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Fan-friendly Lopez on brink of stardom

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – As good as Juan Manuel Lopez is, there has always been something missing. He's 29-0 with 26 knockouts, has won world titles in two weight classes and is ninth in the Yahoo! Sports Top 10 poll ranking the world's finest boxers.

He wears a dazzling gem-encrusted ring that was given to him by the World Boxing Organization and is emblematic of five successful world championship defenses.

But promoter Bob Arum still uses words like "building" and "developing" when speaking of the 2004 Puerto Rican Olympian, and it's true that Lopez could probably walk anonymously down most streets in Las Vegas, the Fight Capital of the World.

Lopez is as accessible and charismatic as they come. He's long been a can't-miss attraction with the boxing lifers, but he's still yet to connect with the casual American fan – who knows Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. and not much else about boxing.

Lopez's anonymity has nothing to do with his talent and, besides the woeful state of boxing, everything to do with his lack of a marquee opponent. His biggest-name foe to date was probably Steven Luevano, and Luevano is likely even lesser known than Lopez.

On Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden, however, that should change in a major way. Lopez will defend his WBO featherweight title against Rafael Marquez, a future Hall of Famer and by a long shot the most recognizable opponent he's ever met, in a bout televised nationally by Showtime. It's the kind of platform Lopez has lacked as he has grown into one of boxing's most entertaining fighters.

"At this point in my career, I don't think there's a bigger fight I could be in," Lopez said as he sat on the ring apron prior to a recent workout at the Top Rank Gym. "This is the one that takes me to the next level. I truly believe Marquez [is going to make it to the Hall of Fame]. He's had a lot of great fights and has beaten some great opponents. Those fights he had with Israel Vazquez, they were something – and not everyone can do that."

Marquez split four fights with Vazquez, winning the first and the last and losing the two in between. The middle fights were chosen as the Yahoo! Sports Fight of the Year in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Lopez is 27 and just rounding into his prime. Major matches against the likes of Cuban Yuriorkis Gamboa await. The 35-year-old Marquez is 39-5 with 35 knockouts and is coming down the homestretch of a brilliant career.

"How can you not have tremendous respect for Marquez and what he's done?" Arum said. "But this is a great fight for Juanma. It's a fight he's wanted and we've wanted for a long time. "

Beating a high-profile opponent on a major stage is all that is left for Lopez to accomplish in his bid for stardom in the States.

Lopez is as fan-friendly a fighter as there is. He's not one who will get on his toes and circle and move when he has a bout under control, content to run out the clock and gain a unanimous decision. He's a deadly finisher who rarely misses an opportunity to end a bout.

That occasionally puts him in jeopardy, and he's gone down several times as a result. In a sensational second-round knockout victory over Bernabe Concepcion on July 10, Lopez went down late in the first round as he had Concepcion reeling and was going for the kill.

He commits so much to the attempt for the finish that he is vulnerable to hard counter shots. Some consider it a flaw, but the so-called flaw didn't hurt his good buddy, former welterweight and middleweight champion Felix "Tito" Trinidad, who came off the floor several times to win. In a way, it's an occupational hazard and one of the reasons guys such as Trinidad and Lopez are exciting to watch.

"I'd rather live without that experience of going down; I don't want to go down," Lopez said, beaming. "But to be honest, at least it gives you confidence that you know if something happens, you can get back up and win. Tito was a guy who got knocked down, got right up and did his thing. You have to learn that. That's part of the experience of growing in this sport. It's not all going to be good times. You have to learn how to deal with the hard times too."

Lopez has had his share of scary moments – he was so exhausted that he could barely stand in the last round of a 2009 win over Rogers Mtgawa – but he's always managed to fight his way back. And because he's a fighter, he has a chance to cross over the way Trinidad did and become a name in the United States.

Prior to defeating Oscar De La Hoya in a fight between then-unbeaten welterweight champions in a 1999 match that was dubbed "The Fight of the Millennium," Trinidad was in a similar position. Trinidad was a talented, charismatic world champion who had not become widely known among casual fans – partly because he had been buried on many Mike Tyson undercards and partly because his father shielded him from the media and partly because he didn't speak English.

But after the win over De La Hoya, Trinidad became one of the brightest stars in boxing. A win over Marquez on Saturday could have the same result for Lopez, who makes it a point to try to make his fights exciting.

"To me, we're here because of the fans," Lopez said. "They're the ones who can make you or break you. If you don't give them a good show, they're not going to come back. I'm very aware of them – and so I want to give them the best show I can."

A knockout of the great Rafael Marquez wouldn't be a bad way to introduce himself to the wider world.

"I'd take it," he said, chuckling. "No doubt about it; I'd take that."

Knocking out Marquez is a gargantuan task, but it's definitely going to be fun to watch Lopez try. And if he gets it, it should be the missing link to complete the road to stardom.

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