By Thomas Gerbasi
Looking at the sport of boxing is a fairly cut and dried experience, and not just from the viewpoint of Fighter A punches Fighter B, and one falls down or one wins a judges’ decision. There are certain patterns, certain things that nine out of 10 times will take place to ensure that the natural order of this particular universe remains intact.
But what happens in that tenth time, when the underdog upsets the favorite and throws the boxing world off its axis? Well, that’s when we realize why we love this sport, and why, with all the corruption, bad judging, bad officiating, and businessmen masquerading as fighters, we still tune in.
It’s why we watched Orlando Salido challenge Juan Manuel Lopez for the WBO featherweight title last April, and why we’ll do it again this Saturday night when they rematch for the same belt. Because for all intents and purposes, Salido shouldn’t be here. At this point, Puerto Rico’s Lopez probably should have been fighting Yuriorkis Gamboa in a legit lower weight class Superfight. But he’s not. Instead, he’s fighting the man who turned over his applecart (stomping on a few apples in the process), the one who handed him his first loss as a professional and who affected his wallet by snatching the Gamboa fight from him.
No sport represents survival of the fittest quite like boxing, and it all happened before our eyes at the Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, Puerto Rico on April 16, 2011. Drama. Intrigue. Plot twists. All in less than an hour.
Generally speaking, 30 isn’t old for a prizefighter, unless you’re below the lightweight division; in that case, add a few more years to your chronological age and you will find Orlando Salido, whose age acceleration was likely helped by the 50 pro fights he had entering the first Lopez bout. You could see it on his face – 30 had passed him a long time ago. He had to know this was going to be his last big shot before being relegated to the “opponent” circuit. And even now, following his loss seven months earlier to Gamboa, he wasn’t expected to beat the hard-punching Lopez. If anything, he was going to be the appetizer for Lopez to make the Gamboa fight, for the Puerto Rican to become the first fighter to stop him since 2000. Ciudad Obregon’s Salido was going to be the sacrificial lamb for the 27-year old with a bright future, and the boos showered on the Mexican when he was introduced by Jimmy Lennon Jr. were ceremonial at best. He wasn’t going to win, and Puerto Rico knew it.
You expect that Lopez knew that he was going to win as well. Sure, he was going through a divorce and admitted later that he wasn’t completely focused for the bout, but when you enter the ring with a 30-0 record that includes 27 knockouts, you have a certain swagger that any out of the ring issues can be compensated for in the ring with one swing of your fist. And if a less than one hundred percent Lopez was going to get beaten, it wasn’t going to be by Orlando Salido.
Given that, round one was, as round ones go, fairly uneventful. Lopez was busy from the outside, Salido followed and tried to get physical on the inside, and there were no indications that a major upset was in the making.
Rounds Two and Three
Salido knew something about upsets though, having handed then highly-touted Lamont Pearson his first pro loss back in 2002. But the big one was his dominant victory over Robert Guerrero in 2006. It was a lopsided win by Salido, but one tainted by a positive test for the steroid nandrolone that caused the result to be overturned and ruled a no contest. Salido claimed innocence in the matter, but the verdict stood. Nearly four years later, he got another shot at the IBF featherweight title he was forced to relinquish, and against Cristobal Cruz, he won a 12 round decision and the belt. Four months later, Gamboa came into the picture and removed the title from Salido’s possession.
The past didn’t matter on this night though, and if it did, it would only be in Salido’s mind as a reminder to let him know that anything is possible. And when you’ve been fighting since the age of 15 and have rebounded from an 11-7-1 start to your career to make it to this point, you are well aware that if the stars are aligned and you’re on top of your game, you can beat anyone.
In the second, Lopez’ southpaw jab was strong, but his left was lazy, and Salido began taking advantage by tagging the champion with the right hand. Lopez appeared unbothered though, and as the fight heated up with some solid exchanges on the inside in the second and third frames, it was “JuanMa” in control.
Lopez was in control at Madison Square Garden’s Theater a year and a half earlier against rugged journeyman Rogers Mtagwa as well, dazzling his opponent and thrilling his fans early on until the steel-chinned Mtagwa took all the then-WBO super bantamweight champion had to give and then began firing back. By the championship rounds, Mtagwa had taken over, nearly knocking Lopez out in the 11th and 12th. Lopez made it to the final bell and his early lead secured his decision victory, but the cautionary flags were thrown up everywhere. Three wins – all KOs – over Steven Luevano, Bernabe Concepcion, and Rafael Marquez silenced things for a while, but Salido (who stopped Mtagwa in five rounds in 2006) was eager to ask those questions of Lopez’ chin and stamina once again.
As the fourth commenced, referee Roberto Ramirez Jr. announced the round number to the combatants, and you wonder what goes through a fighter’s head when you hear that it’s the fourth round and you still could have eight more to go after this one. Lopez despite being a champion since 2008, had only gone the 12 round distance once, against Mtagwa. On the other hand, Salido had five championship distance fights under his belt. That was the good news. The bad was that he was 1-3, with 1 NC in those fights. So you assume that both fighters wanted to end things as soon as possible, and they fought like it.
