Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa fought on the same card in January of 2010 at Madison Square Garden. From that point, the boxing community has insisted that the two featherweights, both promoted by Top Rank, meet to establish supremacy of the division. Top Rank President Bob Arum has ignored these entreaties, publically stating that the bout would eventually be larger with more exposure for his two belt holders.
In the interim, both fighters have racked up additional victories, most notably with Juanma's victory over the former champion Rafael Marquez. Both are scheduled for relatively safe title defense in the next six weeks. There hasn't been imminent talk about matching them.
In some respects, Arum was correct in holding off the fight. Both fighters have showed improvement and have continued to build name recognition. However, neither has become full-fledged stars on the boxing scene and they certainly have been eclipsed by the magnetism of Nonito Donaire in the lower weights.
Lopez is a star in Puerto Rico. If the fight were held there, I'm sure they could sell out a medium-sized arena there. But the big gates aren't in Puerto Rico. There's a reason why Felix Trinidad's biggest fights weren't on the island. I'm speculating, but if they fought now in America, they probably could sell somewhere between 6,500-8,000 tickets. That's certainly a more substantial gate than the small theater in Madison Square Garden where they fought in 2010, but it's not exactly game-changing either. Most likely, the fight wouldn't warrant the status of a pay-per-view attraction, further limiting potential revenues.
There were reasonable notes of caution sounded in matching the fighters too soon; both had room for improvement. Gamboa, who was moved too quickly in his early bouts, gets dropped by almost all decent punchers he faces and was even knocked down by one fighter with relatively little power (Darling Jimenez). Over the last year he has corrected some of his flaws. His shots aren't as wide. He doesn't square up or showboat as much. In short, he has become a pro.
Lopez has worked on his stamina since the Rogers Mtagwa fight where he may have been 30 additional seconds from being knocked out of the ring. He has become more consistent and looks much better in the mid rounds.
If Arum is truly interested in matching his titleholders (and I'm not sure he is), than 2011 must be the year. Most pressingly amongst other factors, these young champions aren't so young anymore. Gamboa is 29; Lopez is 27. Fighters in the lower weight classes don't often age gracefully. Additionally, there has been talk about Lopez struggling to make the featherweight limit of 126. 130 lbs. is pretty barren right now in terms of big fights.
Frankly, I'm not sure how much better Lopez and Gamboa are going to get. Facing Orlando Salido and Jorge Solis will give the fighters some rounds and the ability to work on things, but those two boxers are not in the same class that the titlists are. At a certain point, you don't know what have you until you face someone elite. Despite their two titles, Lopez and Gamboa haven't had those challenges yet.
In boxing today, a belt can be won without defeating top opposition. Lopez did face Daniel Ponce de Leon to win his title. Ponce de Leon is certainly a good fighter, but not elite. Rafael Marquez was an elite fighter at 122 before his punishing series with Israel Vazquez. Gamboa has yet to face an elite foe.
Even as the champions continue to improve, they both have weaknesses that can be exploited, which makes the potential matchup so intriguing. Lopez can still be hurt by counter shots and his stamina issues are not fully resolved. Gamboa can be knocked down. He's yet to be seriously hurt in his trips to the canvas, but he has not faced a puncher like Lopez.
Until they meet, we don't know how all of this will resolve itself. I get a feeling that Top Rank doesn't really know yet either. Arum only co-promotes both fighters (although he is the lead promoter for all of their U.S. fights). His promotional partners may be wary of losing their consistent revenue streams.
Lopez also doesn't seem all that eager to face Gamboa. If the money were right, he would fight him, but you don't see Juanma throwing too many barbs Gamboa's way.
For all parties involved, this fight is a risk. The hope is that they have a memorable clash that could lead to a series of meetings or raise one or both of their profiles, so that they would become full-fledged stars in the sport.
Of course, this fight would demonstrate to boxing fans, and to the boxers themselves, if they possess actually greatness. In boxing, we used to take it for granted that the quest for greatness and defeating the best functioned as primary motivating factors.