Boxing fans will miss De La Hoya when he's gone

CARSON, Calif. -- Oscar De La Hoya did what he had to do. Steve Forbes did what he'd hoped to do.

De La Hoya was dominant over 12 rounds against Forbes on Saturday night, winning a clear, deserved and unanimous decision. His punches were heavier, his selection of punches more varied, his jab stiffer and stronger.

Forbes barely won any rounds -- just one on two cards, and none on the other, although he picked up a couple on this reporter's highly unofficial card -- but he was competitive in almost all of them. Although at times he appeared to wilt under the power and pressure of his larger opponent, he showed durability and resilience and even surprised De La Hoya by launching attacks of his own as the Golden Boy finished an assault.

Indeed, particularly early in the fight, Forbes scored repeatedly with fast flurries and especially a sneaky left hook.

It wasn't enough, or even close. Not enough, anyway, to win the fight.

It was, however, more than enough to win more fans, put himself in position for further television dates and decent paydays, and continue the late-career surge that began the moment he agreed to appear on "The Contender."

And what of De La Hoya?

He certainly looked more impressive than he had looked in some time. But then again, he was expected to.

He did not select Forbes as the first opponent of his farewell tour so that the man called "2 Pound" could beat him, make him look bad, or in any way threaten his big-money September rematch with Floyd Mayweather.

That notwithstanding, both fighter and trainer were rightly pleased and left the arena with increased optimism about his chances in the Mayweather rematch.

Nonetheless, Saturday night may have been more historic than many anticipated or, at the end of the evening, realized.

If De La Hoya carries through with his stated notion of taking on Mayweather and then, in his farewell bout, someone of the caliber of Miguel Cotto, then May 3, 2008, might well go down as the last time we see the Golden Boy's hand raised in victory.

More probable: Whether he wins or loses against Mayweather -- and the ease with which Forbes' fists at times found their target suggests the latter scenario remains more likely -- he will finish with a gimme, a bout that will be more showcase than competition.

And then he will ride into the sunset.

He sounded wistful when discussing his impending retirement with journalists a few days before the contest.

"It's been the most difficult decision that I've had to make, to convince myself and prepare myself for retirement," he confessed.

His family had been ready for him to retire long before he had. In fact, he said, "My father told me, 'You should have retired four years ago. You should have retired after the [Fernando] Vargas fight.'"

The September 2002 victory over Vargas was perhaps the high-water mark of the Golden Boy's already Hall of Fame career, a skilled and gritty victory over a bigger, stronger (and as it turned out, juiced) opponent in a genuinely personal grudge match.

At that point, the former Olympian sported a stellar professional record of 35-2. Since then, he has gone just 4-3, with the victories against such overmatched foes as Yory Boy Campas, Ricardo Mayorga, Forbes and, just barely, Felix Sturm.

During that time, even as his annual spectacles have continued to gross millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of pay-per-view buys, De La Hoya has become progressively less relevant as a championship fighter.

Indeed, entering Saturday's bout, the attitude of many media and most hard-core boxing fans was telling. Had Floyd Mayweather been the one fighting Steve Forbes, fan reaction would have been furious. Instead, it was mostly indifferent.

And yet, as the electricity in the Home Depot Center once more attested, De La Hoya -- even at 35 and with a recent record barely over .500 -- remains able to attract an adoring throng like no other.

The packed stadium was testament to the Golden Boy's continued mainstream drawing power; the evening had the feeling of a genuine "big event," and the crowd roared every punch thrown by the hometown hero. Even the fighter himself admitted afterward to being distracted between rounds by the atmosphere and enthusiasm.

Until someone comes along to fill his golden shoes after De La Hoya leaves the stage, events like Saturday night's largely will leave the stage, too.

And when that happens, we will miss him.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.