The Golden Boy: Shining a dark light on a tormented soul

There is a point early in episode two of The Golden Boy, the two-part documentary that begins streaming on Max in the United States on Monday, when it appears that its titular focus Oscar De La Hoya has everything a person could want. He is young, handsome, famous, undefeated in the ring, and fabulously wealthy, earning as much as $40 million in a year. He is also engaged to a beautiful woman, actress Shanna Moakler, who adores him and is pregnant with their child. 

“But then,” says Moakler, “it got weird.”

Or, as De La Hoya, puts it: “I fucked everything up.”

They are talking about their relationship, and the revelation by two women that De La Hoya had fathered their children, but the filmmakers juxtapose their words with footage of De La Hoya’s contest with Felix Trinidad – when, with the fight in the bag through eight rounds, he inexplicably elected to dance his way through the final third of the bout, allowing the Puerto Rican to overhaul him on the cards and hand him his first defeat. In the aftermath of the highly controversial scorecards being read, we see De La Hoya and his team storming off to the dressing rooms, blaming everyone – the judges, Don King – when some inner reflection would have been more appropriate. And while he was hardly the first or last boxer to lash out after suffering a points defeat in a contest he thought he won, that moment was reflective of much of his personal and professional life: a consistent deflection of blame and unwillingness to look inward, the cultivation of an image that was wholly at odds with reality.

Finally, at age 50, De La Hoya seems willing to be honest with himself and others; and what makes The Golden Boy such a gripping piece of television is the studied contrast between the archival footage of his handsome, smiling, youthful features and the interviews, harshly lit and shot in black and white, of a fleshier middle-aged man whose hubris has apparently been replaced by honesty and regret.

For anyone who has studied or spent time with or around De La Hoya at any stage over the last 25 or 30 years, the bare bones of the story are familiar: the immense popularity, the movie-star looks, the tremendous ability, but also the artifice, the tortured relationship with his father, and the substance abuse – which began, by his telling, at age 7, when his uncles would encourage him to drink beer with them and which burst into the public sphere with the release of photos of him posing in fishnets in a hotel room. What elevates the documentary is De La Hoya’s confessional interviews and the feeling of remorse that envelopes the whole enterprise.

De La Hoya’s troubles stem, as many people’s do, from childhood – or, in his case, an absence of one. He was barely even old enough to be considered a child when his uncles would make him glove up and fight as they stood around, drinking; his father had boxed, and his father before him, and so Oscar was going to do so as well, particularly when elder brother Joel Jr decided it was not the life for him. 

De La Hoya’s mother, who famously passed away from cancer before he won Olympic Gold in 1992, is an early and constant presence; but whereas the initial portrayal suggests a kind, nurturing soul whose departure from his life affected him greatly, the truth, it ultimately transpires, was more complicated. While he undoubtedly does miss and love her, she was not the saintly influence of lore; in fact, she beat him regularly, prolonged thrashings that prompted him to develop an emotional distance from those around him. And the story he would often tell that she had urged him on her deathbed to win that gold medal? A lie: by the time she was at death’s door, she was so sick and heavily drugged that she didn’t even know who he was.

Oscar De La Hoya, the son and human being, felt denied love and acceptance from as far back as he could remember; Oscar De La Hoya the boxer was feted and adulated, and so the ring became his sanctuary, a place where he could hurt and be hurt with impunity. But this too ultimately became a gilded cage, as he felt like a commodity and not a real person and struggled to find genuine love and affection.

Much of the latter was his own fault: he ditched Moakler with vicious cruelty to spend a life with Millie Corretjer, on whom he cheated and from whom he became divorced. And if part of his emotional failings can be attributed to his father’s coldness – a trait he inherited from his own father – it is especially saddening to see him act with total disinterest toward his three oldest children, from three different mothers, who knew him only from watching his clips on YouTube and considered themselves fortunate if they saw him once a year. It is to their immense credit that they are the ones who have broken the cycle, becoming firm friends out of solidarity and almost forcing De La Hoya to begin acting like some semblance of a real father.

Life is not like a video game; there are no do-overs and extra lives. We have but one opportunity to live each day, and when that day is done, it is gone forever. Fueled by alcohol and cocaine, De La Hoya wasted too many of his days and used them to be a heartless beast – and, perhaps, despite his denials, a serial sexual predator. Such behavior, if true, is hardly worthy of forgiveness; and yet, to be unmoved by De La Hoya sighing sadly that, “I didn’t live up to my full potential in the ring. I could have been … I could have been …" and then trail away, one would have to be made of stone.

One wonders if the transformation is fully complete. While the tears flow when he discusses the injustices visited upon him, the defensive body language when he admits the wrongs he has done unto others suggests that he remains a work in progress. But, even after an epic two and a half hours, this flawed and nuanced man is every bit as compelling as the matinee idol boxer who once carried the sport on his back and had the world at his feet.