By Jake Donovan
There stands a very strong chance that Juan Manuel Lopez will see his 30th birthday (later this year, on June 30) well before he sees another major belt around his waist. Even Lopez himself can come to grips with that fact.
Just don’t try to tell him that there isn’t any hope at all to ever reclaim championships status.
“I’m going to show that I have a lot of fight (left) to become a world champion again,” Lopez said while training for his comeback fight. The Puerto Rican southpaw returns to the ring this Saturday after an 11-month absence, when he faces Brazil’s Aldimar Silva Santos.
The bout – which takes place at a catchweight of 128 lb. - headlines a DirecTV pay-per-view show, airing live from Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
Lopez has been on the shelf since his second knockout loss to Orlando Salido last March. The damage suffered in the contest was probably worth taking time off, but the reason for Lopez’ extended unpaid vacation was his claims made during his post-fight interview. The former two-division champ claimed the referee – Roberto Ramirez Sr. – and his son (Roberto Jr., who refereed the first fight) allowed alleged gambling habits to dictate their handling of a given prize fight.
Apologies were issued – legally prepared as well as from the heart – but the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission still saw it fit for the ex-champ to take a time out. Lopez obliged but hit the gym the moment he was legally allowed.
The dedication showed up in training, when Lopez made an impromptu visit to a 30-day weigh-in check mandated by the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission for all title fights – world and regional. There is no belt at stake for Lopez’ showdown with Silva Santos, which is scheduled for 10 rounds. Still, he felt the need to show the boxing world just how dedicated he is to making things right in his second career.
“I weighed here to show that I’m working hard and focused,” Lopez said earlier in the month, when weighing in at 139.5 lb. The 30-day checkpoint requires that all fighters are within 15% of their contracted weight, which meant Lopez could have weighed as much as 147.2 lb.
Lopez (31-2, 28KO) tipped the scales at 134 lb. as of the seven-day weight check, which put him within the prescribed 5% of the contracted limit.
All focus remains on the fight itself, but fans and media can’t help but speculate what comes next with a win. Silva Santos (18-3, 9KO) is a massive underdog heading into this fight, in fact the perfect opponent for a stay-busy fight – modest power, thin resume, mediocre punch resistance.
No fight is a true gimme, least of all when the favored fighter boasts as leaky a defense as is the case with JuanMa. Still, chances are the odds will play true on Saturday night. When that comes, chances are talks will immediately begin of how long before he reenters the championship fold.
Lopez has already prepared for the future. He sees it taking place at a third weight class, hopefully against the man who beat the man who managed to hang the only two losses currently on his ledger.
“Right now I find myself in [the 130 lb.] division,” admits Lopez, who agreed to a catchweight for this fight, but who has already refused opportunities to return to the featherweight division. “A fight with Mikey (Garcia, current unbeaten featherweight titlist) would have to be at 130 lb. May people talk about money and it’s good, but my health is more important [than starving down to 126 lb].”
Lopez resided in the 126 lb. division since his Jan. ’10 stoppage win over Steven Luevano to become a two-division champ. Then unbeaten, Lopez entered the fight as a tenured 122 lb. titlist, having made five successful defenses of the crown he violently annexed in a single round against Daniel Ponce de Leon in June ’08.
The first of his two fights with Salido marked the first time he truly began struggling with the weight. The rematch – while its aftermath proving disastrous – helped Lopez realize that a move up in weight was inevitable.
The inability to any longer shrink down was enough to kill plans for what would’ve been an HBO-televised showdown last month with fellow Boricua contender Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. Weight – and not money, for a change – was the final deciding factor in the fight being pulled from the January 19 telecast from Madison Square Garden’s The Theatre in New York City.
Lopez and his team immediately recovered from the news, lining up Silva Santos for this weekend in Puerto Rico.
Vazquez Jr. is currently in training, reportedly for an April 6 ring return, with the opponent and location to be named at a later date. The canceled fight with Lopez would have been his second ring appearance in three months, having iced countryman Jonathan Gonzalez last October in Puerto Rico.
No ill will is wished towards Lopez on Vazquez Jr’s part. On the contrary, he stands firmly behind his ring peer, though hopeful of the fight being revisited in the near future.
“I’m happy for JuanMa. I’m glad he’s doing his job,” admitted Vazquez Jr. “Whenever he’s ready, as long as we can agree on the weight I would love to fight him. Until then, I wish him luck and have nothing but good things to say about him.”
Vazquez Jr. wanted the fight to take place at 126, where he eventually plans to move up although he’s still comfortable making 122 lb. Lopez is a long way from those days and possibly no longer able to squeeze back down to 126.
His last days at the weight were spent losing the title and failing to regain it. His hopes it to one day regain it, or at least put together a team that can carry on the tradition.
He also takes credit for the reason Salido looked lethargic in last month’s title losing effort to Mikey Garcia
"I think the [first] fight me was very tough [for Salido],” Lopez believes. “Then he took another fight with a Japanese boxer (Kenichi Yamagushi, and also worked with top referee Rob Johnson. “[T]hat was also tough and then he came back to fight me again and that was really hard for him as well.
“On my record, the fighters who I faced in tough battles have never been the same - like Bernabe Concepcion, Gerry Penalosa, Roger Mgtawa. [Salido] looked weak [at 126] and some of those knockdowns were from punches that were not as strong as the shots I hit him with. Garcia is a great fighter. It seemed like he was sparring [with Salido] and playing with him.”
Had Salido managed to beat Garcia, Lopez was eyeing a possible third fight with the Mexican veteran though this time at 130 lb.
“I want to stay at 130 lb, that’s the idea,” Lopez reveals. “Originally the date (Feb. 8) was planned for me to move up in weight but Salido upset everything.”
Now, Lopez has to once again earn his way back to the top, though certainly nothing about which he’s concerned. He’s least of all worried about this weekend’s opponent, for whom he has feverishly prepared. Saturday marks the first step towards the rest of his career, of which he has taken tremendous pride in preparing to salvage.
“I feel so good and in condition for this ring return,” Lopez said. “I look forward to fighting again, but I’m focused on this fight because I know this is an important fight for my future.”
Jake Donovan is the Boxingscene.com Managing Editor, Records Keeper for Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and a voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox