Home > Boxing > Juan Manuel Lopez: The Pride of Puerto Rico

Juan Manuel Lopez: The Pride of Puerto Rico

The archipelago of Puerto Rico, located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, is not famous for much. Arroz con pollo perhaps? The musical genre known as Reggaetón, maybe? Jennifer Lopez’s parents even? However, one thing that instantly springs to mind when thinking of La Isla del Encanto is boxing. Puerto Rico has a long and rich history in the sport and has produced more world champions per capita than any other country or territory (Puerto Rico is not, of course, a country) in the world. From the great Wilfred Benitez, to the stone fisted Wilfredo Gomez and through to 90s boxing megastar Félix ‘Tito’ Trinidad, Puerto Rico has produced some of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport.

In his prime, Félix ‘Tito’ Trinidad was second only to Oscar de la Hoya in terms of boxing stardom and was a hero to four million Puerto Ricans. Everything he touched turned to gold. His boyish good looks coupled with his mischievous personality and of course his devastating knockout power, made Tito a megastar. Don King loved him and so, more importantly, did HBO. His fight with de la Hoya in September 1999 broke all PPV records and the fact that he won, albeit on a very questionable decision, caused his stock to rise even further. He was a proud puertorriqueño and he used his ring entrance for the de la Hoya fight to protest against the US navy’s use of Vieques (a small outlying Puerto Rican island) as a live bombing range. Furthermore, he refused to bow to pressure and learn to speak English to appease the sports media. These factors combined made him Puerto Rico’s favourite son.

In September 2001 however, the Trinidad express was derailed by Bernard Hopkins. It ground to a halt at Madison Square Garden as the man known as The Executioner dominated Trinidad before stopping him in the 12th round. With his unbeaten record gone, Trinidad was never the same. Unconvincing comebacks against the likes of Hacine Cherifi and Ricardo Mayorga were followed by clear losses against Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright and Roy Jones Jr. Puerto Rico was now looking for its next big star.

Whilst Trinidad had been participating in these comeback fights, a young Puerto Rican named Miguel Cotto was making a name for himself. Cotto was groomed for superstardom from early in his career and captured a version of the world light-welterweight crown in September 2004 with a highly impressive 6th round TKO victory over Kelson Pinto. Cotto continued to win fights and was seen as a top level fighter, a reputation he cemented with wins over Zab Judah and Shane Mosley. Despite his success in the ring, Cotto has never quite captured the imagination in the same way that Trinidad did. He is naturally a much more reserved character and he sometimes seems ill at ease with intense media attention. Moreover Cotto has learnt to speak English and it seems to be rare that he gives interviews in Spanish. This may not have helped his cause back home. Finally, Cotto’s career may be coming to an end following brutal defeats to Mexico’s Antonio Margarito and man of the moment, Manny Pacquiao. He does have a fight lined up for June 5th but there is a feeling in the sport that he may be damaged goods following the two losses.  So the search for Trinidad’s successor goes on.

Enter Juan Manuel Lopez. Originally from Juncos but now fighting out of Cotto’s hometown of Caguas, Juanma as he is known, is ready to fill the void left by Trinidad’s departure.

Felix Trinidad (left) , Juan Manuel Lopez (centre) and Ivan Calderon (right). (This image is the property of boricuaboxing.com)

Lopez represented Puerto Rico at the 2004 Olympics and despite losing in the first round, was tipped to become a star in the paid ranks. He smashed (there is not really another verb to describe it) his way to a world title shot in his 22nd fight and took on fellow power puncher Daniel Ponce de León for the WBO Super-Bantamweight title. Lopez opted to be the counter puncher and it proved a smart move as he knocked out the champion in the 1st round to take the title. Five successful defences followed, four of them inside the distance including a sensational 47 second knockout of César Figueroa. As Juanma’s career progressed, it was becoming increasingly apparent that he was struggling to make the super-bantamweight limit of 122 lbs and so in January of this year he stepped up to the featherweight division to take on WBO champion Steve Luevano. The Puerto Rican put on a boxing masterclass and dominated the American champion from the opening bell. The masterful performance ended in a 7th round TKO victory and made Lopez a two weight world champion. Since capturing the featherweight title, Lopez has announced his intention to stay in the division by relinquishing his super-bantamweight title. Having amassed an outstanding record of 28-0 with 25 KOs, Juanma has the world at his feet.

Sure, Cotto had the same impressive start to his career so what makes Lopez so special? Juanma grew up idolising Trinidad and the similarities are striking. In terms of boxing skills, Lopez is more polished than his hero but the knockout power in both hands is the same, if not greater. He also has the same cheeky smile and boyish charm and speaks only Spanish, something which will earn him popularity points in Puerto Rico. If Cotto is ill at ease in front of the camera, Lopez is a natural. He plays up to the cameras and loves the attention. His ring entrance for the Figueroa fight was one Prince Naseem Hamed would have been proud of. There were flashing lights, fireworks, loud music courtesy of Daddy Yankee and a ring walk which seemed to take an age. Juanma is ready for the big-time and it is ready for him.

When all is said and done though, Lopez is a boxer and greatness is achieved in the ring. What ultimately made Trinidad was a victory in a superfight (de la Hoya) and this is something Lopez is yet to achieve, but yet is the key word.

The move to featherweight provides Lopez with the ideal platform for this. Celestino Cabellero has recently made the same jump from super-bantamweight as have future hall of famers Rafael Marquez and Israel Vazquez. Victory over any of these three would give Lopez great kudos. Then there is the possibility of unification fights with IBF champion Cristóbal Cruz and the Dominican Republic’s Elio Rojas who currently holds the WBC title. With Bob Arum’s promotional powerhouse Top Rank behind him and with the backing of HBO, anything is possible for the 26 year old Puerto Rican.

There is a sneaking suspicion amongst the sport’s experts that Juanma’s future has already been lined up for him as the man who holds the WBA featherweight title is also promoted by Top Rank.

WBA Featherweight Champion Yuriorkis Gamboa (This image is the property of the World Boxing Association)

 Cuba’s Yuriorkis Gamboa has enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise to the top of the division. Another big puncher, Gamboa is something of a whirlwind in the ring and a fight between the two would surely be must-see TV. The plan may well be to get the two to clean up the division between them before pitting them against each other in a mega fight that would catapult the winner in to the boxing stratosphere. Arum showed he is not afraid to let his fighters face each other when he let his two stars, Cotto and Pacquaio fight last year, so let’s hope that a Lopez-Gamboa fight does materialise.

If Lopez can notch wins over one or more of Marquez, Rojas, Cruz, Vazquez and Caballero and then defeat the hard hitting Cuban, not only will he be a hero in Puerto Rico, but perhaps an even bigger one than the great Trinidad himself.

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