Tony Lopez (left) lands a stiff jab to the face of Greg Haugen during their non-title junior welterweight bout on June 25, 1994, in Las Vegas. Lopez won a 10th-round TKO.
Following the release of Rocky III in 1982, a number of boxers adopted Survivor's “Eye of the Tiger” as their personal theme song. The track had the power to create a connection between the audience, the boxer and Rocky Balboa, the iconic movie figure who came to symbolize the irrepressible spirit of the determined underdog.
Of all the fighters whom have used the song as their ring walk anthem in the 31 years since, perhaps no fighter's image was better linked with it as was Tony "The Tiger" Lopez, who turned pro the following year.
A fan favorite in his hometown of Sacramento, Calif., Lopez won the IBF junior lightweight title twice and the WBA lightweight title once, employing intense pressure and one of the biggest hearts of his era to wear down opponents.
During his 16-year career, Lopez faced the gauntlet at 130-135 pounds, squaring off with the likes of Julio Cesar Chavez Sr., Joey Gamache, John John Molina, Jorge Paez, Brian Mitchell, Greg Haugen and Freddie Pendleton.
Lopez retired in 1999 with a record of 50-8-1 (34 knockouts) and a record of 9-4-1 in world title fights.
Of Lopez's 59 pro bouts, none is more memorable than his first bout with Rocky Lockridge. Fought in front of a hometown crowd in Sacramento, Lopez administered the boxing lesson of his life for the first seven rounds. Then, as a Lockridge right slammed into the side of his face sending him crashing to the canvas, it became a fight for survival for Lopez.
Lopez went on to survive and win his first world title. The bout was named THE RING magazine's Fight of the Year for 1988.
“I had a really good, interesting career. I'm not mad at it, I had a lot of fun,” said Lopez. “What am I going to complain about it?”
Today, Lopez owns and operates Tony The Tiger Bail Bonds, “serving the Northern California community for over ten years with world class service,” per his company's website.
Instead of stalking opponents in the ring, he's bailing arrested individuals out of jail, and, if they skip bail, stalking those individuals as a bounty hunter.
“If you ever get in trouble anywhere in the nation, give me a call, I'll come bail you out,” Lopez tells this writer, half-jokingly. “Just don't go to a 'no-bail' state like Maine or Oregon, because then you're screwed.”
Best Overall: “Rocky Lockridge – It took every bit out of me. It took me 30 days to recoup from the first fight. The second one [won by Lopez in 1989] wasn't easy, but it was a lot less intense. Physically, that was probably the toughest fight I had in my life.”
Best Boxer: “John John Molina – He made me think too much. Boxing is a sport where you have to be on your A game. It ain't a Neanderthal fight where two guys go and slug it out, there's a lot that goes into it. When I got the fight with Molina, Molina made me think, he was methodical about what he did. He was fast, he was crisp, he moved side to side, you didn't know which hand he was coming from. He always kept your mind busy, which gave me problems obviously.
“Like I've always told everybody, a Molina fight goes like this. I could outfight Molina eight days out of ten; he'll probably outbox me ten times out of ten. I'm not a boxer, I never said I was. What I do is, when the bell rings, I fight. Now, everyone says ‘A really good boxer is going to beat a really good fighter.’ No, not necessarily. A really good boxer like Molina could possibly beat a really good fighter like I was, but it all boils down to, how smart are you? Can I get him out of his game to box and make him fight?
“What people didn't realize is that my fight started in training. When I saw Molina, I'd say something to piss him off. So by fight time he wanted to kill me. Ferddie Pacheco was the announcer [for NBC], I'd tell Pacheco how much I'm going to beat Molina down, just make fun of him and say he's going to run like a chicken this time. So when that first bell rang, he came right at me. He didn't try to box, he wanted to kill me. He played right into my hands.
“Obviously it's like, let's put it in this millennium's fashion, let's say Tony The Tiger is fighting Manny Pacquaio. Manny Pacquiao is going to whoop my ass for six, seven, eight rounds, OK. I'm willing to accept that. But is he going to be prepared for the Lopez punishment in the final rounds? Can he absorb that? I don't know. He just gave everything he had during the first eight rounds. That's what you make them do. That's what I would do, plus I know how to fight a southpaw.”
Best Puncher: “Tim Brooks and Andres Sandoval – The first time [Sandoval] hit me on the shoulder, him and Tim Brooks were the first to make me go, ‘Damn I better get rid of this fool because he can get lucky.’ And I jumped on him, I caught him early [Lopez won by TKO in round two].
“I talk to Tim all the time, we go back and forth on that fight all the time. I tell him he got lucky. What happened was, the first fight [in 1984] I destroyed him. He's a big boy and I didn't think he would make 130. I won the fight on the scale because he was dead walking into that fight.
“Then the second fight [in 1986], I thought ‘I'd like a payday, I'll fight him.’ I'm thinking no big deal, right? But the second time he came ready to fight. As a matter of fact, I thought he was going to struggle to make weight but he didn't. He was 130 and he was as big as a house. I thought, ‘S__t, OK.’
“I don't remember what round it was, maybe fourth or fifth round, he catches me with a wide left hook. And the stupid part was I seen it coming, but I just didn't move in time. When he caught me, my whole body went numb and then I felt myself starting to fall and my legs locked up just before my knees hit the canvas, and then they brought me back and when my eyes came back – because I was seeing darkness and spots – I saw the referee to my left, so I move behind the referee and he kept looking for me to give me the 8 count. Then he has to turn around and I move to my right so it gave me a little more time to clear my head. I won that fight on a split decision.”
