Lee Groves

10: Best final acts

6. Sept. 29, 2001, Madison Square Garden, New York, N.Y. – Ricardo Lopez KO 8 Zolani Petelo

If Ricardo Lopez had been a welterweight, middleweight or heavyweight he would have been lauded as one of the greatest fighters who has yet lived. But because he plied his trade at minimumweight and junior flyweight his exploits were largely ignored until relatively late in his career. Hard-core observers, however, knew they were witnessing true greatness every time “Finito” stepped between the ropes.

His textbook-perfect technique led to an eight-year reign at 105 pounds that encompassed 21 defenses of the WBC title and separate unifications of the WBA and WBO belts. That was followed by an immediate jump to 108 that saw him capture the IBF belt from Will Grigsby and a third-round KO of longtime IBF minimumweight king Ratanapol Sor Vorapin in his most recent fight before meeting Petelo.

This bout against Petelo, Vorapin’s successor at 105, represented Lopez’s 26th consecutive title fight, though only his third in the last three years. And the 35-year-old Lopez wasn’t the only person who was set to retire after this night, for 81-year-old Arthur Mercante Sr. was about to officiate his 145th and final world title bout.

Lopez studied his southpaw opponent from a distance in the first, staying on the move, shooting in arrow-straight blows through Petelo’s high guard and opening a small cut over his right eye. Lopez picked up the pace considerably in the second and 23 seconds into the round he decked Petelo with a picturesque hook to the jaw. Petelo shook off the effects and burrowed inside in the hopes of initiating a toe-to-toe brawl but the disciplined Lopez (who logged six years in military school in his youth) continued to fight in his usual clinical manner, knowing that it was not yet time to pursue the knockout.

Lopez continued to masterfully pick apart the charging Petelo in rounds three through five, though the South African exploited a persistent late-career bugaboo for Lopez – cuts – by opening a vertical slice between the eyes in the fourth. Midway through the sixth Petelo opened a serious cut around Lopez’s right eye and the master craftsman turned tiger as he tore in with fierce combinations. They spent the seventh swapping hard blows at close range with Petelo throwing more and Lopez landing at a higher rate.

With a little more than a minute gone in the eighth, Lopez spotted his opening. A pair of lead rights forced Petelo to subtly reveal his duress facially. That small hint was all the persuasion Lopez needed and he followed with a sickle-like left uppercut to the jaw that caused Petelo to collapse into the ropes. Exhausted as much as hurt, Petelo stuck out his mouthpiece and silently signaled his surrender to Mercante.

At 1:32 of round eight, Lopez recorded his 51st and final victory and departed as every great fighter should – with a championship belt strapped around his waist.

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