Friday, March 24, 2023  |



Lopez has what it takes to be next Puerto Rican star in U.S.


Juan Manuel Lopez pounds a heavy bag during a media workout in San Juan, Puerto Rico, earlier this week. The hard-punching southpaw defends his featherweight title against Bernabe Concepcion in San Juan on Saturday. Photo / Norma Nieves-PR Best Boxing Promotions

Before Juan Manuel Lopez won his first major title, the hard-punching junior featherweight drew 7,000 fans to the Coliseo Hector Sola Bezares in his native Caguas, P.R., to witness his third-round knockout of Jonathan Oquendo in February of 2008.

More than 7,500 fans gathered at the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan to watch the fast-rising southpaw ice Cesar Figueroa in the first round of his first title defense that October.

His one-sided 10-round stoppage of Gerry Penalosa attracted more than 10,000 to the Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, P.R., last April.

His Showtime-televised fight with Bernabe Concepcion at the Coliseo Jose Miguel Agrelot in San Juan this Saturday is expected to draw between 10,000 and 12,000 fans.

Clearly, there’s room for more than one boxing star in Puerto Rico. Miguel Cotto is still the biggest attraction on the island and as the most popular Puerto Rican fighter in the U.S. Junior flyweight champ Ivan Calderon also draws big crowds to his fights in Puerto Rico. However, Calderon is barely a blip on boxing’s radar when he fights outside of Puerto Rico.

Is there room for more than one Puerto Rican star in the States? Lopez’s promoters — Top Rank, Inc. and PR Best Boxing — believe so.

“He’s already a star in Puerto Rico,” Top Rank Vice President of Operations Carl Moretti told from San Juan. “The Concepcion fight is front-page news here. There’s a buzz about his fights in Puerto Rico and in time I think there will be a buzz for his fights that take place in the States.

“Our goal is to have Lopez follow Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto as the next Puerto Rican star in America. We want him to be able to attract Puerto Rican fans in New York City, Atlantic City, Miami and even in Las Vegas for the right fight.”

Can Lopez (28-0, 25 knockouts) do it? His recent numbers in New York and New Jersey suggest that the southpaw boxer-puncher has a fighting chance.

Lopez drew 4,000 fans to The Ballroom inside Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City for his fight with Oliver Lontchi last June. His Fight of the Year candidate slugfest with Rogers Mtagwa last October and his featherweight title-winning stoppage of Steven Luevano in February attracted a little over 5,000 (capacity) fans each to the WaMu Theater in Madison Square Garden.

And, as Lopez points out, he has two things Calderon lacks: Punching power and an exciting style.

“Everyone loves a knockout,” Lopez told through a translator. “I try to deliver excitement to the fans. Whenever I can, I try to give the fans an extra thrill by getting my opponent out of there with one shot. It’s my way of letting them know that I honor their support. The more fans that come to my fights, the more motivation I have to go out and put on an entertaining show.”

Lopez’s popularity goes beyond his ability to KO his opponents in thrilling fashion. His personality is closer to the gregarious nature of Trinidad than the sometimes-stoic Cotto, and Puerto Rican fans are drawn to his friendly disposition.

“I’m a guy who will talk to anybody,” said Lopez, who always seems to be smiling when he’s not in the ring. “I never put myself above anyone. I’m more than happy to take pictures with fans or sign autographs. I never refuse anyone because I appreciate the fans.”

Puerto Rican fans obviously appreciate Lopez. However, it will take more than personality and punching power for Lopez to gain the respect that Trinidad and Cotto have among fans in the U.S.

Lopez will need dance partners to advance to their level, according to Moretti.

“Trinidad and Cotto didn’t become stars overnight,” Moretti said. “They had key fights with good fighters and over time they became attractions.”

Trinidad drew respectable crowds to his fights with Troy Waters and Pernell Whitaker at Madison Square Garden. However, after high-profile victories over Oscar De La Hoya, David Reid and Fernando Vargas, “Tito” filled the “World's Most Famous Arena” to its rafters for his middleweight bouts with William Joppy, Bernard Hopkins and Ricardo Mayorga.

