- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2000

VERO BEACH, Fla. The House of Champions is an anonymous storefront gym on a one-way street in Vero Beach. People walk by, cars drive by, and no one knows that inside this nondescript location, a young man from Washington is preparing for the moment of a lifetime.

Inside, Derrell Coley trades ferocious blows with Aaron Mitchell, a hard-punching middleweight from Philadelphia. "Good jab, Derrell, good jab," yells out Leonard Langley from Coley's corner, a corner that Langley has been in for 20 years now. "Jab city. Jab city."

This is where Coley has been training for the biggest fight a Washington area boxer has had since Sugar Ray Leonard fought Marvin Hagler 13 years ago a fight that Derrell Coley watches for inspiration.

Saturday, in the main event at Madison Square Garden in New York, Coley will face one of the biggest non-heavyweight draws in the history of boxing Oscar De La Hoya.

Coley, 29, who grew up in Capital Heights, will earn $1 million for the fight, 20 times more than he has ever made for a fight. He has been a professional fighter for 10 years, and, with a record of 34-1-2, has been the No. 1 ranked contender for the World Boxing Council welterweight championship for more than a year.

Yet few people outside of the District have ever heard of Coley or have seen him fight. At the news conference in December announcing the fight, an executive with Home Box Office, which will be broadcasting the fight, was asked if Coley had arrived yet. "I don't know," he said. "I don't even know what he looks like."

The fight with De La Hoya (31-1, 25 knockouts) is not even for a major welterweight title (the little-known International Boxing Association championship is at stake), at least not technically. Coley was the No. 1 ranked challenger for the WBC belt, and though he was dropped to No. 2 after De La Hoya's controversial loss in September to Felix Trinidad the reigning WBC welterweight champion Coley is still the mandatory challenger under WBC orders.

Trinidad has moved up to 154 pounds to fight World Boxing Association junior middleweight champion David Reid on March 3. As of now, though, he is still the WBC welterweight champion. If Trinidad wins, he is expected to relinquish the title. But either way, win or lose, he is under orders by the WBC to decide either to give up the belt or fight the winner of De La Hoya-Coley 15 days after they fight.

Trinidad is expected to stay at 154 pounds, either way, so Coley is treating this fight with De La Hoya as a WBC title fight, with the winner likely to be awarded the belt. "That's the way we see it," said Barry Linde, Coley's manager.

The real prize, though, is De La Hoya, who brings far more attention and money to the fight than any title would.

If Coley defeats De La Hoya, his face will be plastered in newspapers across the country. He is an 8-1 underdog against De La Hoya, the self-proclaimed "Golden Boy" with the marquee name and the box office looks. A win over De La Hoya will change everything in Derrell Coley's life.

"This is the fight of my life, and I'm training like it," Coley said.

He has been in Vero Beach since Dec. 1 the first time in his career that he has had a legitimate out-of-town training camp. But it is by no means a million-dollar camp. De La Hoya trains in a lavish resort community called Big Bear in California, with first class accommodations and services in a high-profile setting.

Coley's home for the past 11 weeks has been a modest beach-front motel one room, with bottles of juice and bags of fruit and boxes of cereal all around him. You can be sure this is not the way De La Hoya has been living. "No, I don't think so," Coley said, laughing.

Coley arrives at the gym every day in a rented van, carrying his own equipment, along with his co-trainers and friend Kevin Emory, a Washington light heavyweight who has been helping in camp. Next door to the gym in this 1960s-style shopping center is an office for the Florida Republican Party as well as a union office for the Teamsters. It's business as usual for Coley. He goes through his sparring, his shadow boxing and his bag work with no fanfare.

"I'm a fighter that is hungry for an opportunity," Coley said. "I've never been given the opportunity before. Oscar has been given the opportunities, and now I have the opportunity with this fight with Oscar."

The Florida sunshine comes through the front window blinds and shines on charcoal drawings of boxing legends hanging on the wall Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. Coley continues to go toe-to-toe with Mitchell in the ring. He will spar eight rounds today, for a total of 30 in three days. For perhaps the first time in his career, he is working as hard at those legends that surround him.

"I've never seen him work this hard," said Langley, one of his co-trainers. "This guy he is in the ring with weighs 20 pounds more than Derrell. This is the best he has ever been."

It certainly is a change from what Coley is used to training locally for a few weeks before a fight, in between running around and all the other distractions.

"I'm focused here on nothing but boxing," Coley said. "In Washington, I would never get the proper rest and the proper training. Right now I'm on a different level. I'm a bigger puncher, a faster fighter, a better athlete."

It's not often that someone gets a chance to come face to face with the moment that may change his life forever. Coley said he was determined to make sure that no matter what happens Saturday night, he will have been ready for the moment. "I've always wanted the opportunity, and I'll make the most of it," Coley said. "I will give it the best shot that I've got."

