They were just beginning to clean up the Sun Bowl, and Oscar De La Hoya already was in his custom bus, heading down the highway toward his Los Angeles home.

De La Hoya had done his cleaning up against France's Patrick Charpentier, to the surprise of no one and to the delight of the crowd of 45,368 that had come for a night of fights and hero worship.With the ease of a fighter becoming increasingly confident in his tremendous skills, De La Hoya knocked Charpentier down three times in the third round to retain his WBC welterweight title against the top challenger.

It looked so easy that some of the post-fight talk centered not only on Julio Cesar Chavez, the next opponent, but De La Hoya's place in boxing history.

"He could end his career in most people's eyes as the best fighter who ever lived," said Gil Clancy, the trainer-turned-broadcaster who was brought in to help De La Hoya train for the fight. "What I see in Oscar is almost a perfect fighter. There has never been a perfect fighter, but Oscar has so much potential."

After only 28 fights, it's probably too early to be speculating on how De La Hoya eventually will be regarded. And, against an opponent who basically stood in front of him to hit, it's hard to judge just how good De La Hoya was in the ring Saturday night.

Proclamations of greatness will have to wait until De La Hoya fights the likes of fellow welterweight champions Felix Trinidad and Ike Quartey, or finishes his career with what he sees as an unprecedented seven titles in different weight classes.

But for one night, at least, even De La Hoya was almost giddy with his performance.

"I thought I was better than ever," De La Hoya said. "I had no problems out there. After I hurt him I knew the knockdown was coming."

The wrist injury that kept him out of the ring for six months was no problem as De La Hoya showed an array of punches in pummeling the hapless challenger almost at will.

From the opening bell, De La Hoya snapped Charpentier's head with jabs and dug into his body with left hooks. He used a left hook for the first knockdown, followed seconds later with a perfect uppercut that put Charpentier back on the canvas, then finished him with a right hand at 1:56 of the third round.

The befuddled Charpentier barely landed a punch.

"He didn't catch me with any solid punches whatsoever," De La Hoya said. "He caught me, I guess, with a few grazing left jabs that didn't do any damage."

The win added another $4 million to a bankroll already swollen by $33 million in earnings in 1997 alone. It also set up a Sept. 18 rematch with Chavez, who has irritated De La Hoya with his view of why he was stopped in the fourth round the first time the two fought two years ago.

In that fight, Chavez was cut over his eye and was taking a beating when the bout was finally stopped because he could not see.

"This time around with Chavez, it's something personal," De La Hoya said.

Still to come are possible fights with Trinidad, the IBF champion, and Quartey, who holds the WBA belt. At least some in boxing think De La Hoya has fought too many opponents past their prime and hasn't had to fight someone as strong as he is.

De La Hoya wants no part of that, claiming it is Trinidad and Quartey who are ducking him.

"I'm trying to create history by fighting the best champions in the world," he said. "I'm just waiting for them to sign a contract."