By Thomas Gerbasi
When Juan Manuel Lopez touched down this week in Dallas, the site of his Saturday bout with WBO featherweight champion Mikey Garcia, it was hot. Texas hot. But it wasn’t about to faze the Caguas, Puerto Rico product. The way he sees it, it’s just business as usual.
“It’s really hot and it’s dry here,” said Lopez through translator Ricardo Jimenez. “A little different than Puerto Rico, but I’m used to the heat.”
His comment was literal, but it could also have been referring to his career, as 35 pro fights, two divisional world championships, and 11 world title fights could certainly qualify someone as being used to the heat.
Yet as he enters the fight with the unbeaten Garcia, it’s Lopez who is the underdog, the veteran who has apparently seen too many wars, despite being a couple weeks away from his 30th birthday. Unfortunately that’s the way boxing works these days. You want a fighter to be exciting, but when he is too exciting and loses a couple fights, he’s washed up, cannon fodder for the young guns. It’s an unusual position for “JuanMa” to be in, but he’s also been in the business long enough to accept the fickle nature of the fans and media.
“I’m not worried about that at all,” he said. “The fans and the press can think whatever they want; I know what I’m capable of doing, I know I can still do a lot of things in my career, and I just have to go in the ring and prove it to everyone.”
Revered in fight circles for his wars with Rogers Mtagwa and Rafael Marquez, Lopez’ two bouts with Orlando Salido in 2011 and 2012 completely altered the perception of the Puerto Rican banger, even though everyone who saw those brutal battles were humbled by the performances of both men. But to those outside of the Lopez camp, it was assumed that he left too much of himself in the ring on those nights, that he would never be the same again. Add in a suspension for comments he made about referee Roberto Ramirez after the bout, and Lopez’ shining star had dimmed considerably.
But after nearly a year off, Lopez returned in 2013 with two wins over pedestrian competition that he admits gave him his confidence back.
“It did good things for me,” he said of his knockouts of Aldimar Silva Santos and Eugenio Lopez. “It got me back in condition, and it gave me confidence. Once you get in the ring with a couple fights, the confidence just grows.”
An honest fighter in the ring, Lopez is just as truthful outside the ropes, admitting that seeing his unbeaten record get taken away and then losing to the same man a second time hit him pretty hard emotionally.
“After the second fight (with Salido) it was tough because of everything that happened with the suspension and everything,” he said. “It was a low point in my career, but the most hurt I’ve been was actually after that first fight and getting the first loss. When you lose that first time it’s really something very painful.”
Yet with two wins under his belt and a shot at regaining his title on the doorstep, Lopez is in a good place these days, confident and eager to silence the critics, who tend to forget that this is a still young fighter who, for all intents and purposes, is 33 and Orlando Salido. So the way he sees it, the Mexican veteran is just a guy who had his number.
“I do feel that way,” he said. “Salido got me twice, they were two great fights, I think people enjoyed them and I think they were fun fights for the fans and I’m happy I gave the enjoyment of those fights. He beat me, he had two great nights, I didn’t have it in those two times, which is fine, but nobody else has beaten me, and I have the confidence that I can beat anybody.”
Including the rising star Garcia, whose talent and poise in the ring is obvious. But what has oddsmakers even more in his corner this time around is the fact that Garcia’s title winning effort in January was against Salido. And he knocked him down four times before taking an eight round technical decision after a broken nose from an accidental clash of heads halted the bout. That’s a pretty emphatic win, even with the disappointing ending. Lopez agrees.
“I think we were all a little upset with the way it ended, but Mikey was definitely winning the fight and he had it in hand,” he said. “I think if the fight finishes (the 12 rounds) he wins by decision. Salido was coming on and he was at his best when the fight was stopped, but I definitely think if he (Garcia) would have stayed on his feet, he would have won the fight and I didn’t see Salido being able to knock him out.”
A complimentary assessment of the 25-year-old to say the least, and Lopez sees plenty of good things in the Californian.
“I see him as a very smart fighter, a really good fighter, I think he cherishes being a champion, and I think, like everyone says, he does have talent, he is a champion, and there’s something there.”
But they still have to fight, and Lopez has plenty of fight left in him. So while boxing math says that if Salido beat Lopez and Garcia beat Salido then Garcia beats Lopez, “JuanMa” isn’t buying it, not for a second.
“Boxing is about styles,” he said. “People can say what they want – this guy beat Salido and Salido beat me, but honestly, it’s just about styles, and I think he (Garcia) has a great style that I can compete with. People look at the way he beat Salido and the way Salido beat me, but he still has to prove it against me. They can say all they want about him, but at the end of the day, he still has to prove it against me by beating me.”
And if that’s going to happen, Garcia will have to walk through hell to get it. It’s the only way Lopez knows how to fight, and he’s going to find out if the young champion is willing to go to such dark places, especially with someone desperate to take back what he lost.
“This means a lot to my career,” said Lopez. “A win here puts me right back where I was and I think everything I lost is everything I gain back. It gives me the opportunity to do the things that I want to do, like get bigger fights. I’m still looking forward to winning the divisions at 130 and 135, and I’m still motivated to go up and do great things.”