At the end of 2010, Juan Manuel Lopez was on the short list of emerging superstars in boxing, alongside such luminaries as Amir Khan and Yuriorkis Gamboa. Lopez had all of the credentials. He was an amateur star, sporting an impressive 126-24 record, and represented Puerto Rico in many major tournaments, including the Pan Am Games and the Olympics. As a young professional, he garnered immediate attention with his superb offensive technique and highlight reel knockouts. It was not a question of "if" he would become a champion; the question was "how soon."
Lopez's professional coming out party occurred on June 7th, 2008, when he met rugged, featherweight champion Daniel Ponce de Leon. Prior to the fight, there were many whispers that Top Rank, Lopez's promoter, was moving too soon by matching him against Ponce de Leon, who was not just a knockout artist, but also crafty and awkward. Within seconds of the opening bell, Lopez blitzed Ponce de Leon and knocked him out in the first round, destroying his most formidable opponent to date. With that performance, Lopez demonstrated that he was ready to take on all comers.
He quickly became a cash cow for Top Rank, establishing a rabid following amongst his Puerto Rican countrymen. Although Puerto Rican boxing fans respected Miguel Cotto, Lopez's offensive ring style, gregarious nature and charisma engendered the type of rapt infatuation that was reserved for the island's superheroes, like Felix Trinidad. In addition, the U.S. boxing networks showed similar affection, traveling to Puerto Rico for many of Lopez's ring appearances.
After Ponce de Leon, Lopez continued to rack up impressive performances, stopping his next two opponents in the first round and dispatching former champion Gerry Penalosa with ease.
Lopez's career was sailing along until late 2009, when he faced Rogers Mtagwa, a rough club fighter familiar with the gym wars of Philadelphia. Mtagwa was expected to provide rounds, but he wasn't supposed to represent any real threat of winning Lopez's title. The bout featured plenty of action and Lopez built a sizable lead on the scorecards. Suddenly, towards the end of the 11th round, Lopez ran out of gas and he spent the remainder of the fight hanging on and just trying to remain on his feet. Lopez pulled out the victory but Mtagwa was the fresher fighter down the stretch. Additionally, it was the first time that Lopez was seriously hurt as a professional. There were further concerns expressed about his conditioning.
In the featherweight division, Cuban defector and former Olympian Yuriorkis Gamboa, who was also promoted by Top Rank, had emerged as Lopez's chief rival. After Lopez's fight with Mtagwa, Top Rank next placed Gamboa against the gritty club fighter, to provide boxing fans (and perhaps their own decision makers) with a comparison between their two featherweight stars. Gamboa proceeded to destroy Mtagwa in two rounds, completely overshadowing Lopez's stoppage of Steven Luevano on the same card. Lopez's victory was solid, but unspectacular.
Top Rank was spooked. Its President, Bob Arum, refused to acquiesce to the public's demand to see Gamboa-Lopez. The company shifted gears and decided to match Lopez against recent losers, which included Bernabe Concepcion, Rafael Marquez and Orlando Salido. Suddenly, every Lopez fight was turning into a war, with powerful counter right hands landing frequently on his chin. Concepcion knocked down Lopez and Marquez connected with some hellacious bombs. On one hand, Lopez was becoming a sensational TV fighter, but technically, he was regressing.
Prior to the Salido fight, the talk in boxing circles was about how bad Lopez's body looked. Reportedly, he was walking around in the 170s between fights (the featherweight limit is 126). Additionally, he was going through a much-publicized divorce. He also had acquired a reputation for significant deficiencies in his training and conditioning. By the time he entered the ring against Salido, Lopez was a weight-drained shell of himself. After a few early rounds of promise, the fight turned in the fourth, with Salido landing a number of lead rights. In the fifth, Salido bludgeoned Lopez with overhand rights and scored a knockdown. It was surprising that Lopez survived the round.
However, Lopez pressed on, fighting on sheer muscle memory. He attempted to ward off Salido with his right hooks and straight lefts. The end came in the 8th, whereby referee Roberto Ramirez, Jr. called off the fight after Lopez took some additional hard shots. It was perhaps an early stoppage and Lopez still had a chance to win the fight had he been able to survive the round, but nevertheless, he certainly received a lot of punishment throughout the match. Lopez never showed any quit and offered a gutty performance after he was hurt, but he lost the fight outside of the ropes more than anything that Salido did during the bout itself.
Lopez now faces a series of questions about his future. What is his best weight? Does he have the commitment to become an elite fighter? Does he need to change his management and support team? Will he ever improve his defense? Would he benefit from getting off the island to train?
He fought Mike Oliver a few weeks ago and scored a knockout against an opponent who was overmatched. Still, Oliver was able to land a number of significant shots. The fight didn't necessarily alleviate any of the concerns about Lopez's future prospects.
It's clear that Lopez is no longer a featherweight. His best move may be to jump two divisions to lightweight; the additional four pounds from featherweight to junior lightweight may not be enough for Lopez to reach his optimal fighting weight. Maybe at lightweight, he can establish his own beachhead in a division that lacks firepower (with the notable exception of Brandon Rios). Additionally, it's more than evident that Lopez lacks the defensive technique at this point of his career to get in the ring with Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Top Rank has a lot invested in Lopez. He's a huge star and ticket seller in Puerto Rico and has demonstrated his worth as an exemplary television fighter. The next year of Lopez's career will be critical. He should be matched carefully, needing time to work on his defense and restore his confidence.
On offense, Lopez has room for improvement as well. Perhaps of most import, he has become stationary, offering little of the lateral movement or foot speed that he demonstrated as he moved up the professional ranks. Additionally, he features little head movement and, at times, a lazy right jab; he can be countered fairly easily. He plants himself in the pocket like Winky Wright used to do, but he lacks Wright's sterling defensive technique. Unlike Wright, Lopez often overcommits with his punches and doesn't return quickly enough to a defensive position.
Lopez can still be salvaged. The question is whether he is willing to put in the work to regain his top form. He wouldn't be the first fighter to be defeated by the trappings of stardom. He has flaws, but he has such a solid base of offensive skills (balance, punching technique, punch variety, power and ring intelligence) that he could return to the top with the right type of commitment. However, does he have the desire to make the needed sacrifices? Ultimately, without a willingness to improve, he could become just another in the long line of talented Olympians that failed to reach their full potential.
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