2010 has been a banner year for Puerto Rican prizefighter Juan Manuel (“JuanMa” to his growing legion of fans) Lopez, 29-0 (26). He started it off in January by moving up from the 122-pound division where he once held a belt, taking on long-time WBO beltholder Steven Luevano. Despite Luevano’s excellent counterpunching style, he was no match for the two-handed power of JuanMa and was stopped in seven one-sided rounds at Madison Square Garden. Luevano would retire from boxing soon after but JuanMa would roll on, taking out Bernabe Concepcion in two brutally lopsided rounds. Concepcion, who trains out of the Wild Card Boxing Club n Hollywood, CA, was pegged as the next Manny Pacquiao (a distinction pretty much glued to any Filipino fighter these days). Instead, he got introduced to JuanMa’s power early and often and ended up doing more of an impression of Pacquiao in his early knockout losses.
With the wins, JuanMa was set for bigger and better fights against the likes of Yuriorkis Gamboa, which may happen either late next year or early 2012 depending on how things shake out for the rest of the featherweight field. But first, Lopez has a tradition-type fight to get through.
Puerto Rico vs. Mexico is as storied a fight rivalry as there is in boxing. Chavez vs. Rosario, Sanchez vs. Gomez, Margarito vs. Cotto and most recently, Segura vs. Calderon all had that national pride stamp on them that made winning (and losing) that much more important.
Now it’s JuanMa’s turn at history. Only in this fight, against former super bantam and bantamweight titleholder, Rafael Marquez, 39-5 (35), this Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, NV (televised live on Showtime), his opponent is a little less than prime. Some say a lot less than prime. While the fight is dangerous, considering the knockout ratio of Marquez and his experience, this ain’t exactly Trinidad-De La Hoya- though it promises to be a much better fight for as long as it last than that one.
Lopez was in town at the Fortune Gym in Hollywood, CA on Monday to do a media workout and talk to reporters. Most media day workouts are generally routine affairs; not much if anything at all can be gleaned from them, most of the time. But as with the case with fellow Boricua, Miguel Cotto, JuanMa actually worked out pretty hard and showed a bit of what he was working on, particularly a lot of movement after quick shots, started off by a jab and tons of body work. Considering his foe is 35 years old, these will be important weapons in Lopez’ arsenal.
“[The flight] was real quick,” JuanMa said with a smile when I sat down to talk to him in the locker room before he prepared his workout, a benefit of being there before any other reporter.
“Will it be quicker than the fight?” I asked.
“No, no, no,” he said with a friendly laugh. “I expect actually, it will be a long fight. I think it will be a tough fight as long as it lasts. But I do think it will go long. I really don’t expect a knockout early. I expect a long, drawn-out fight. And I do expect a knockout in eight or nine rounds. But if it doesn’t happen, I will dominate the last rounds and win on points.”
In Marquez, JuanMa is facing a tough veteran of some serious wars against Israel Vasquez; all-time classics that have left both men a bit worse for wear. But Marquez seems a bit rejuvenated by the move to featherweight and was able to stop Vasquez in three sad rounds earlier this year. But that was against a shopworn Izzy Vasquez. Against a young hungry lion like Lopez, the years will most likely show. Still, Lopez understands that “Power is the last thing to go in a fighter” is a saying for a reason.
“I look at it like we have the same power,” said Lopez. “We are both powerful guys. I know he has a lot of experience but then, I have almost 30 fights. So I am not exactly a young guy, either.”
Most fighters on the ups exude a certain confidence. It practically runs off Lopez like a pleasant river. When he enters the gym or engages in conversation, there is always a smile and a way about him that lets even a stranger in the room know who we are all here to see. It’s not flashy. It’s just an incredible belief that the moment he was born for is fast arriving.
“I really believe this is my time,” declared Lopez. “I think I am near peaking. I am right where I am supposed to be and I am going to be here for a long time. I think he is taller guy so he can carry the weight. No question about that. But it’s just my time. It’s the beginning my prime and I want to take advantage of fights like this.”
Lopez watches tape to prepare for his opponents but also to track potential future opponents. He told me he had watched Marquez for years before knowing they would ever meet.
“When I see him, I see he is a slow guy,” explained Lopez, when I asked him what he sees when he watches Marquez. “It takes him awhile to set up his punches. And that is I need to take advantage of with my quickness, how fast I am on my feet. Because it takes time for him to set and reset up. That what I see in every fight. Every punch he throws he has to set up for.”
So with that thinking, it’s no wonder Lopez was banging away with combinations of three and four and then sliding out to the side in his pad work session later. But will that style take away from the pressure style that has made JuanMa so popular or can a balance be struck?
“Yes, it has to be halfway,” said Lopez. “Work to the body and do a lot of that. The idea is to box and move and make sure that I am quicker and faster than he is. But once the fight starts, you forget everything and fight. Obviously, you want to dictate when to fight and not but if he wants to fight, I’ll fight him.”
Will the lights and the pressure of a Mexico-Puerto Rican battle in Vegas make Lopez forget more than just the fight plan?
“It doesn’t affect me,” Lopez said of the pressure. “There is always pressure when Mexicans and Puerto Ricans at this level fight each other. But you can’t let that affect you. You have to do your job and be intelligent.”
Yes, it’s been a helluva year for Lopez. So good that we haven’t heard the cries of “exposed” that followed his fight with Rogers Mtagwa last year, though Lopez did say Rafa Marquez had brought up his being knocked down by Mtagwa.
I’ve been reading that [Marquez] thinks I don’t have a chin,” said Lopez with a smile. “But the four losses he has, he’s been knocked out. Nobody’s knocked me out yet.”
Like his Boricua Felix “Tito” Trinidad, a legend known for getting knocked down early, only to get up and knock out his opponent late, Lopez does have the same go-for-broke style that leaves him vulnerable to being hurt. But like Trinidad, Gomez, Benitez, and so many other great Puerto Rican fighters, it’s not about getting knocked down. It’s what happens afterward that defines them.
“To me,” Lopez smiled, “you can get knocked down. As long as you get up, who cares?”.