Lopez using Lontchi fight as launchpad to bigger, better things

Chris Farina/Top Rank If you were boxing’s next big star like Juan Manuel Lopez is, you’d be smiling too.

 Lopez’s star on the ascent 
After the 2000 Olympics, Top Rank promoter Bob Arum didn’t go after the high-priced Team USA boxers who were eyeing professional careers, some of whom commanded seven-figure signing bonuses and never even lived up to expectations.

Instead, Top Rank president Todd duBoef convinced Arum they should spend their money more wisely. DuBoef had his eye on Miguel Cotto, the fighter on the Puerto Rican Olympic team with the most professional style.

Top Rank signed him for a modest six-figure bonus, along with several of his teammates. But it was Cotto they were after. Less than four years later, Cotto won a junior welterweight title. Then he moved up in weight and won a welterweight championship. All the while, Cotto, with Top Rank’s promotional expertise behind him, was emerging as one of the most bankable attractions in boxing.

Now, he’s a big-fight star — pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao is probably up next in November — and he regularly fills New York’s Madison Square Garden.

After the 2004 Olympics, Top Rank signed Juan Manuel Lopez, the cream of that year’s Puerto Rican Olympic team, and the building of Cotto 2.0 was under way.

“He’s the next big star out of Puerto Rico,” Arum said. “He has the perfect combination. He’s a tremendous boxer with a concussive punch and I just have the feeling he will take his punching power up [in weight] with him. He reminds me of Felix ‘Tito’ Trinidad more than anyone else because of his personality. He’s very outgoing and has a very fan-friendly personality.”

Now, the Lopez project is at an important stage, as he is on the verge of breaking out the way Cotto did.

Lopez (24-0, 23 KOs), who grew up idolizing Trinidad, has fought on major cards in New York and Las Vegas, but now, for the first time, he’s headlining his own card in the United States. He’ll make his fourth junior featherweight title defense against Olivier Lontchi (18-0-2, 8 KOs) on Top Rank’s “Latin Fury 9” pay-per-view card at the Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. (9 p.m. ET). If all goes well, Arum has big plans for Lopez, whom he envisions as his next pay-per-view attraction.

Lopez, who turns 26 on Tuesday, gets a kick out of hearing that and embraces the idea with an easy laugh.

“I know I am in good hands with the company,” Lopez said through translator and Top Rank publicist Ricardo Jimenez. “The company has made great stars and attractions with Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto. It will take time and eventually I will be there, too.

Juan Manuel Lopez

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Heavy hands, good looks, an aggressive style: What more can fans ask for in Juan Manuel Lopez?

“I know this is a very important fight for me for a lot of reasons. It’s my first main event in the United States and I am headlining a pay-per-view show, so I need to show that I can win and that I can sell my fights. Plus, I am also going back to where I won my title, so it is special to me.”

Like Cotto, Lopez claimed a world title less than four years into his pro career. The powerful southpaw has had an explosive reign thus far, winning his 122-pound belt with a sensational first-round knockout of Daniel Ponce De Leon in June ’08 in Atlantic City in an HBO-televised undercard fight.

His first two defenses also ended with first-round knockouts. In his third defense, Lopez relentlessly battered iron-chinned former bantamweight titlist Gerry Penalosa for 10 rounds until Penalosa’s trainer, Freddie Roach, stopped the fight after the 10th round. It was the first time Penalosa had been stopped in 63 pro fights.

“I think the power is one of those things you are born with,” Lopez said. “My left hand is so strong. Ever since I started boxing [at age 10], I noticed I could hit hard with it. I also have a right hand that I have developed, but the left is strong.”

Lopez believes his power will come through and that he will stop Lontchi, 26, a native of Cameroon who has lived in Montreal for the past eight years.

“This is a guy whose style I have never fought before. He moves a lot, he boxes a lot,” Lopez said. “I have not fought anyone like him. But we worked hard and we know what we are up against. We figured it out. There is no doubt in my mind I will beat him. I don’t think it will be in the first round because his style won’t allow me to do it, but he’s definitely going to get knocked out.”

That is music to Arum’s ears, because if Lopez wins and interim featherweight titlist Yuriorkis Gamboa wins July 25, he plans to have Lopez and Gamboa in separate title defenses at the Madison Square Garden Theater in New York on a Sept. 26 pay-per-view card. Arum recently signed Gamboa, the electrifying 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist, and wants to build him up a bit more before matching him and Lopez in what he believes will be a major fight.

“If JuanMa is successful Saturday, we have the Theater on hold for that card in September. And then that would be it for the year for him,” Arum said. “Then maybe we’ll do a fight in Puerto Rico on [HBO’s] ‘Boxing After Dark.’ And then, if Cotto is unavailable or whatever, we would feature Juan Manuel in the big fight on Puerto Rican parade weekend in New York.”

Arum has built the mid-June weekend of the annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade into a regular big-fight weekend. Cotto has fought on the eve of the parade regularly for the past few years, including his win against Joshua Clottey two weeks ago.

With the tradition built, Puerto Rican fighters aspire to fight on that weekend. Lopez has been on Cotto undercards, but he dreams of being in the main event.

“I certainly look forward to headlining at the Garden someday,” he said. “I get very excited thinking about those kinds of fights, especially at the Garden, where it’s a big accomplishment for Puerto Ricans to fight. It’s something special to fight at the Garden for a Puerto Rican.”

Lopez said he likes Arum’s plan for an eventual Gamboa fight and that he looks forward to moving up to featherweight next year.

“I know I am in good hands with this company and whatever they decide for me to be next I am all for it,” Lopez said. “It will be good for them and good for me. I look forward to it. I think I can go the rest of the year at 122 but if the opportunity comes at 126, I could go up. But definitely next year I will be at 126. I know that at 126, there are a couple of big names out there for me, but that [fight with Gamboa] is definitely a big fight.”

The first of many, perhaps.


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