by Cliff Rold
It’s a story as old as the frayed yellow pages of a vintage Police Gazette.
A fighter turns professional and wins enough to get noticed as a comer. From there, they build their skill set and their buzz, creeping towards the dream of a title opportunity. The big day arrives and the contender has a chance to be a champion.
For some fighters, becoming the champion is the thing. Following a defeat to Tony Tucker for a Heavyweight belt in 1987, Buster Douglas won six in a row to earn a shot at Mike Tyson. History well records what happened next.
It also records what happened immediately following. Douglas was up, for that night, to winning the crown. Doing something with it was a whole other matter.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the men who win titles and take them for a ride. Joe Louis remains the enduring championship standard with over a decade as Heavyweight king and a still-record 25 consecutive defenses. Bernard Hopkins, Carlos Monzon, Bob Foster, Henry Armstrong, and Ricardo Lopez are among the men who held titles for double-digit reigns in their various divisions, defining what truly great champions can be.
Somewhere between Buster Douglas and Joe Louis lies the rest of the championship landscape. It is littered with men who held titles for different periods of time to different distinctions. We don’t ask every great champion to be Louis, but to be remembered as a true championship level name it has to be more than a flash in the pan.
Mikey Garcia (31-0, 26 KO) has been maneuvered beautifully throughout his young career. Only 25, he enters the main event this Saturday night on HBO as the reigning WBO titlist at 126 lbs. In his previous encounter, he scored four knockdowns over Orlando Salido before a badly broken nose sent the fight to the cards after eight rounds.
Four knockdowns? Eight rounds?
No, there wasn’t much drama in that decision.
Garcia isn’t your typical hot young progeny. He comes from strong bloodlines. His brother and trainer, Robert Garcia, was a world champion at 130 lbs. It’s no surprise he made his way to a title. Fans have watched his careful development and gradual progressions through new challenges, big things being predicted all along.
That was Part I; the making of a champion.
This weekend is about the beginning of Part II.
Mikey Garcia begins the job of being a champion. How he handles that job will determine whether he is one of many to find there way to belts or one of few to make his belt bigger. The man across the ring from him knows a little bit about that.
Juan Manuel Lopez (33-2, 30 KO), now 29, has been where Garcia is now. Fresh off a first round vaporizing of Daniel Ponce De Leon in 2008, Lopez was the WBO titlist at 122 lbs. with proclamations about future superfights and references to Puerto Rican legends like Felix Trinidad and Wilfredo Gomez to be found.
It didn’t quite work out that way. Lopez managed five defenses of that first belt but something always seemed to be missing. A near disaster against journeyman Rogers Mtagwa left more questions than answers. A move to Featherweight, and solid wins over Steven Luevano and veteran Rafael Marquez, quieted the critics and gave him another belt.
Then came Orlando Salido. Twice.
And now comes the fulcrum point of a career. If Lopez suffers another loss, particularly by stoppage, there will be many who see him as finished near the top of the sport. It may or may not ultimately be the case, but perception matters in this era of limited dates. It can affect how television responds when one’s name is mentioned as an opponent. It can affect what fights are offered in the first place.
It affects the bottom line.
Going into this fight, the perception is Garcia is on the rise and Lopez is the name opponent who can make a good show, incite some of the passions of the Mexican/Puerto Rican rivalry, and not kill the momentum. He’s the sort of still dangerous, name underdog a young champion should be able to hold off.
In that sense, he’s the perfect starting point for Garcia’s Part II. The Oxnard native, for the moment, is limited in his options at Featherweight. Nonito Donaire and Guillermo Rigondeuax share his promoter and are only a class below. Neither has officially risen yet and Rigondeaux has expressed no desire to. Donaire shares the same trainer so is likely not a realistic foe.
Abner Mares, probably the next bet foe actually in the division, might as well be fighting on Mars given the chasm between Garcia’s promoter, Top Rank, and Mares’ in Golden Boy.
Garcia needs the biggest name he can get before he gets into the grind of beating back mandatories and waiting for unique new challenges to surface. Lopez brings the name. If he still has enough game, he might bring a hell of a lot more than that.
How long will Mikey Garcia, Part II, last?
We’ll know more by Sunday.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]