Cotto’s loyal New York City fan base was cultivated with back-to-back-to-back fights against increasingly higher levels of opposition at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the National Puerto Rican Day parade in June. He drew around 12,000 against Mohammad Abdullaev in 2005, approximately 15,000 against Paul Malignaggi in 2006, and an arena-record 21,000 against Zab Judah in 2007. Cotto also attracted crowds of more than 15,000 to Madison Square Garden for his fights against Shane Mosley and Joshua Clottey.

“The good news for Lopez is that there are quality opponents for him at featherweight that will make for attractive matchups,” Moretti said.

Concepcion (28-3-1, 15 KOs) is not a Top-10 contender, but the aggressive Filipino puncher should make for an action-packed fight and an entertaining broadcast on Showtime. If Lopez is successful on Saturday, Top Rank has already scheduled his next bout, a September showdown with former junior featherweight champ Rafael Marquez in Las Vegas.

“We have a signed commitment with Showtime to bring the network Lopez vs. Marquez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Sept. 18,” said Top Rank publicist Lee Samuels.

Lopez believes Marquez, who is coming off a decisive stoppage of arch rival Israel Vazquez in the fourth bout of their classic series, is the kind of opponent he needs to advance his popularity in the U.S.

“Steve Luevano and Bernabe Concepcion are good fighters, but they don’t have the name recognition that Marquez and Vazquez have,” Lopez said. “It’s not necessarily a question of who’s better at this point in time. The younger fighters might be more dangerous than the veterans, but the fans associate the many great fights that Marquez had with the fighter. They remember his fights with Vazquez and that’s why they know who he is.

“I need a defining fight against a fighter like Marquez before I can attract really big crowds at Madison Square Garden.”

Moretti agrees with Lopez.

“If Lopez is successful (against Concepcion and Marquez) this year, I think it’s possible that he can draw 10,000 to 15,000 at Madison Square Garden next year provided he’s in with the right opponent and the fight takes place the day before the Puerto Rican parade,” Moretti said.

The prime candidate for that June 2011 date in New York City, or a proposed high-profile card at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., is featherweight beltholder Yuriorkis Gamboa, a phenomenally talented boxer-puncher from Cuba who is also promoted by Top Rank.

Gamboa, who fought on the undercard of the Lopez-Luevano fight in order to build interest in an eventual showdown, is scheduled to fight titleholder Elio Rojas in an HBO-televised unification bout on Sept. 11. If the 2004 Olympic gold medalist beats Rojas, the demand for Lopez-Gamboa will likely be at a fever pitch by mid-2011, which is exactly what Top Rank CEO Bob Arum wants.

However, fans should not be surprised if the hall-of-fame promoter holds off on delivering Lopez-Gamboa next year in hopes that the eventual matchup develops into a pay-per-view-caliber fight in 2012.

Moretti believes there are enough players at featherweight to provide Lopez with fan-friendly challenges as well as the opportunity to build his fan base.

“There are a lot of really good featherweights for Lopez to fight beyond the Gamboa-Rojas winner,” he said. “There’s Chris John and the other titleholder, Orlando Salido. There’s (Celestino) Caballero, who doesn’t have a belt but is probably respected more by fans. And there are young up-and-comers Miguel Garcia, (Roberto) Marroquin, (Eduardo) Escobedo and Joksan Hernandez who will keep the division strong for years to come.

“There are quality guys that Lopez can fight and defend his title against. That’s why I think he has a real shot at becoming a star.”

Lopez has repeatedly stated that he intends to be the first Puerto Rican fighter to win major titles in four weight classes, but luckily for fight fans he plans to make his name at featherweight.

“I have a lot of work to do at featherweight,” Lopez said. “There is so much great talent in this division, like Chris John and Gamboa, I think can spend at least another year here.”