How did a 5-foot-8, 135-pound asthmatic — a kid who showed up to work just once over the past calendar year, and who isn’t yet old enough to rent a car — become the most distinguished fighter in the world in 2020?
Just ask Teofimo Lopez Jr. Or don’t. Either way, he’s probably gonna tell you all about it.
Lopez is anything but shy. Before turning 23 years old, he had talked himself into the best fight that could be made at 135 pounds — one of the best in boxing, in fact — and then, in October, proceeded to back up his bold claim on the lightweight division by pulling the upset of three-division shape-shifting assassin Vasiliy Lomachenko. And because this is boxing, Lopez’s spectacular, precocious performance felt even bigger for the fact that the fight came off at all (after a pandemic-induced delay), that it aired on basic cable (rather than pay-per-view) and that it was scored (accurately) for the opponent.
Despite the world — and along with it, sports — being turned on its ear for months over the spring and summer, 2020 provided a platform for a handful of fighters to author some of the finest achievements of their careers. Roman Gonzalez again rose to prominence and, blessedly, proved he has more brilliance to offer. Jermell Charlo and Gervonta Davis unified belts against credible opponents in their respective divisions. Tyson Fury finished what he started against Deontay Wilder in the best heavyweight rivalry seen in some time. And Canelo Alvarez continued his climb up the ladder, decimating an undefeated and much larger opponent in Callum Smith, in a weight class miles above where he began his career. None of them, however, took on as great a challenge with as much aplomb, and with such resounding results, as Lopez, the Queensberry Rules’ 2020 Fighter of the Year.
Lopez is easy to like. He has mastered the art of promotion, but unlike the paint-by-numbers brashness of the majority of mouthy fighters, Lopez’s confidence feels authentic. His shit-talking comes off as an extension of an inherent playfulness, rather than typical fighter self-delusion or the volume-to-11 obligation felt by practically every American fighter of the past 50 years. Lopez has allowed the public glimpses of personal vulnerability, too, making him more relatable. Even now, he is reportedly holed up at his sister-in-law’s place in Jonesboro, Arkansas, avoiding New York’s greater risk of COVID-19 exposure, which could turn his asthma into a lethal condition. Perfectly understandable, of course, but the move is more Milhouse than Muhammad Ali.
In fact, the least appealing aspect of the Teofimo Lopez Jr. experience may well be Teofimo Lopez Sr. The old man is every bit as insufferable as Angel Garcia, Ruben Guerrero and Floyd Mayweather Sr., and — I shit you not — tweeted this little gem while I was writing this. But I suppose every dad has a right to brag on his boy, and Lopez Sr. deserves extra credit for helping devise a diabolical fight plan for Lomachenko that Junior executed to brutalizing effect. The legacy of boxing’s father-trainers is spotty: The turbulence of dueling egos, combined with the weight of excess family baggage, can send a gifted fighter’s career careening like a lead balloon. But in this case, the younger Teo seems to have made peace with the old man’s persistent need for validation, parsing what Senior brings to the table and takes from it effectively enough. And it bears repeating: Whatever magic they conjured together for the Lomachenko fight rated as next-level wizardry. Maybe it’ll hold.
What comes next for Lopez isn’t certain. A Loma rematch would likely do very well, both financially and for Lopez’s reputation. (It’s difficult to find a path to redemption for Lomachenko after what we witnessed in the Las Vegas bubble of the MGM Grand Conference Center in October.) But Lomachenko seemed uncharacteristically shaken by the loss, and it’s unclear whether he truly wants a rematch. A unification with unbeaten Devin Haney could be doable, but it may be the least lucrative of Lopez’s options. Gervonta Davis and Ryan Garcia, although likely tougher to line up, would make for exciting matchups that sell out arenas post-COVID.
What’s most important in the here and now is that Lopez is the shining light among boxing’s best under-25 fighters. He’s shown exceptional ring intelligence and boxing prowess to go with concussive power. And he’s poised to take his pick of titanic matchups with similarly aged and experienced potential rivals in a stacked division, if he wants them. Thankfully, youth isn’t always wasted on the young. Lopez seems to legitimately crave new tests, willing to risk a loss — at least in this moment — for the chance to achieve something far more remarkable than an undefeated record: greatness.
(Teofimo Lopez; credit: Scott Foster, Flickr)