Best Defense: “Tony Lopez – S__t, I had it. No one really got to see my defense. I had it when I wanted it. But I was more to go toe-to-toe, I didn't give a s__t. But I had defense when I needed it. Look at the Rocky Lockridge fight in 1988 (with me) sitting on the ropes after I got dropped, bobbing and weaving.
“Dude, after I got dropped in the eighth round, my head didn't clear for two rounds after that. I remember I'm sitting on the ropes, my head is in a twirl and the whole place is just spinning. All I remember is that I kept telling myself, ‘Just keep moving your head.’ I made him miss so much, and I was so bad it wasn't even funny. I do remember him catching me and my body getting that numb feeling but my feet kept me up.”
[Asked how he got back up from the knockdown]
“You know what dude, I don't know. ‘How in the hell did you get up?’ S__t, I don't know. By the time I rolled over, I remembered getting hit, remember hitting the canvas. I don't actually remember rolling over. I do remember going down though. I do remember looking at the lights and thinking ‘S__t, I gotta get up.’ But by the time I finished saying that, I was up and stumbling backwards.
“I remember [referee] Robert Byrd asking me if I'm OK, of course I'm gonna say yeah, he said ‘OK, come on fight,’ when he pulled me by the gloves to say come on fight, in my head I stumbled across the ring. This is happening in my head, in my brain I felt like I stumbled across the ring and then I started to move. But you keep fighting, that's what you're trained to do.”
Fastest Hands: “Joey Gamache – He was pretty fast. I knew he was going to be fast from his films, I wasn't going out expecting to win the first few rounds, but I did expect to wear him down and take him out at the end. And that's what our game plan was from the get-go. I expected to knock him out because how could I win a title fight up in Maine?”
Fastest Feet: John John Molina and Joey Gamache
Best Chin: “Julio Cesar Chavez – I would say Chavez had the best chin. That fight is kind of hard to really say because I never really got to do what I came to do. Whenever you go to somebody's home country or hometown, c'mon man, they're not paying you to whoop somebody's ass and take their title. You not only have to beat them up, you also have to beat them down to take the title.
“My brother was my trainer at the time [former pro Sal Lopez Jr.], who was more of a boxer, so my job was to box for 10 rounds and knock him out in the last two. When I get to Mexico, I have all these cameras in my face and they say, ‘Hey what's your plan, what are you going to do?’ I go, ‘Nothing, I'm going to box him for the first ten rounds and knock him out in the last two.’ I'm there for two months in Mexico, we did TV stuff, I told him ‘Talk all the smack you want, I'm going to knock you out in the last two rounds.’ I didn't care.
“The fight happens, I get this small little cut over my left eye, it took two stitches to close it. The fight before me, the guy had 20 stitches or something and he won. In the 10th round, Chavez motions to the referee to check my eye out. I'm going ‘What the hell is this all about? How is the fighter going to motion to the referee to check the eye?’ But he did. The referee takes me over to the doctor, now remember I'm on a ring that's three fight high, I'm 5'7 so I'm eight feet above the floor. The doctor stands up, never gets in the ring and he just goes ‘It’s over.’
“I said ‘Dude, blood is not even getting in my eye. Let me have the rest of this round, if I don't knock him out at the end of this round, I'll never complain. I'll just quit in my corner.’ Doctor goes, ‘No, it's over.’ Once they call it, I'm not going to cry. There's nothing you can do that's going to change it.
“Here's what happens in real time, not TV time. We both do our interviews, he went first and I went last. Ferddie Pacheco – you know he talks smack, he says something stupid – he goes, ‘Were you ever in the fight?’ I go, ‘I wasn't trying to be in the fight yet, idiot.’ And then we go back to the room, well my doctor goes back before we go back to get the stitches ready. So he gets back there, Chavez is there looking for a doctor. So they get my doctor and they wanted him to check out Chavez. It was his ribs, he had two broken ribs. He goes, ‘The fight wasn't stopped on your cut, it was stopped on those two ribs.’
“But even when we got down there he never made the weight, we don't know what he weighed. But it's like I told my dad, ‘He can weigh 180, it doesn't matter. I'm ready for him anyways.’ The first time he got on the scale, he was three hours late to get on the scales. Everybody was pissed. Felix Trinidad was there, Oba Carr, it was a big card. We're waiting for Chavez to show up so we can begin, everybody's hungry and pissed. After that, he gets on the scale, it immediately goes way up to the top like he's overweight. He jumps off real fast and goes away again.
“He comes back another two hours later and he jumps on the scale, he jumps off and he wasn't even close, the needle went straight up again. They go ‘140!’ and my dad starts going ‘Bulls__t, that's not 140, get him back on the scale!’ But he immediately got off, he got dressed and took him out. My Dad is arguing with [WBC President] Jose Sulaiman, they were going to get into a fistfight, it was funny. All of this commotion was going on and then you see Don King's face, he's got a grin from ear to ear because that's what sells tickets. When the fight happened, I didn't really care, it wouldn't matter two pounds or ten pounds.
Best Jab: “I don't know, that's a good question. I really didn't get hit with a lot of jabs. It's called defense, move your head.”
Strongest: “I had a few of those. That's going to be a hard one because I was a strong junior lightweight. I can't call it. You stumped me.”
Smartest: “None of them, we all fought. That wasn't very smart. I'm just joking. I would say Molina. Molina was no dummy, they trained him well. He had resilience, he'd come back. One round I'd beat the s__t out of him, and he'd come back the next round like it was nothing. I go, ‘How in the hell did he do that?’”
Photos / Holly Stein-Getty Images, THE RING
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.