But in that fourth round, Lopez continued to complain about Salido’s work on the inside, which broke the Caguas fighter’s poker face and provided the first glimpse into a fighter not completely ready to perform the task at hand. Salido’s facial expression never changed, and he continued to trudge forward, tagging his opponent with more right hands. Lopez backed up under the assault, and when he did fire back, he leaned forward awkwardly with his punches, leaving himself off balance for more abuse, which he took like you would expect a champion to – with a shake of the head and a willingness to jump right back into battle. But as the bell rang, the tide was starting to turn.
When you’ve been a professional boxer for half your life, there are, as mentioned earlier, particular certainties in the fight game. One is that you’re not likely to get a decision win in another fighter’s hometown, especially when that fighter is the champion and the A-side on the bout sheet. Salido had to know that he wasn’t walking out of Bayamon with a decision, so he had to find another way. Late in round five, a left hook / right hand combination showed him that way, as he dropped Lopez hard to the canvas.
Lopez rose to his feet on wobbly legs, looking blankly out into the crowd until steadying himself with the top rope. There were 17 seconds left in the round when he was cleared by Ramirez to continue, and he ran back at Salido, hoping that the motion would get the blood flowing in his legs again. Salido attacked and Lopez fired back. The bell rang. Suddenly, Salido wasn’t an underdog anymore. He was the favorite racing down the home stretch.
As the champion was ragdolled onto his stool by his trainer at the end of the fifth, the horns had stopped blaring in the arena, but there was still a loud buzz from the partisan crowd. Their hero was wounded, but he wasn’t done yet, and when it comes to Puerto Rican boxing fans, hope remains eternal. Whether it was the greats of the past like Wilfredo Gomez, Wilfred Benitez, and Felix Trinidad, or the current standouts: Lopez, Miguel Cotto, and Ivan Calderon, loyalty is more important than anything when it comes to picking your fistic heroes. I remember the night Trinidad lost to Bernard Hopkins in 2001, and watching grown men draped in the Puerto Rican flag crying on the F train to Brooklyn. That type of devotion can push you past your breaking point and propel you to heights you couldn’t reach otherwise.
“JuanMa” Lopez needed his island behind him now, and they weren’t about to let him down. At the bell to start round six, he looked out into the crowd, possibly at his children at ringside and winked as if to say “I’m okay.” Like fathers do sometimes to protect their kids, it was a white lie.
Salido came forward with a purpose as the round began. He swung the left hook first to try to open Lopez up for the right hand that sent him to the mat a round earlier. Then came the right hand. Lopez knew what his opponent was doing and he banged his gloves together in response.
Salido did as instructed, staggering Lopez again and again. Even the champion’s ‘puncher’s chance’ had dissipated, as nothing he threw deterred the challenger’s forward march. A woman at ringside covered her mouth in apparent disbelief. The man next to her shook her head. This was not the way things were supposed to go. But when the gloves are on and the bell rings, the only ones determining the outcome are the ones with those gloves.
Lopez wasn’t about to go away quietly though. He continued to motivate himself and the crowd by taking Salido’s blows and then banging his gloves together. His punches had lost their snap, but he didn’t stop throwing them. The woman in distress just moments earlier began smiling and clapping, overjoyed that her fighter was coming back. And just like that, it was a fight again.
Everybody loves a winner, but what people love even more is a comeback. After being knocked down and then tagged with shots that would have finished lesser men, WBO featherweight champion Juan Manuel Lopez had apparently survived the worst abuse Orlando Salido could throw at him, and now he was about to put on a second half surge and retain his title.
Or so the fans packing the Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez thought. Salido, the challenger, the one who was a loss away from being described in press releases as “a rugged warrior” who was destined to be a gatekeeper, had to know that the biggest win of his career was in his grasp. He just had to keep doing what he was doing, pick his shots, and break a champion who didn’t break that easily.
So as Lopez fired off a series of punches that were more showy than effective, Salido looked to land his right hand on the chin once again. What was once a quixotic quest had turned real, if only the perfect storm of opportunity and action would intersect for him again. It didn’t happen in round seven though, as Lopez began that second half surge and got back in the fight.
Between rounds seven and eight, Salido showed the first signs of doubt on his face. Or maybe it wasn’t doubt; maybe it was a look that said “what do I have to do to knock this guy out?” Whatever it was, Salido was about to go back to work. It’s what he did. For 15 of his 30 years, he worked in the ring. He wasn’t fancy, he wasn’t spectacular. And when he won, it wasn’t because he was born with talents greater than his opponent, it was because he worked harder and was willing to dig deeper. On April 16, 2011, he found himself in with an opponent willing to go to the depths just as he did, but now it was time to go to work and finish the job.
And he did.
He decided that Lopez’ punches didn’t hurt anymore, that the crowd wasn’t screaming for his head, and that if he could push past the fatigue for just a little while longer, he would change his life forever. And with each right hand, he got closer. Lopez, still throwing, was staggering, fighting on pure heart, but finally, Ramirez decided that he would rescue the champion from himself, and he stopped the fight at 1:39 of the eighth round. Lopez protested, but it was to no avail.
Orlando Salido was a world champion again.
Juan Manuel Lopez was an ex-champion, but one who could hold his head up high for his efforts.
On Saturday night, they do it again.
Drama. Intrigue. Plot twists. All in less than an hour.
This is why I love boxing.