Those Bad Bad Bernie Blues: Can Bernabe Concepcion Jinx Juan Manuel Lopez?


      *****

      “Ohhh good morning Blues,
      Blues I wonder, what are you doing here so soon?
      Ohhh, good morning, good morning Mr. Blues,
      I wonder, what are you doing here so soon?
      Yes, you’ll be with me in the morning,
      Blues, and every night and every noon.”

      Buddy Guy

    News that Juan Manuel Lopez will be facing Bernabe Concepcion on July 10 in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico, is both puzzling and intriguing. Puzzling from the business point of view of a fighter, Lopez, with several big time fights in reach; intriguing because Concepcion is that rare beast in boxing, one a cryptozoologist may be lucky enough to stumble across once or twice a year: a live underdog.

    Lopez is a pulse-quickening fighter, but Top Rank, for some reason, has decided to move him slowly. Talk of Lopez facing Yuriorkis Gamboa seems like little more than idle chatter these days, since it looks like Top Rank would rather have two budding stars on parallel tracks than force one to be the casualty of the other. And Celestino Caballero might as well be vacationing on the International Space Station for all the interest ranked featherweights have shown in facing him. “Lo siento, Celestino,” they seem to be saying. “but you are light years away from us at the moment. Come see us when you touch down from orbit.”

    So Juan Manuel Lopez, 28-0 (25), finds himself squaring off with a potentially underrated and possibly dangerous opponent in Bernabe Concepcion. Why? The reasons are rooted in the peculiar business practices of boxing.

    First, since Gamboa and Caballero do not have big enough followings in the States, HBO will probably not cough up enough to make the fight financially viable for Top Rank and Lopez. With Showtime paying enough of a licensing fee for a fight HBO may not be able to afford at the moment (rumors of budget woes at the network that pays Andre Berto over a $1 million per fight continue to surface), Top Rank was free to handpick an opponent. Luckily for them, Concepcion comes with the added bonus of bringing extra revenue from broadcasting rights in the Philippines.

    In addition, by staging a bout between in-house fighters, Top Rank does not have to share the Philippine television booty with anyone else. Splitting the bounty is always painful for the rapacious, and, alas, Gamboa is co-promoted by Arena-Box. As long as a fight is not a blockbuster, “keep it in the family” is usually the operating philosophy in boxing. Finally, despite the lingering recession in Puerto Rico, compounded by the recent announcement of mass layoffs by Pfizer, there is also a good possibility of a healthy gate (yes, Dan Goosen, sometimes you can draw a crowd if you actually think about where you stage a fight) in Hato Rey.

    As for the fight itself, Lopez and Top Rank might be, to their potential detriment, taking Concepcion lightly. True, Concepcion was a combination of helpless and hapless when he met Steven Luevano last summer, ultimately fouling out at the end of the seventh round after flattening Luevano between rounds. But when Concepcion returned to the ring against Mario Santiago in January, he looked like a much improved fighter, rebounding against a tough opponent with flair.

    This might have to do with the difference in styles between Luevano and Santiago, but that, too, bodes well for Concepcion against Lopez. Although Santiago is not nearly as talented as Lopez is, he is a fair approximation of “JuanMa” in the ring. Like Lopez, Santiago is a southpaw who is probably at his best when pressuring. Height and reach–always an issue for the 5’4” Concepcion–are negligible between Lopez and Santiago. Concepcion showed poise and smarts in counterpunching Santiago out of position and it is not impossible to see Concepcion forcing Lopez to lead in similar fashion.

    On the other hand, Concepcion, 28-3-1 (15), looked vulnerable to body shots late against Santiago, who finally ramped up the pressure in the 10th, going for a desperation stoppage in the last round. He nearly got it. Lopez is a hazard to any rib cage within twenty feet of him, and Concepcion is going to have a hard time defending against those thudding double right hooks to the body. And there is no telling how well Concepcion-—or any other fighter, for that matter–will be able to take the numbing shots Lopez hurls with the force of a pot-de-fer.

    Concepcion can also be a little wild when on the attack, throwing right hands from afar and losing his balance when he does so. A bigger flaw may be his tendency to move and burn up energy without purpose. Often, Concepcion seems to back away or move defensively without a subsequent plan of attack. Like a chess player, a good fighter must think a few moves ahead, and Concepcion will have to show this ability when Lopez applies his breakneck pressure. If Concepcion can tighten up his punches and learn how to be a little more resourceful in the ring, Juan Manuel Lopez will be in for some trouble.

    Lopez may have had the mother of all off-nights against courageous Rogers Mtagwa last year, but this cannot take away from the fact that Lopez was on the verge of being stopped, more than once, by a clubfighter. Luevano, no power threat under any circumstances, was already past his peak by the time Lopez trampled him. Concepcion, at featherweight, may be slightly less of a puncher than Mtagwa was at 122 pounds, but the way Lopez hangs his jaw out like a pair of raggedy sneakers slung over telephone lines in the South Bronx, anything can happen.

    Lopez is an offensive juggernaut, cranking out blunt and blunting right hooks, uppercuts, bodyshots, and straight lefts with machine-like precision and rapidity. His destruction of Daniel Ponce De Leon was breathtaking. It was like watching a grizzly bear maul the family gerbil. But, like an overheating piece of equipment, sometimes Lopez goes haywire and the “off” switch seems nowhere to be found. In unwisely trading punches with Mtagwa, Lopez showed a tendency to swing wildly with his feet nearly parallel. Nor did he make adjustments when Mtagwa went primitive on him, clouting Lopez with wide lefts, rights, and headbutts.

    No doubt Freddie Roach will have some special plans for when Lopez stands straight up, chin dangling, flat-footed, swinging like a man trying to fend off a hornet attack. If Concepcion can thread a few rights through the eye of the hurricane, then it will be a fight. Although Concepcion is not a devastating puncher, he did manage to floor Santiago, and his punches appear to carry enough steam to keep a fighter honest. In that case, Lopez will be at a disadvantage if he gives Concepcion respect early and decides to fight in a more restrained style.

    These days excitement seems to trump accomplishment, but the truth is that other than Luevano and Daniel Ponce De Leon, Lopez has run roughshod over mostly second-rate opposition. Concepcion is not Sandy Saddler or Flash Elorde, but he is also not Oliver Lontchi or Rogers Mtawgwa. If Juan Manuel Lopez overlooks Concepcion, he might well find himself waking up the day after the fight and asking himself where he got them morning blues from.

    *****

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    Tags: Bernabe Concepcion Blues Featherweights HBO JUAN MANUEL LOPEZ Mario Santiago Pot-de-fer ROGERS MTAGWA Showtime Top Rank Yuriorkis Gamboa