It is the kind of shot that thousands of fighters dream of when they first step in the ring. Coley has dreamed of this shot since he was 9 years old and he followed his older brother, Jeffrey, into the gym. That was when he first met Langley, who helped guide Coley to an amateur record of 96-4. He turned professional in Washington with a four-round decision win over Derrick Chapman in July 1990.

Langley, a former light heavyweight fighter, is joined by co-trainer Al Scott. The latter began helping Coley train when he was a teen-ager and Langley had other commitments. "Leonard wasn't coming around all the time, so Al would help me," Coley said. "Al would always be there to take me to the gym, to help me with my roadwork. He worked hard and has always been loyal."

Coley convinced Langley and Scott to work together to train him, and the trio has been at it for 13 years. It is a remarkable tenure in such a volatile sport, where egos and personalities often make for short working relationships, particularly with two trainers in the corner. "We work together as a family," Coley said.

It seemed like the three of them were on the road to success early in Coley's career. Coley, in his first four years as a pro, compiled a 24-0 record, including a memorable nationally televised battle against Terrence Alli in Washington in July 1994. That bout ended when Coley stopped Alli in the 11th round and won the North American Boxing Federation welterweight title.

After that fight, Coley expected a shot at a world championship would soon come. It didn't happen. He lost a controversial decision to Oba Carr in August 1995, a fight that many ringside observers believed Coley won. Coley has had just eight bouts since then. There were times when, frustrated by what he felt was a stalled career and mishandling by his promoter Main Events, Coley considered quitting.

"Every promoter I ever had worked against me," Coley said. "And, after I fought Oba Carr, I was angry at [my manager] Barry, but the problem was the promoters and how they messed with me. They wouldn't get me fights, and then try to get me fights on short notice. That was the worst time for me. I didn't like myself at the time. It almost got to me."

Coley credits his then girlfriend and current fiancee Tawana Perry for helping him through that difficult period. "She stuck by me and would tell me that I was one of the best fighters in the world," he said. "I owe her a lot."

Ironically, it was Coley's current promoter, America Presents, who fought to get him the number one mandatory challenger position. But then America Presents and Coley clashed when the promoter, who was supposed to negotiate a fight for Coley with Trinidad, instead put together a fight between Reid and Trinidad.

That set off a war between America Presents president, Dan Goossen, and Don King, Trinidad's promoter, against Bob Arum, De La Hoya's promoter. Arum, at the time, was also negotiating with King for a rematch with Trinidad. That resulted in a bitter battle between America Presents and Coley and led to Arum offering Coley $1 million to fight De La Hoya and threats of lawsuits from everyone involved. It was finally resolved, but there are still some hostile feelings between Coley and his promoter.

Those battles outside of the ring have not seemed to affect Coley when he is in the ring. He is filled with confidence. He believes he, not De La Hoya, who controls the future of the welterweight division.

"Oscar didn't want to fight me when he was champion and I was the number one mandatory challenger," Coley said. "Shane Mosley [undefeated welterweight contender] won't fight me. Felix Trinidad, he didn't want to fight me. And now, though Oscar is fighting me now, he doesn't want to. He wants what I have, which is the number one mandatory challenger position to Felix Trinidad's title. This is a fight that De La Hoya never wanted but was forced to take because I have what he wants. And I have what Shane Mosley wants, and that's the chance to fight Oscar De La Hoya. I have what everyone wants. I'm the man, and nobody knows it."

There were reasons why De La Hoya, who claims he didn't even know who Coley was before this fight was made, passed over Coley. During the time that Coley has been a top ranked challenger, De La Hoya had three major paydays Trinidad, a second Julio Cesar Chavez fight, and Ike Quartey. De La Hoya has also had relatively easy fights against mediocre opponents like David Kamau, Wilfredo Rivera, Patrick Charpentier and Oba Carr (four years after Coley fought him).

A fight with Coley is neither considered a big payday De La Hoya will get about $8 million, about half of his purse for the Quartey fight and nearly one-third of his check from the Trinidad bout nor an easy fight.

Coley presents some problems for De La Hoya.

De La Hoya has been a welterweight for only the last three years of his eight-year professional career. Coley has been a true welterweight for his entire 10-year career and has shown welterweight power. Coley, at 5-foot-11, is as tall as De La Hoya. Coley has fast hands and has showed heart in the ring he came off the canvas three times in his March 1997 fight against Kip Diggs to knock Diggs out in the 11th round.

But Coley has never been in a fight of this magnitude and sometimes fighters wilt under the weight of the moment like in front of a frenzied full house at Madison Square Garden Saturday night. Coley said he won't be one of those fighters.

"I don't feel any pressure, because no one believes I can win this fight," Coley said. "Oscar will try to force me to do things that everyone believes he can do, but it's not going to be that easy. There will be a lot of things he will try to do that will not work, and when he realizes that I'm not afraid of him, he won't know what to do.

"This fight is mine."

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