“Juanma,” the WBO Jr. Featherweight Champion is one of the brightest young stars in the boxing galaxy. Lopez’ name is the one that most frequently comes up when discussing a possible heir apparent to Puerto Rican superstars Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto. The 26 year-old southpaw power-puncher is undefeated in 27 bouts with 24 knockouts. He is a charismatic young champion with a style that makes for thrilling and dramatic fights.
Lopez began boxing at age ten and established himself as one of Puerto Rico’s top amateurs, compiling a 106-24 record and five national titles. The 21 year-old represented Puerto Rico in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Though he lost in the first round, Lopez’ style was seen by insiders as being more suitable for the pro game.
Early Pro Career-Making Waves
If Lopez was thought of as a possible up n’ comer, his early pro campaign confirmed it with flying colors. Lopez immediately made an impression by combining his skills, size, punch arsenal, and thudding power to score 17 straight wins in just over two years, 15 by knockout.
He stopped respected veteran Giovanni Andrade in one round to earn a minor title in June 2007. After three more knockouts over useful journeymen-types he took a big step up.
New WBO Jr. Featherweight Champion!
In June 2008, Lopez met fearsome-punching WBO champion Daniel (Ponce) De Leon, 34-1 (30 KO’s). There were many observers who saw this bout as a boy (Lopez) against a man (De Leon) and Juanma was the underdog for the first time. Those apprehensions were quickly put to rest as Lopez slammed De Leon to the canvas with a left-right combination. De Leon rose and a follow-up flurry of flush head-bending shots put him right back down. He got up, but was in no shape to continue. Lopez had won his first belt. What an emphatic introduction to the world-class ranks!
Short But Explosive Reign
Lopez wrapped up 2008 by blowing out Cesar Figueroa and Sergio Medina, each in one round. In doing so, he joined Gerald McClellan and Joe Louis in a select group of fighters who have registered three consecutive first-round KO’s in title fights.
Next up was longtime standout Gerry Penalosa, who was on a bit of a roll himself. The respected ex-champion was never in the fight and Freddie Roach kept his game charge on the stool for the tenth round. Lopez followed that with a one-sided stoppage over Canadian Olivier Lontchi. Everything was looking so rosy; that what followed should have almost been expected.
The Rogers Mtagwa Fight
In October 2009, Lopez defended against unheralded Rogers Mtagwa. It was essentially intended to be a stay-busy fight for Lopez and a chance to headline at Madison Square Garden. Mtagwa, 26-12-2, was known as a tough gamer and expected to give Lopez some rounds of work before capitulating.
But that never happened. Mtagwa was as tough as they come, walking through heavy artillery to land his own shots. Lopez never had it easy in this fight, but still managed to build a points lead. In the final two rounds, Mtagwa was slamming home shots on a beleaguered Lopez. It was a suspenseful battle against the clock as a wavering Lopez refused to wilt. A battered Lopez barely made it to the final bell to win a unanimous decision. It was a brutal and dramatic fight.
There are two schools of thought on how to perceive this result. One is that Lopez had been exposed a bit. He seemed completely lost when not in the role of frontrunner. When he finally met an opponent who was able to stand up to him, he nearly folded. He never made the necessary adjustments, especially when it seemed a simple maneuver would have enabled him to avoid many of the crude journeyman’s offerings. He showed a deficient level of ring intelligence.
But perhaps that is a bit harsh. The very dynamics of the sport all but insure that every boxer will struggle at some point. It can’t be all downhill. Lopez is certainly not the only fighter to be pushed to the brink by a tough veteran having a Rocky Balboa moment. His recent explosive form may have brought about some complacency, or he may have overlooked the unaccomplished veteran. All these questions should be answered soon.
Always a big 122-pounder, Lopez will make his featherweight debut on January 23 against WBO champion Steven Luevano. If successful, he could face fellow budding superstar Yuriorkis Gamboa in the summer in a Madison Square Garden blockbuster. However it plays out, look for it to be exciting, as that is an area where Lopez has failed to disappoint.