By Jake Donovan
His promoter pleaded a plausible case for why the only featherweight fight for which fans clamor have not yet happened, one which left little room to counter.
But it doesn’t mean that Juan Manuel “JuanMa” Lopez’ performances won’t be compared to that of divisional rival Yuriorkis Gamboa every time they step in the ring these days.
Not helping the cause any is that Lopez (30-0, 27KO) squares off this weekend against Orlando Salido, who was last seen in the ring against – you guessed it – Gamboa, last September.
This weekend’s bout, which takes place at Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, Puerto Rico (Saturday, SHOWTIME 10:30PM ET/PT), is the type of fights that networks like to showcase when the primary objective is to steer two fighters towards one another.
Lopez is well aware of this, and has even publicly expressed interest in facing Gamboa anywhere, any place and any time.
Still, he insists that it is business as usual when he performs in his native island this weekend.
“I don’t think about it that way,” Lopez claims when asked if there is any additional pressure to outdo Gamboa, who turned in a lethargic performance against Salido in their alphabet unification bout last year. “Every opponent is tough, every opponent is different. We’re all different fighters.
“To me, it’s just what I can do. I certainly want to look good and I want to do as well as I can, but I don’t want to compare myself to what he did and what I’m going to do.”
That said, Lopez couldn’t ask for a better fight on which to improve from his rival’s performance. Gamboa looked smoking hot when he knocked out Jorge Solis last month on HBO, but was overdue for such a performance after climbing off the canvas and struggling with Salido in what resulted in a showcase opportunity gone awry.
If the fan viewpoint for this weekend is merely ‘Can you top this?’, then the bar isn’t set very high at all for Lopez.
But that’s not to say that a win is guaranteed this weekend.
Salido (34-11-2, 22KO) is considered a live ‘dog, which naturally is in part to the aforementioned performance he delivered against Gamboa. It was by no means a winning effort, but enough to convince those in the know that he’s a formidable challenge for any top featherweight.
On the surface, the fight appears to play like a hand-picked opportunity for Lopez to shine.
However, the Puerto Rican knows better than to consider it a layup and instead takes precautions against the night turning into a trap fight.
“I know how important every fight is for my career and I’m going to be at my best no matter who the opponent is. I believe that Salido is going to give me a real tough fight. I know how good he is and I know that I have to be well-prepared to beat him.”
To date, Lopez has been good enough to beat everyone put in front of him, though with various degrees of success. His last fight gave his fans a scare, as an assumed high profile showcase with Rafael Marquez last November turned out to be one of the year’s best fights.
Lopez ultimately won when Marquez was forced to quit due to injury after eight rounds of action. It wasn’t until midway through their affair when he finally surged ahead, though it wouldn’t be a JuanMa moment if he wasn’t forced to overcome adversity at some point.
His previous ring appearance saw the Puerto Rican bomber hit the deck in a round in which he had already scored two knockdowns against Bernabe Concepcion, though Lopez would dust himself off and close the show in the very next round.
Strangely enough, it’s the fights where he has something to gain that Lopez truly rises to the occasion. Title wins over Daniel Ponce de Leon and Steven Luevano were one-sided routs, blitzing Ponce de Leon inside of a round for his first ever belt and dominating Luevano over nine rounds in what served as his introduction to the featherweight title picture.
The latter fight, however, was a night where looking anything other than spectacular would cause Lopez’ stock to plummet. He entered the fight having went life-and-death with Rogers Mtagwa in his last ever fight at 122 lb. Not helping matters any was that Gamboa tore through Mtagwa moments before Lopez stepped into the ring against Luevano.
It perhaps doesn’t aid Lopez’ cause any that rather than this weekend being a straight comparison to Gamboa against a common opponent, some will up the ante and see if the hard-hitting but flawed southpaw can match what Gamboa did last month in Atlantic City.
The moment Solis hit the deck for the fifth and final time in their HBO-televised bout, the buzz immediately began about how Gamboa has dramatically raised the bar in this budding rivalry. He already owns the far superior win in their comparative performances against Mtagwa, and by most independent polls seems to be the favored pick if a JuanMa showdown should ever occur.
Eventually, the only way to settle the debate between the two is a head-on collision. From the moment Lopez moved up to featherweight, promoter Bob Arum’s plan was for his pair of thoroughbreds to clean out the division in paving the way for a super fight.
There’s still time for the fight to become a bigger event than it would be at the moment, but chances are slim that it still takes place at featherweight.
“I don’t think I have a lot of time here at 126,” Lopez believes. “I think if the fight comes along this year it will be at 126, if it doesn’t I think it will be at 130 next year.”
One thing that Lopez makes sure to clarify is his willingness to make the fight happen. He did so last month immediately after Gamboa’s win over Solis, joining him in the ring and shaking his hand before declaring to the televised audience that he wants the fight.
However, he is also a realist and respects the fact that his promoter believes there is a time and place for everything.
“We’re just fighters. I don’t think we’re afraid of each other. I’m not afraid of fighting Gamboa anytime he’s there. We never said we wouldn’t fight him. Bob Arum, he’s our promoter. He’s the best. He’ll tell us when the fight is ready.”
Until then, he knows to expect comparisons to immediately follow anytime he or his divisional rival make a move.
“People can say or think what they want about those fights and they’re going to do the same with what I do against Salido and what he did against Salido. It’s not that important. I think what’s important is once we get in the ring – we’ll see how we do against each other.”
For now, we get to see how they do against each other’s peers and previous opponents. Which means that no matter the outcome this weekend, Juan Manuel Lopez will get to hear how well or poor he measures up against Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected] .