Teofimo Lopez stakes his claim to stardom


But Lomachenko’s claim to greatness is suddenly less convincing after loss to Teofimo Lopez, writes Thomas Hauser

SEVEN months after the coronavirus shut down sports in the United States, boxing fans finally got what they were waiting for on October 17 when Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez met in the “bubble” at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It was a high profile fight to unify the four major 135-pound titles. And it would be televised on ESPN – the most anticipated fight on “free” television in the United States since Keith Thurman fought Danny Garcia on CBS 43 months ago.

Lomachenko turned pro on
October 10, 2013, after a stellar amateur career that saw him win two Olympic
gold medals on behalf of Ukraine and compile an other-worldly amateur record of
more than 300 wins against a single loss. Now 32 years old, he had been at or
near the top of most pound-for-pound lists for much of his pro career while
building a 14-1 (10) record and annexing belts at 126, 130, and 135 pounds. He entered
the ring to face Lopez holding the WBC, WBA, and WBO lightweight titles.

Lomachenko carries himself like a champion
and has always been willing to go in tough. But in
recent years, due to the economics and politics of boxing, his opposition has
been frustratingly limited. The 23-year-old Lopez, 15-0 (12), represented a
refreshingly stern challenge. Fast-tracked for stardom by Top Rank, Teofimo was the 2018 ESPN and Ring Magazine “prospect of the year.” On December 14, 2019, he knocked out Richard Commey in the second round to
claim the IBF 135-pound title.

It wasn’t easy for Top Rank
(which promotes both fighters) to put the promotional pieces for Lomachenko-Lopez
together. Under normal circumstances, the fight might have sold out Madison
Square Garden. But the pandemic precluded a live gate in New York, and holding
the fight in other jurisdictions posed similar problems. A pay-per-view
promotion was possible. But major PPV cards in the United States carry a price
tag in the neighbourhood of 75 dollars. And the only major pay-per-view card in
America since the pandemic began – the September 26 doubleheader featuring
Jermall and Jermell Charlo – drew poorly.

Eventually, ESPN offered a
license fee large enough to pay Lomachenko a purse of roughly $3.25 million
while Lopez received $1.5 million. Arum spoke without hyperbole when he said,
“It’s clearly the best fight since the
pandemic started. It would have been a major fight even without the pandemic,
and now it’s being shown to the public without an extra charge. Nobody [in the
United States] has to pay five cents to watch it. If they’re a cable subscriber
or a satellite subscriber, they get it for nothing.”

In the United Kingdom, the bout was distributed by FITE at a cost of £9.99.

ESPN promoted the Lomachenko-Lopez telecast heavily on
multiple platforms. Lomachenko,
by winning three belts at lightweight and standing at or near the top of most
the pound-for-pound lists, had done the heavy lifting to give the fight its
elite status. There was talk of the
bout being a “grudge” match because the fighters were trained by their
respective fathers and Lopez and his father were shooting off their mouths a
lot. But no one had kicked anyone’s dog, insulted anyone’s wife, or stolen
anything that belonged to the other fighter.

Soundbites that Lopez offered included, “I don’t like the guy
and I’m going to have fun as Lomachenko’s face is beaten and marked up by my
hands… The takeover is here and the reign of Lomachenko, the little diva, is
coming to an end… I don’t like the way he carries
himself. After this fight, I don’t want to hear about him or talk about him
again… I don’t think any fighter has ever given
Loma this much disrespect. I don’t give a s**t about him… I’m not
looking at Lomachenko. I’m looking through him… Loma is on his way out. I’m on my way in.”

Lomachenko (unlike Lopez) is
not one to run his mouth. But as time passed, he responded: “I’ve heard this a lot of times from a lot of
boxers. Then you come in the ring and you forgot about your words and your
promise. For me, it’s just trash talk, it’s just words. We’ll see what happens
in the ring… Teofimo Lopez can talk all he wants. He’s very good at talking. He
has done nothing but say my name for the past two years. When we fight in Las Vegas, he will eat my punches and his words…
I don’t like them [Teofimo and his father] because they’ve been
talking bad things about me. I want to beat him very badly, very, very badly… In my country, if you insult
somebody, you’d better be prepared for them to hurt you. If I get a chance to
cause him pain, I’m going to do it.”

