By Lem Satterfield
During last month's sensational, fourth-round stoppage of Mexico's former world champion, Jorge Solis, Cuban-born, former Olympic gold medalist, Yuriorkis Gamboa, thrilled the fans at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City by scoring five knockdowns in defense of his WBA and IBF featherweight titles.
The 29-year-old Gamboa not only improved to 20-0, with his 16th knockout, but the Miami resident stopped the 31-year-old Jorge Solis (40-3-2, 29 KOs) for only the second time in Solis' career.
Gamboa's effort took out Solis much swifter and easier than the Mexican had been vanquished by eight-division titlist Manny Pacquiao (52-3-2, 38 KOs), the current WBO welterweight belt-holder who knocked out Solis in the eighth-round in April of 2007.
It did not take long for Gamboa's post-Solis focus to immediately shift toward a highly-anticipated, lucrative, big stakes match up opposite WBO featherweight champion, Juan Manuel Lopez (30-0, 27 KOs), of Puerto Rico.
During his post-fight interview with HBO's Max Kellerman, Gamboa contended that Lopez is being protected from him by their mutual promoter, Top Rank Promotions CEO, Bob Arum.
"Top Rank is going to put that fight very far away and keep it at a distance," Gamboa said through a translator. "Because they know that he doesn't have what is necessary to beat me."
Lopez was at ringside for Gamboa-Solis, and appeared to be drawn into the ring as a means of defending himself against Gamboa's assertion.
"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," said the 27-year-old Lopez during Friday's national conference call promoting his April 16 defense against former IBF titlist Orlando Salido (34-11-2, 22 KOs), whom Gamboa dethroned by unanimous decision in September.
"We never said we wouldn’t fight him," said Lopez. "Bob Arum, he’s our promoter. He’s the best. He’ll tell us when the fight is ready."
It has seemed as if the world has been salivating for a Lopez-Gamboa bout since back in October of 2009 at the WaMu Theatre at New York's Madison Square Garden, where Arum first floated the idea of a mega bout between the two.
At the time, Lopez was about to face Tanzanian-born Rogers Mtagwa in the main event of his fifth and final defense of the WBO super bantamweight crown he had earned by dethroning Daniel Ponce de Leon by first-round stoppage in June of 2008.
On the under card, Gamboa was set to make the first defense of his WBA featherweight belt against Panama's Whyber Garcia.
Gamboa swiftly dispatched Garcia with a fourth-round knockout, dropping him, face-first, with a left-right combination early in the round before firing some 20 or so unanswered blows that forced referee Steve Smoger to wave an end to their fight.
Lopez, meanwhile, was nearly dethroned by Mtagwa, having to courageously survive a long stretch ending the 11th round and throughout the 12th to retain his belt by unanimous decision.
Four months later in January of 2010, Arum paired Lopez and Gamboa, yet again, at the WaMu Theatre.
This time, Gamboa easily routed Mtagwa, whom he dropped once in the first round and twice in the second before Smoger stopped the fight, yet again for a second-round stoppage.
Arum said that a Lopez-Gamboa fight will happen, but only when both the time and the money are right.
"It's a matter of arithmetic. There's two ways that the fight can be done. One on premium television, like Showtime or HBO. And the other way is on pay per view. Now if it's on premium television, they've got to show me the money. Because one thing is for sure, when the fighters fight, they will want to get paid like they haven't been paid before. Right now, I don't see the premium networks putting up money in the same way that they put up for fights in other, heavier divisions," said Arum.
"So now, it's up to me, on pay per view, and that means that I'll decide when they fight on pay per view because it's going to be my money. And only when I believe that I can recover the money back, and make a profit, will I do it on pay per view," said Arum. "All of the people who want the fight to happen sooner rather than later, talk to Showtime, talk to HBO, and let them show me the money. If they don't show me the money, then it's my money, and I'll decide, and only I will decide when it's opportune to do the fight. End of discussion."
Gamboa-Mtagwa took place on the under card of Lopez's seventh-round knockout in a 126-pound debut that dethroned WBO featherweight titlist Steven Luevano.
But Lopez said that he neither feels the needs to live down his comparative performance against Mtagwa, nor does he have to out-do Gamboa's effort against Salido.
"I don’t think about it that way. 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," said Lopez.
"But I don’t want to compare myself to what he did and what I’m going to do. People can say or think what they want about those fights," said Lopez. "And they’re going to do the same with what I do against Salido and what he did against Salido. But 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."
Despite his losses, Salido is by no means a soft touch, having dropped Gamboa once in the first round before, himself, being floored twice each in the second and fourth rounds and once in the third.
"He’s one of those fighters that comes forward. He won’t stop when you put on the pressure. He’ll be there all night.
I have to be intelligent. I have to know that he’s going to be coming at me at all times," said Lopez of Salido, whom he compared to 38-year-old southpaw, Filipino, Gerry Penalosa, whom Lopez stopped in the 10th round in April of 2009.
"I think Penalosa was the same kind of fighter, a guy that came forward and was there all night and was a very strong fighter," said Lopez. "The only difference was he [Penalosa] was left handed. I just have to be very smart and be careful and do my job. Win every round and win round by round."
While Gamboa is coming off of decisions in March, and, September, respectively, over Jonathan Victor Barrios (32-1-1, 18 KOs), and, Orlando Salido (34-11-2, 22 KOs), the latter, for the IBF crown, Lopez has appeared to show some vulnerability during his defenses.
Lopez scored consecutive stoppages of Bernabe Concepcion (28-4-1, 15 KOs), and, aging former world champion Rafael Marquez (39-6, 35 KOs), respectively, in the second, and, eighth rounds in July and November.
Against Concepcion, Lopez scored a first-round knockdown before himself being floored just before the bell ending the same round, then, twice dropped Concepcion in the second round, with the second knockdown ending the fight.
Lopez won every round of what was a slug-fest against Marquez but the fourth, where he was wobbled and punished, starting with a right hand by Marquez.
Lopez rebounded to win the next four rounds, out-slugging his 35-year-old counterpart before Marquez complained of an injury to his right shoulder, failed to answer the bell for the ninth round
"It was hurt before I came into the fight. I didn't want to postpone it any more. So I fought like that throughout my training camp," said Marquez. "In the third round, I couldn't even throw punches any more. I know that if I hadn't gotten hurt, it would have changed the result."
Lopez's popularity, nevertheless, continues to grow in his native Puerto Rico, which has produced past champions such as Wilfredo Benitez, Wilfredo Gomez, and, Lopez's idol, Felix Trinidad.
"The thing that makes him so special is how fan friendly he is. How he lights up a room, how the fans drift to him. There’s nobody better as far as the Puerto Rican fans are concerned," said Arum, noting that WBA junior middleweight king Miguel Cotto (36-2, 32 KOs) and recently dethroned Ivan Calderon (34-2-1, six KOs) are also from Puerto Rico.
"The Puerto Ricans have embraced JuanMa similar to the way they did with Tito Trinidad and Miguel Cotto," said Arum. "When you put a very popular Puerto Rican, a real top Puerto Rican, on a pay-per-view card you can count on tremendous numbers of buys from the island."
Lopez isn't shy about where he believes he stands among the ranks of Puerto Rico's current prizefighters.
"I know the great tradition that there is in Puerto Rico with the boxers. I’m very proud to be part of that tradition," said Lopez.
"Without a doubt, growing up my idol and still is Felix Trinidad," said Lopez. "With all due respect to Miguel Cotto and Ivan Calderon, who are two great champions, I feel that I’m the most popular boxer in Puerto Rico."