If you don’t know JuanMa yet, where you been? Young Juan Manuel Lopez, a Puerto Rican junior featherweight with stardom written all over him, has a magnificent skill set and three consecutive 1st round knockouts. One was against a 1st round KO artist himself, Daniel Ponce De Leon, that was a real eye-opener, like the way they pry open Malcolm McDowell’s eyes in “Clockwork Orange.” Except opposite. Watching Lopez doesn’t turn the stomach — it makes one crave seeing him again, soon, in a bit of the old ultraviolence.
Saturday night on HBO, he’s facing his most accomplished opponent, and, I say, his most difficult. De Leon was a top-5 junior featherweight, and a fearsome puncher to be sure; JuanMa’s weekend foe is Gerry Penalosa, who beat De Leon a couple years ago, even if the judges didn’t say he did. Penalosa may be no De Leon in the power department, but he can punch, deceptively so for a man with such a low knockout percentage. Not only that, Penalosa has exceptional boxing skills, and JuanMa hasn’t been near somebody in his league in the boxing skill department. Penalosa may be the most underappreciated fighter of his generation, and he’s one of the five or so finest Filipino fighters ever.
Penalosa, then, is a dangerous test for Lopez. But not TOO dangerous, for a few reasons I haven’t mentioned yet. He’s just right.
Penalosa is 36. I can’t say he looks it. I spent tonight watching his last few fights, and he’s as good as ever. He’s smooth. He’s intelligent, and making matters worse for his opponents, he’s trained by Freddie Roach, as intelligent a coach as you can find. He can counterpunch, or he can be the aggressor. His defense is pretty tight, and he’s never been seriously hurt. He’s not amazingly fast, but he’s fast enough that, with the rest of his skills, he’s usually the guy hitting and not getting hit. Sometimes when I watch him, I think it’s a wonder he ever lost, which he’s done six times in 62 fights. All six were close decisions.
But he’s not perfect. In one of his best wins, against Jhonny Gonzalez, he was getting beat for, oh, about seven rounds, before he landed a killer body shot that put Gonzalez down for the count in the 7th. It wasn’t a Hail Mary, mind you. It was by design. The plan always was to hurt Gonzalez, struggling with weight, by hitting him to the body. But that Penalosa struggled so up until that moment is indicative of flaws that very likely will be telling against Lopez. Penalosa, you see, is little. At 5’4″, he had trouble getting to a big bantamweight who could box and move. Taller, quality opponents who can move have historically given Penalosa trouble. Penalosa beat De Leon, in my opinion, but De Leon gave Penalosa more trouble when he fought at a distance, using his superior reach. He’s stuck in the middle in some ways; against Gonzalez, he took risks to score and got hit by opening himself up as he lunged in, but against De Leon, he hurt himself with the judges by being too patient against the bigger man. Also, Masomari Tokuyama, who beat Penalosa twice in junior bantamweight fights I didn’t see, is described as a boxer/mover sort.
Two of the three Penalosa opponents I mentioned, Tokuyama and Gonzalez, are 5’7″. Guess who else is 5’7″? Yes, yes, it’s JuanMa. And JuanMa isn’t a big junior bantamweight or a big bantamweight — he’s a big junior featherweight. If he isn’t 25 years old, he isn’t in the division. His frame just looks big, so he’ll grow out of 122 sooner or later. And he hits like a big man, too. He’s 24-0 and only two opponents didn’t get knocked out. Penalosa stung De Leon, who had demonstrated an impeccable ability to take a punch. JuanMa crushed him. Lopez’ power stands out, to say the least. But his quick wins of late haven’t given fans a chance of seeing his sharp technique on full display. He doesn’t wind up and sling his punches the way De Leon and some other sluggers do. He delivers them in a sharp, crisp fashion, often working off his nice jab. The right hook puts people to sleep, but the straight left and left hook aren’t bad, either. Like Penalosa, he can fight moving backward or forward. His defense is good if not great, but he stood up to De Leon’s mean, mean punches — what landed — very well, so he appears to have a good chin, too, although it’s relatively untested.
Which leads me to what I said before, about how there’s nobody like Penalosa on Lopez’ record. Really, the only very good win on Lopez’ record is against De Leon. The other two first round victims, respectively, had been knocked out a few times before in one case, and in the second case, clearly wasn’t there to fight hard because of some bizarre reason or the other (he alleged he threw the fight because Lopez’ people wanted him to, then retracted the statement; his own team suggested he was mentally ill). Lopez is green. Penalosa is as seasoned as seasoned gets. De Leon wasn’t going to take Lopez to school; he was going to knock out JuanMa, if he beat him. Penalosa has the expertise, punching authority and experience to deposit JuanMa in the school of hard knocks.
I give Penalosa more of a shot to win this fight than do many, although Penalosa’s a live underdog for a few boxing fans other than myself. But I think, even if Penalosa does win, fighting him makes Lopez a better fighter. And since Lopez is so young, and has such a fan base in Puerto Rico, he can take a loss like this without hurting his career inordinately. Therefore, Penalosa isn’t TOO dangerous to Lopez, no matter the outcome. And it would be a great story for Penalosa to pull off the upset and get his due, considering that he paved the way for other Filipino fighters who are increasingly on the way up boxing’s cash ladder.
I just happen to think Lopez will win. He has the natural size and power advantages, and he has the boxing skill to back it up by landing the better punches round after round if he doesn’t score an early knockout like some think he will. As good as Penalosa’s chin has been, Lopez does indeed have the kind of dynamite in his fists to knock out the previously unknockoutable. But I think Penalosa and Roach are smart enough to adjust his strategy midstream to turn into a counterpuncher who can at least be competitive if Penalosa feels that power and doesn’t like it. My call is Lopez by decision, in a learning experience that may be painful in spots, but won’t be as close as Penalosa’s other losses.