started the company with me. He's been there from day one," De La Hoya said. "He knows the boxing business and Golden Boy Promotions like the back of his palm. He actually is the one who makes the fights. I rely on him a lot.
"When this happened to me, going into rehab and everything, he didn't kick me while I was down. He was the one who has always been there for me. That's the reason why I can count my friends with one hand. Well, actually with one finger."
Gomez is also the one person at Golden Boy with a solid relationship with Haymon. Some Haymon fighters are under contract, such as junior featherweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz, lightweight titlist Omar Figueroa and welterweight Amir Khan. But while De La Hoya continues to promote Haymon's fighters he said he is pressing Haymon to sign more of them with Golden Boy, although Haymon has so far refused.
"I need security. I'm running a business here," De La Hoya said. "In any business if you don't have contracts you can't work on a handshake deal."
Although Schaefer always said the lack of contracts wasn't an issue because of his close relationship with Haymon, De La Hoya said, "I was not fine with it. I've expressed it many times. We signed several [Haymon] fighters, but there are a lot not under contract."
As he gets his promotional house in order, De La Hoya said he's doing the same with his personal life.
"I went into rehab to rehabilitate my soul, my mind, my body. I had a whole different concept of what life really is because I've been groomed to be a champion ever since I was 8, 9 years old," he said. "So I've always been the one to take my family out of poverty. They've always treated me different. I've always been the Golden Boy, ever since a young age. I've always had this pressure on me, no consequences. Oscar can't do nothing wrong and if he does, let's sweep it under the rug. I've always had that my whole life. ... Nobody ever said no. I'm very fortunate and feel blessed that I was able to get the train back on the rails."
He acknowledged the difficulties he and his wife, Millie, have had but said things are going well for them and their three children, including 6-month-old daughter Victoria.
"We're living the time of our life now. That means everything to me," he said. "I had issues, I had problems, yes, I did. I am just very fortunate that I was able to come back because a lot of people are statistics. I didn't want to be a statistic. I'm very fortunate and very blessed that I found the strength, that I came back.
"I love what I do. [Boxing] is my passion. That's why I say that I don't think it's difficult [to run a promotional company]. In the state of mind that I was, practically all my life, taking on this type of responsibility would have been very difficult. I probably would have failed at it. But the fact is that I'm finally at peace with myself."