The odds were 7-to-2 in Lomachenko’s favour. But most insiders
thought the fight shaped up as being much closer than that.

Lomachenko’s partisans noted that, while each man had 15 previous professional fights, Vasiliy had won two Olympic gold medals, fought far tougher competition in the pros than Lopez had, and established himself as an elite boxer. Also, Lomachenko had gone 12 rounds on five occasions while Lopez had fought past six rounds only twice.

“I
started to watch his fights, “Lomachenko said during an interview on ESPN.
“And I started to learn him. He is an excellent puncher. He has a high
boxing IQ. He is younger. But I have vast experience during my fights in 12
rounds. So we will see how he can hold his own during the fight.”

However, on the other side of the coin, Lopez would be the
most dangerous opponent that Lomachenko had faced. He had the freshness and
audacity of youth on his side and the power to turn the fight around with one
punch.

Teofimo’s size was perhaps his biggest advantage. As Lomachenko has moved up in weight, the size and strength of
opponents has blunted the superiority afforded him by his ring craftsmanship. “One-thirty-five is not my weight class,”
Vasiliy conceded. “For me, my weight class that is more comfortable is
130. But I need four belts. I need to be the undisputed world champion. That is
why I moved to 135.”

Teofimo Lopez

Lopez punched harder than
anyone Lomachenko had fought and would enter the ring as the much bigger man.
He’d turned pro at 133 pounds and could easily move to 140. “I’m a big lightweight,” Teofimo
proclaimed. “Come October, 17, I’m going to bring him back down to 130. This is not his weight class.”

Few people expected Lopez to
outbox Lomachenko. But Teofimo is at a
point in his career where he’s getting more skilled and stronger with the
passage of time. Vasiliy, by contrast, seems to have plateaued and might be on
the verge of decline. It wouldn’t be shocking, insiders
agreed, if Lopez were to turn the tide with one big shot or break Lomachenko down with a
sustained body attack.

“He’s very talented,” Teofimo said. “And so am I.”

It was all talk. On Saturday night, the action began.

There were two introductory fights on the ESPN telecast. In the first, Edgar Berlanga sought to extend his consecutive first-round knockout streak to fifteen against Lanell Bellows. No one thought Bellows would win. The question was whether Lanell (who had never been knocked out but hadn’t faced much in the way of competition) would survive the first round. He didn’t. Then Arnold Barbosa won a 10-round decision over Alex Saucedo.

Meanwhile, the ESPN telecast
was marked by over-the-top claims that sounded like dubious advertising in a
presidential campaign. Blow-by-blow commentator Joe Tessitore proclaimed that
Lomachenko-Lopez was “the biggest fight that boxing can make” (which
might come as a surprise to fans who are hoping for Fury-Joshua). He also
called televising the fight on ESPN “a paradigm shift for the sport.”

In a different time,
Lomachenko-Lopez would have been contested in
a packed house at Madison Square Garden with partisans on both sides cheering
for their standard-bearer. In this instance the Nevada State Athletic
Commission had ruled that 250 fans and
members of the media could be present. Tickets were distributed primarily to the
fighters’ camps and to first responders who had worked to combat the COVID-19
pandemic. No tickets were available for sale to the general public.

One day earlier, Lomachenko
had ignored social distancing guidelines after the Friday weigh-in (each fighter
weighed 135 pounds) and moved aggressively into Lopez’s space. But when the bell rang for
round one of their actual fight, that aggression was lacking.

The notes I took during the
fight read as follows:

Round 1: A feeling out round.
Lopez trying to engage behind a marginally effective jab. Lomachenko fighting
cautiously. Very cautiously.

Round 2: Lomachenko throwing
next to nothing which is allowing Lopez to gain confidence and believe that he
belongs in the ring with him. One gets the feeling that Lopez can hurt
Lomachenko more than Lomachenko can hurt Lopez.

