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Teofimo Lopez is Ring Magazine co-Fighter of the Year 2020 alongside Tyson Fury

21
Dec

Despite much of the 2020 boxing schedule being expunged by the COVID-19 pandemic, there were still a good number of major fights that took place this past year. Yet no victory was as impactful or as important as Teofimo Lopez’s unanimous decision over Vasiliy Lomachenko on October 17 at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas.

While he only had one fight in 2020, Lopez made it count, which is why the 23-year-old lightweight is The Ring Magazine’s Co-Fighter of the Year.

Lopez (16-0, 12 KOs) captured the IBF lightweight title by blasting the normally durable Richard Commey out in two explosive rounds last December. But in Lomachenko, he wasn’t just facing a unified champion; he was facing a man considered by many observers to be the best boxer in the sport.

In an era where young hopefuls are oftentimes judiciously guided away from the sternest challenges, Lopez and his father/trainer, Teofimo Sr., ran headfirst into a showdown that they had forecast when Lopez was still just a burgeoning prospect.

Their prophecy was that they would win their first major belt in their 15th fight and then topple Lomachenko in their next outing. They may have been the only ones to have faith in this vision.

“I don’t believe anyone else did,” Lopez told The Ring in early December. “There were a few that may have, but no one could understand what me and my father were talking about, absolutely not. I think everyone thought that we were just crazy – especially my father. But that’s the thing about life: Sometimes you’ve got to be crazy. Sometimes you’ve got to dream big and think big to make those dreams come true and turn them into reality.”

Lopez’s promoter, Bob Arum, admitted that while he believed their sincerity, “I wasn’t sure if they knew what they were doing.”

What seemed to turn off some is that Team Lopez didn’t just have the temerity to challenge Lomachenko, but also the hubris to really believe they could actually beat him. At times, Lopez and his outspoken (to say the least) father were downright disrespectful of a fighter that many others were awed by. The stylish Ukrainian had lost all of two boxing matches throughout his storied amateur and professional boxing career.

After a somewhat contentious period of negotiation, where the overall pot of money for both sides was lessened without a live gate to be had, Lopez made the decision to take this fight, regardless of his dissatisfaction with the financial terms. “Sometimes you have to risk, and sometimes you have to lose money in order to make money,” he explained. “That’s an investment in myself. And my father, he invested in me and our work ethic.”

During the summer, Lomachenko-Lopez was announced. It would take place in the “crowdless” and sterile setting of The Bubble at MGM Grand, where Top Rank held all its events in the second half of the year as it resumed operations. It was hailed as the most anticipated bout of the fall boxing slate.

The prevailing thought was that finally the day of reckoning had come for Lopez. That he would be punished for all his brash behavior of the past. Lomachenko wouldn’t just defeat him, but discipline him with his typical ruthless precision. Yet throughout the week leading into the fight, Lopez showed an uncommon poise, starting with the final press conference televised nationally on ESPN.

“I wasn’t nervous,” Lopez insisted. “A lot of people were mentioning how I may have been during the press conference and all that. Honestly, it wasn’t that Loma was across from me; the whole thing really was that, ‘Why is this turning into a reality show?’ So that’s the only thing that threw me off. Usually I’m used to a regular press conference, not a reality show. That’s what it felt like on that day.”

Lopez made it clear: “I don’t fear no man. I don’t get nervous.”

The pre-fight festivities were capped by a heated face-off that broke all social distancing rules in place after the weigh-in. Surely Lopez would start to crack under the immense pressure once he got under the bright lights versus Lomachenko.

But it was Lopez who was controlling the center of the ring, taking immediate tactical control of the proceedings with his fast, spearing jab and quick reflexes that unnerved Lomachenko. In stunning fashion, he wasn’t just beating him, but making it look easy. After seven rounds, the argument could be made that he was pitching a shutout.

In looking back, Lopez says he expected more from the amateur legend.

“My expectations for him were so much higher,” he said. “It’s not that it was easy; it was more of, ‘C’mon, where you at? Where is all the hype that everybody talks about? Where is the movement, all the footwork? I need to see that.’ But I was laser-focused on him the whole time.”

Vasiliy Lomachenko thought he could take Teofimo Lopez Jr. into deep waters and failed. Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank

However, to Lomachenko’s credit, he did rally in the later rounds, beating Lopez down the middle with sharp left hands that snapped the younger man’s head back more than once.

“Those little hiccups that we had” between rounds 8 and 11 is how Lopez described those moments.

But any thoughts of a late comeback were put to rest as Lopez emphatically closed the show in the 12th round, where he ramped up his attack and shook Lomachenko a few times.

“I wanted to go out with a bang,” he recalled. “I knew I won the fight, and I could’ve boxed him, but what’s the point in that? I wanted to knock his head off, and I knew I had the chance. I hurt him. I stunned him many times throughout the fight. It was the last round where I really felt, ‘This guy’s about to take a knee.’ And then the headbutts happened, and the ref stopped it for that moment.”

As the final bell sounded, it was clear who should have his hands raised in victory. And it was Lopez winning by the scores of 116-112, 119-109 and 117-111. He had shocked the world, if not himself.

“That’s the sweet joy about it,” said Lopez. “I’m going to continue to prove them wrong, and that comes with every fighter that comes in front of me, that they put in front of me. Best believe I’m going to beat them. And that’s it; that’s what I enjoy the most.”

This was a seismic victory for Lopez. He didn’t just become the undisputed lightweight champion; he’s now considered a bona fide star who is now ranked sixth in The Ring Magazine’s pound-for-pound rankings. At age 23, he is by far the youngest in the elite group. Naoya Inoue (rated second) is the closest to him at 27, and they will be the only two on the list under 30 after Josh Taylor’s (rated ninth) birthday on January 2.

To further put into perspective just how far Lopez is ahead of the curve, one need only look to the other young standouts of the lightweight division: Ryan Garcia, Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney. They make up a talented quartet, who many believe represent the new generation that will carry the sport into the next decade. But consider this: Garcia has 20 fights to his credit, Davis has 24, while Haney has 25 under his belt. Lopez has just 16.

So, is Lopez the leader of the new school?

“Are they on the Ring Magazine cover?” was his retort, after claiming his first cover with the February 2021 issue. “I’m not the king of 135. I’m the king of boxing.”

We’ve only seen phase one of “The Takeover,” says Lopez. After the biggest victory of his career, he took a week-long vacation in Mexico with his wife and was soon back to working out – even though he did so with a boot on an injured right foot that required surgery following the bout with Lomachenko. He swears complacency is not in his vocabulary.

Currently, Lopez is building his new home in Jonesboro, Arkansas, from the ground up. Every brick and tile will be laid under his direction. This house will take some time to be completed, as will Lopez’s career. The win over Lomachenko was just the foundation.

“That’s all it is,” he insisted. “Now is when we start putting pretty much everything into the house. That’s going to come with more fights and tougher opposition that we have in front of us.”

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