There was a time – not too long ago – that Juan Manuel Lopez was the hottest featherweight on the block. He was a can’t-miss prospect who morphed into a sure-fire contender on the fast track to reigning supreme in the 126-pound division.
Then something happened.
Lopez encountered Orlando Salido, not a particularly imposing opponent but one with a style that didn’t mesh with Lopez’s style or his future plans. Twice in an 11-month span Salido stopped Lopez on technical knockouts. It was enough to derail Lopez’s promising career and lead many to wonder just what it was about Lopez that had made him such a special featherweight in the first place.
After the second loss to Salido, Lopez, who lives in Caguas, Puerto Rico, took off for nearly a year. And when he came back, he returned to the ring with a bang, stopping two opponents in two months to try to re-establish his credentials in the division.
Now Lopez (33-2, 30 KOs) has a chance to make his comeback complete when he takes on Mikey Garcia for the RING and WBO featherweight titles at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Saturday night.
In a weird twist Garcia (31-0, 26 KOs) took the WBO title from Salido by technical decision on Jan. 19. It is the same title that Salido took from Lopez by knockout last year. A victory by Lopez would bring him full circle. But will it truly bring him back the status that he once held?
Some say no because of the manner in which he twice lost to Salido.
A lot will depend upon how Lopez performs against Garcia, who will be defending his title for the first time since he grabbed it from Salido. That match was stopped in the 8th round when an accidental head butt damaged Garcia’s nose and he couldn’t continue. He was ahead on the scorecards due to knockdowns in the first, third and fourth rounds, and was beating Salido from ring post to ring post, but it was a very unsatisfying way to conclude a championship fight.
Lopez said Salido and Garcia are very different in their style and approach, and believes he matches up better with the latter. In some ways Lopez believes the match will be easier.
“Mikey Garcia is a more technical fighter than Salido,” Lopez said. “Mikey does what you are supposed to do in the ring. He throws the right and he throws the left. He doesn’t go wild in there. He is a very smart guy. He is not going to throw punches if they are not there. I think that helps me. I will know what he is trying to do and I know he is a thinking guy in the ring and that’s what he is going to try and do – outthink me. That is going to be a lot different than a guy coming at me throwing punches from all angles.”
That more conventional style may be just what the ring doctor ordered for Lopez, who had only gone the distance twice in 28 fights before his first loss to Salido (Rafael Marquez quit on his stool in the 9th round of their title match in 2010).
Lopez thinks he softened Salido up, and wants to prove that Garcia had easy pickings when he won the title.
“I say that because after (Salido) fought me, in the fights he had afterwards, he had a lot of trouble,” Lopez said. “I think he was beat up by me, and that may be wrong for me to say, but I know he wasn’t as fresh when he fought Mikey as when he was fighting me.”
Garcia said that may be the case, but it wasn’t the mileage that Lopez put on Salido in those two fights that wore him down. It was the long, hard road that he had traveled before getting to Lopez.
“Salido was a guy that had fought a lot of great fighters, a lot of wars before he ever fought JuanMa,” Garcia said. “He already had experience at the championship level. I thought I fought a really good Orlando Salido. I never let him have his fight. I never let him get into his fight. I knew what I needed to do against him and I think that was the difference. I was able to control the fight.”
Lopez, 29, will be looking to re-establish his featherweight credentials. Garcia will be looking to add clarity to his own claim on the featherweight championship. It is a classic crossroads match for both boxers, but for completely different reasons.
For Lopez to remain at the elite level, he can’t afford another detour.
Photos: Chris Farina-Top Rank