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De La Hoya is a first-time underdog

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World Boxing Organization middleweight champion Oscar De La Hoya comments on his next opponent, WBO champion Bernard Hopkins.

World Boxing Organization middleweight champion Oscar De La Hoya comments on his next opponent, WBO champion Bernard Hopkins.

Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Underdog usually describes Oscar De La Hoya's opponents. This time, the WBO middleweight champion knows the label fits him.

De La Hoya narrowly won his middleweight debut over Felix Sturm of Germany on June 5. He struggled against his chosen patsy and looked bloated at 160 pounds.

"I wasn't in shape," De La Hoya said Tuesday. "Everything happens for a reason. It's past. I'm still learning, and I'm only human."

Maybe so, but De La Hoya doesn't have time on his side.

His task gets much tougher with his Sept. 18 fight against middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, who has made 18 title defenses and hasn't lost since 1993.

"I'm always the favored fighter to win," De La Hoya said, ticking off the low odds usually listed next to his name.

"For the very first time in my career and my life, no pressure whatsoever, zero. I took this fight because I know I'm going to work hard. If I don't, he knocks me out. I don't want to be knocked out, I don't want to be the laughingstock of the world."

At stake for the first time in the fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas will be four titles — De La Hoya's WBO belt and Hopkins' WBC, WBA and IBF crowns.

"This fight is Oscar's biggest challenge, and he has the opportunity, yes, as the underdog, to etch his name in history," promoter Bob Arum said.

As the theme to "2001: A Space Odyssey" played, the stage curtain rose and revealed De La Hoya and Hopkins standing expressionless in business suits. They turned, walked up stairs, planted their hands on hips and faced a barrage of flashbulbs without the slightest of smiles.

Although De La Hoya and Hopkins have yet to throw a punch, the bout is being compared to Sugar Ray Leonard's upset of Marvin Hagler in 1987. Leonard had been idle for three years before taking the middleweight crown from Hagler.

"You always want to put yourself in position for history," Hopkins said. "This is very, very rare to be at this level."

The fight could earn the 31-year-old De La Hoya up to $30 million. The 39-year-old Hopkins said he'll earn more than $10 million — the richest purse of his career.

"It's the fight of my life because he could end my life," De La Hoya said. "No one wanted me to take this fight, even my own people. I love what I do. I love to raise to the occasion and prove everybody wrong."

De La Hoya said he got back in the gym three days after nearly getting beat by Strum.

Hopkins expects De La Hoya to dance and move, a strategy the East Los Angeles native used unsuccessfully against Felix Trinidad in their 1999 WBC welterweight title bout.

"Oscar's strategy will be to take it into the later rounds and to hold when he gets in trouble, but not to run," Hopkins said. "He understands that didn't work before."

Arum said more than 12,000 tickets have been sold. Prices range from $1,700 to $350, although he said only $550 tickets remain.