For reasons mostly ugly, Juan Manuel Lopez returns to the ring when he faces Daniel Ponce De Leon in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, on March 15th, forcing the shell of his once ferocious self through another training camp and into another brawl against a man bent on victory.
This fight is sure to end definitively for Lopez—in victory or defeat—because “Juanma” will have it no other way. The former Olympian from Rio Piedras began his career 24-0, with 22 knockouts, and cut down his opposition like sugar cane on the Hacienda Mercedita. But that approach began demanding a stiffer price. Outgunned, but with cunning to spare, Gerry Penalosa tagged Lopez repeatedly before yielding to youth and size. Two fights later, Rogers Mtagwa took untold punishment before sending the exhausted Lopez reeling in the final round. Then Bernabe Concepcion floored him, and a faded Rafael Marquez provided Lopez with more harrowing moments than the script called for.
It was Lopez’ two brutal losses to Orlando Salido, however, that precipitated his decline. Salido is as cagey as they come and sops up punishment like a human Sham Wow—he was always going to be too much for Lopez. Salido stopped Lopez in eight furious rounds in April, 2011, and repeated the result eleven months later, in a fight that marked the end of Lopez’ stay at the world-class level. How Lopez, 33-3 (30), met his end in the rematch deserves mention. With the fight slipping out of his hands, Lopez employed a strategy that would either rescue him from ruin or hurry him to it, and attacked with fury. Lopez has never fought not to lose, and while this characteristic does not make him unique among his peers, how he translated it into violence made him special.
In the aftermath of his second defeat to Salido, a woozy Lopez slandered the referee, Robert Ramirez Sr., and was banned from the ring for a year. An extended rest was not going to repair him however, nor was a move up in weight: Lopez was physically compromised, and there was no coming back. After serving him two squash jobs, Top Rank sacrificed the rapidly deteriorating fighter to its newest darling, Mikey Garcia, last January. Lopez was butchered by Garcia in a mismatch served with all the typical trimmings. Having served his final purpose—that of feeding the future—Lopez was summarily released by Top Rank.
Then, like vultures to a carcass, Golden Boy Promotions swooped in to claim Lopez. The gregarious opposite of the stoic Miguel Cotto, Lopez seemed to resonate with Puerto Ricans in a way Cotto never cared to, and Golden Boy is banking on Lopez to fill seats on March 15th. Simply put: he is on the card as an insurance policy for Danny Garcia’s “homecoming.” Garcia is Puerto Rican, but was born and raised in the United States; until recently, he has made little effort to capitalize on his ethnicity, and it is hard to imagine him drawing like Lopez, who imbues every performance with the duty of fighting for the island.
It is not only the environs that will be familiar to Lopez, but the opponent as well. It was against Daniel Ponce De Leon that Lopez announced his arrival on the world stage, nearly beheading the hard-slugging Mexican in the first round of their 2008 fight. Since that loss, however, De Leon has added some much needed polish to his game. He steps with his jab, has improved balance, and no longer punches as if he is throwing a javelin. De Leon continues to come up short against the best fighters, losing to Adrien Broner, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Abner Mares, but he is far better preserved than Lopez. Most importantly, unlike Lopez, whose chin is cracked, De Leon, 33, can still take a punch.
Yes, there is history between Lopez and Ponce De Leon, and the vengeance angle will surely be overdone in drumming up interest in the rematch, but what has transpired since their first fight is the history that matters. There was little need for a rematch then, and for different reasons, even less now. De Leon, 45-5 (35), has proven he has some fight left, while Lopez, when pressed by an opponent with more than just a pulse, has not. But how Lopez exhausted himself, by fulfilling a personal obligation to the crowd and injecting some much-needed drama and excitement into the sport, yes, that too is history that matters.