Round 3: Lopez the aggressor.
Lomachenko isn’t looking to land as much as he’s looking to avoid
confrontations. He hardly looks like a generational talent.

Round 4: Lopez fighting a smart
disciplined fight. His power – or Lomachenko’s fear of it – is the key factor
so far. Lomachenko is doing virtually nothing to score points.

Round 5: More of the same. Lomachenko letting Lopez dictate the pace of the fight, not showing much in the way of angles and not letting his hands go. Vasiliy usually does more than just frustrate opponents; he hurts them. Right now, he’s doing neither.

Round 6: Lopez stalking.
Virtually no offence from Lomachenko. He’s conceding round after round, doing
little damage to Lopez and not doing much to tire Lopez out. If this was at
MSG, the crowd would be booing.

Round 7: Lopez in command. Not
only is he bigger, he seems to be almost as fast as Lomachenko.

Round 8: Finally, Lomachenko
becoming more aggressive, opening up. Lopez willingly trading with him.

Round 9: Lopez coasting a bit.

Round 10: Lomachenko throwing
more and landing more. Lopez standing his ground.

Round 11: Lomachenko throwing,
scoring.

Round 12: Lomachenko going all
out. Lopez standing his ground and finishing stronger. Teofimo cut badly on his
right eyelid from a headbutt near the end of the round. This was Teofimo’s
coming out party.

This writer scored the bout
116-112 for Lopez, giving Lomachenko rounds eight through eleven. That was
identical to Tim Cheatham’s scorecard. Steve Weisfeld scored it 117-111. It’s
hard to know what Julie Lederman was thinking to get to 119-109 in Teofimo’s
favour.

As for the future; it’s good
for boxing to have another talented young fighter in the mix,
and Lopez meets that criteria. The number of viewers who tuned in for Lomachenko-Lopez will be
a significant factor in determining the extent to which television networks in
the United States are willing to underwrite quality fights on free television
in the year ahead. It
would be nice to see Lopez in the ring against Devin Haney or Ryan Garcia
assuming that one of both of those fighters wins his next already-scheduled
fight. But because of boxing’s parallel promotional worlds, the chance of Lopez
fighting either of these men anytime soon is slim.

Teofimo Lopez

Alternatively,
Lopez could move to 140 pounds. Or we might see Lopez-Lomachenko II promoted
with the suggestion that Lomachenko figured Lopez out in the second half of their
first fight and would do better in a rematch.

Meanwhile, Lomachenko-Lopez could lead to a
reevaluation of Lomachenko’s greatness. Vasiliy’s fights have long been
portrayed as being about his extraordinary technical prowess and physical conditioning
rather than the ability to dig deep and gut a fight out. Indeed, in the two
fights when Lomachenko was called upon to gut it out – first against Orlando
Salido and now against Lopez – he came up short.

One might say that, when
Lomachenko was tested, greatness was lacking. Or one might say that, against a
skilled opponent with a big punch, 135 pounds was simply a bridge too far.

Thomas Hauser’s next book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing  – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.

RESULTS
Teofimo Lopez (135lbs), 16-0 (12), w pts 12 Vasiliy Lomachenko (135lbs), 14-2 (10); Arnold Barboza Jnr (140lbs), 25-0 (10), w pts 10 Alex Saucedo (140lbs), 30-2 (19); Josue Vargas (142lbs), 18-1 (9), w pts 10 Kendo Castaneda (142lbs), 17-3 (8); Edgar Berlanga (169lbs), 15-0 (15), w rsf 1 Lanell Bellows (169lbs), 26-6-3 (13); Jose Vivas (128lbs), 20-1 (11), w rsf 1 John Miralde (127lbs), 23-4 (13); Quinton Randall (147lbs), 7-0 (2), w pts 6 Jan Carlos Rivera (146lbs), 4-1 (4); Jahi Tucker (145lbs), 2-0 (1), w pts 4 Charles Garner (142lbs), 1-1.



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