What remains of the Juan Manuel Lopez who stormed onto the HBO airwaves in 2008, inspiring broadcaster Max Kellerman to enthuse, "A star is born!"? The glimmers of greatness he showed then have steadily dimmed, certainly. He replaced excellence with pure excitement, though, and became a different kind of star. One thing held steady from the moment he burst into broader public consciousness: He has retained his popularity in boxing-mad Puerto Rico, and with the considerable segment of boxing fandom that adores face-first brawlers.
How much of the earlier Lopez is left will be telling for his chances against featherweight contender Mikey Garcia Saturday, back on HBO. Things got more interesting after the weigh-in Friday, when it looked like JuanMa might not be the only one who is incomplete. What will remain of Garcia after he failed to make weight and looked gaunt at 127.5 pounds? Garcia's glimmers of greatness have steadily glowed brighter, especially after he dismantled JuanMa conqueror Orlando Salido. But nothing snuffs out a fighter like being a physical shell of himself.
Garcia inhabits the top 20 of my pound-for-pound list, and probably isn't far from cracking the top 10 of others if he keeps up what he's been doing. Before he fought Salido, he was almost entirely untested, yet the surgical precision with which he operated on lesser opponents was impressive stuff. Wins over a faded Bernabe Concepion, a green Matt Remillard, journeyman Cornelius Rock and assorted other even worse opponents were enough to convince people that he ought to be the favorite against Salido, who was coming off two knockouts of Lopez and had taken out past contenders like Cristobal Cruz and Robert Guerrero, although the Guerrero win was overturned when Salido failed a drug test. And for most of the fight, Garcia delivered: He made Salido look older than his 32 years, ripping him apart with perfectly placed shots, controlling spacing and even making the gung-ho veteran gun-shy.
Garcia proved that what we saw in him when he was coming up — excellent counterpunching, sharp, short crisp shots with both hands upstairs and downstairs, solid defense and ramrod power — was no illusion. What we didn't find out was whether he had the requisite toughness. It was no real fault of his own. Salido was coming on strong late, winning a round or two, before Garcia's nose was broken by a head butt. Garcia's corner lobbied for the fight to be stopped, and naturally he won on the scorecards. It was a fair play by the Garcia corner, just one that robbed us of a chance to see if Garcia would be able to handle adversity should he encounter it.
And Lopez can bring the adversity, especially if Garcia is weight-drained, something Lopez has struggled with himself, what with his uncertain focus on boxing training. This time, he was well within the range of the proper weight long in advance, making some wonder whether he was actually overtraining. But he apparently looked very good at the weigh-in, energetic and strong. Lopez's time in upper atmosphere of boxing wasn't as brief as it now feels; he had nine fights from 2008 to 2010 before Salido did him in, so he packed in a lot of good work in a short time. Yes, the Rogers Mtagwa win where he was unconscious for a whole round but still somehow on his feet surely is a black mark, and might have precipated his decline. But look at who he beat: Ponce De Leon; Gerry Penalosa; Rafael Marquez; a better version of Bernabe Concepcion; and Steve Luevano. You can offer asterisks to some of those wins, and be disappointed (as I am) that he never faced Yuriorkis Gamboa. You just can't say it wasn't a nice run.
From his win over Ponce De Leon to somewhere around the time he first met Salido, he began to lose something. When was the last time, since the De Leon win, anyone uttered about Lopez that he won because of "his quicker, more skillful approach" or "his punches are too short," as HBO's broadcast team did? Lopez fell in love with his power, and while he never was a boxer-puncher of the versatility of Garcia, he also was more a boxer-puncher then than the brawler he became. Fortunately enough for him, his power got him pretty far. Lopez was some kind of puncher at 122, and nearly as good at 126. That he dropped Salido with one of his patented right hooks in their second meeting is evidence of that, because Salido's head is a cinder block. Lopez lost to Salido twice not just because of his shaky chin — and he does have one — but also because he couldn't outbox him, either. His punches are too wide these days, his flaws exaggerated into prominence. Lopez keeps his hands too low, especially after punching, which makes him a counterpuncher's delight. It's also been a while since he's been particularly quicker than anyone.
Lopez also had been away from the ring for approximately a year due to a draconian punishment by the authorities in Puerto Rico for some admittedly foolish remarks Lopez made about a referee having a gambling problem, although he subsequently apologized. He returned in February then again in April with two nothing wins, the second one featuring a suspect knockout where his punches didn't even land on his opponent, unless you count his gloves. Lopez has talked about needing to box more, which he does, and about how the Salido Garcia met was damaged by their two wars, which he was. But Lopez showed no signs in his two comeback bouts that he had fixed the chinks in his armor, and he might be forgetting that he has taken plenty of damage himself, even more than Salido did in their two meetings.
What we end up with is a boxer in Lopez whose flaws feed right into Garcia's strengths — namely, one is a great counterpuncher and the other lives to be counterpunched — and unless he's done something drastic to sweep up all his pieces and put them back together into the Lopez who demolished De Leon, it comes down to a puncher's chance. And Lopez can punch, and a drained Garcia is more vulnerable to getting hurt by him.
What this looks like to me, ultimately, is a masterpiece of the Top Rank Promotions genre: One fighter younger and more promising, one fighter older, both with action-friendly styles, the older fighter with a smidge of a chance to upset the younger one but guaranteed to make things fun while it lasts. Throw in a Mexican vs. Puerto Rican angle and you've got a card that could be very popular for how predetermined the outcome looks. I wonder if Lopez remembers when Top Rank was feeding him Rafael Marquez, and he was on the other side of this equation. Despite his weight problems, I'll stick with my original prediction of Garcia by knockout in the first half of the fight, however unoriginal that is as a prediction for this site.