Oscar De La Hoya was not born in Mexico and struggled for his entire career to capture the Mexican boxing fanbase. Charismatic, good looking and technically sound the nickname of "The Golden Boy" should not have been a stretch. But, the California born De La Hoya was never considered a "true Mexican fighter." However, the fact that he was born in America had nothing to do with his inability to tap into the majority of the Mexican fanbase. Much more of the issue was with his fighting style and his lifestyle. From the June 1996 edition of Sports Illustrated:
De La Hoya will never win over the entire crowd, no matter how desperate his quest for support becomes. On Friday [the day of the fight against Chavez] his team colors were half Stars and Stripes and half Mexican flag. But it is not citizenship that is at stake. By now De La Hoya’s values are so stubbornly suburban that he can never again be identified with the rough-and-tumble barrio culture that inspired him to fight. He wants to play golf? He wants to study architecture? He wants to retire by age 28?
"I’m a fighter who doesn’t get hit, who doesn’t have cuts or bruises, and that’s the reason why the fans don’t appreciate my boxing. If I was cut up, if I was all beat up and looked like a ‘fighter’, they would appreciate me more because I would look like a warrior."
The Mexican and Mexican-American fanbase has rarely let birth country determine their support. Michael Carbajal is considered by many one of the greatest Mexican fighters in the history of the sport of boxing despite having been born in Phoenix, Arizona. In 1988 he won an Olympic silver medal for the United States but this never stood in the way of his being a favorite of the Latino boxing community.
Likewise, Bobby Chacon never had problems drawing big crowds or being recognized as a great fighter of Mexican descent. His gutsy fighting style was exactly what the Latino crowd loves in their champions and it turned him into a beloved fighter. The fact that Chacon failed high school Spanish didn't stand in the way of his being a successful draw with the fanbase.
While he now lives in Mexico, Antonio Margarito was born in California. Despite not having a fight in Mexico since 1999 and even after the loaded hand wrap controversy he drew big numbers in May when fighting in Aguascalientes, Mexico. His upcoming fight against Manny Pacquiao in Cowboy Stadium is expected to draw a large number of Mexican and Mexican-American supporters as Margarito attempts to become the man to avenge them against Pacquiao, who has defeated some of the biggest Mexican stars in the sport.
The Mexican vs. Mexicutioner angle was also played up recently when Shane Mosley fought Sergio Mora. Mora was looking to avenge the host of Mexican fighters Mosley had beaten, despite Mora being American born:
Last September much was made of Chris Arreola's attempt to become the first fighter of Mexican descent to win a major boxing heavyweight championship. Arreola's Mexican heritage was brought up relentlessly during the build-up to the fight in everything from press conferences to media articles to television commercials. Arreola has always drawn well on HBO and draws solid Latino heavy crowds in southern California.
The Mexican and Mexican-American fanbase has been one that has been fiercely loyal to the sport of boxing and to those fighters that they embrace as "theirs" throughout history. This rarely has anything to do with birth country and has much more to do with heritage and the idea that a fighter represent "his people" in the way that they expect a fighter to.
Cain Velasquez actually fights very much with the relentless, straight-forward style that has long been embraced by these fans in boxing. The UFC pounced on the perfect set of circumstances to attempt to make headway into that audience. By the arena reports it sounds like they were quite successful in their efforts to begin to stir up a passionate support base for an otherwise largely unknown fighter.
This is also a long-term strategy focused on more than simply marketing Cain Velasquez. Boxing has decades of history in the Latino community and has become a part of their culture. Men like Julio Cesar Chavez are more than just athletes to this group, they are cultural icons and even revered as heroes. It actually hurt De La Hoya in many Latinos eyes to dominate the faded Chavez.
In Cain Velasquez they have a heavyweight champion of Mexican descent, something boxing has yet to experience. He opens the door to some fans who may otherwise not have had a reason to identify with the sport and as they're introduced to the sport maybe they become long-term fans, maybe they embrace a Diego Sanchez or see Miguel Torres on a WEC show and find that they not only enjoy the sport but that there are identifiable fighters involved in it.
Could the UFC have done a little bit more to build up things about Velasquez beyond simply his heritage? Absolutely. But they should absolutely have marketed him as a Mexican gunning for the heavyweight championship. It's dishonest to think that the majority of Mexican-Americans throughout the United States identify themselves as Mexican-American and not simply as Mexican. As long as they're not manufacturing a birthplace in Mexico for Cain I simply do not think it is worth the amount of angst some MMA fans seem to feel.
One final note worth thinking about. With a $45 PPV price (for standard definition) should the UFC gain as few as 25,000 regular PPV ordering fans over time due to marketing to the Latino audience they will gain $1,125,000 in PPV sales per event. Is it worth pissing a couple people off to make that kind of money? Is anyone really going to stop watching the UFC because they dared market the sport to a new audience?
Michael Carbajal highlight:
Bobby Chacon vs. Rafael Limon highlights: