NEW YORK – Juan Manuel Lopez was about to complete one of his job's many obligations, when he was suddenly interrupted.
A group of reporters had clustered near the stage at The Theater at Madison Square Garden to speak to him about his move to featherweight, where in an HBO-televised fight on Saturday he will challenge World Boxing Organization champion Steven Luevano.
The affable Lopez, whose face is almost always covered by a toothy grin whenever he's not in a ring, saw his children racing across the stage behind him. A photographer wanted to take a picture of Lopez's children, but that was difficult as the children were scurrying around the stage.
Lopez looked back, saw the chaos, turned to the reporters and shrugged sheepishly and then went back to tend to his brood.
He joined a group picture with them, his wife, Barbara, as well as with Luevano, his wife and their three children. All the while, the 26-year-old Lopez beamed, occasionally mugging for the camera and playing with the wired kids.
"He's such a wonderful kid, people love him," promoter Bob Arum said of Lopez, who is surrendering the WBO's super bantamweight championship because he could no longer make the 122-pound limit. "He's just one of those guys that people tend to like and gravitate toward."
Lopez and his wife have two children of their own: Belisa, 6, and Juanmita, 4. But when Lopez met his future wife nine years ago, she already had three children.
Even then, as a 17-year-old, stardom was expected for Lopez. Not many of his friends or relatives expected the relationship with Barbara to last.
Not many hotshot 17-year-old athletes want to be bogged down with a girlfriend who has three young children, but Lopez was not deterred.
"When we met, the kids were there," he said. "I was just starting out. A lot of people, when they saw that, they were like, 'You're going to be running away from her any minute.' "
The conventional wisdom was wrong and Lopez now considers his stepchildren, Stephanie, 12; Ramon, 10; and Alexandra, 9, as his own. It can be hectic around the house when he's trying to prepare for a major fight, but he isn't about to change things.
Many boxers go to camps and train in solitude to prepare for their fights, but Lopez is always around the house. He manages to get his work and his rest in as well as serving as Dad and, more than occasionally, the playful big brother.
"I just feel good when they're around," said Lopez, who is 27-0 with 24 knockouts and is ranked 10th in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound ratings. "When I see them, it reminds me why I'm working so hard: It's for them. Every time I see them, I know I need to keep working hard and when I'm at the gym, I know I do what I do because it's going to benefit them in the long run."
Lopez has been groomed as a star from his early days as a professional. He's known little adversity through most of his career, blowing through competition easily, overpowering them early in most fights.
He was dominating Rogers Mtagwa in his last outing when he seemed to hit the wall. All of a sudden, Lopez began to fade as the 11th round started. In the 12th, Mtagwa hurt Lopez, who spent much of the round reeling around the ropes, looking as if he were about to pass out.
The fight likely would have been stopped had it been with a lesser-profile fighter. Referee Eddie Cotton gave him every benefit of the doubt and he managed to hang on, barely.
"I got a little crazy with what I was doing and that night, I didn't stick to the game plan," Lopez said of his Oct. 10 win over Mtagwa. "I got a little rushed and I went after it when I should have taken my time with the fight. That's what happened. I had a hard time making the weight and those last two pounds [I had to lose], I started feeling them at the end of the fight."
Lopez said even though he was staggering around the ring for much of the 12th round, he was aware of his surroundings and was able to keep checking the clock.
Russell Peltz, Mtagwa's Hall of Fame promoter, said the last three minutes seemed to go by extremely quickly. For Lopez, who was trying to survive and retain his title and his unbeaten record, the final 180 seconds seemed to take an eternity to tick off.
"I was aware, but I was not feeling well," Lopez said of the 12th round. "I was dizzy and I was a little buzzed about the fight. But I was conscious enough to see the clock. I kept looking at the clock to see where it was going to go. I kept waiting for it to go down.
"I was conscious and I knew what was going on. I knew I had to stay on the ropes and not fall down and throw some punches so they wouldn't stop the fight."
Luevano clearly noticed the finish of that fight and is going to look to extend the fight to test Lopez's conditioning.
Lopez, though, doesn't expect to have any problems. He's comfortable as a featherweight and is ready to fight 36 minutes if need be. And he's also completely respectful of Luevano's talents and knows he's in for a dogfight.
"I'm aware of what he is and I'm in no hurry to beat him and it might take the whole fight," Lopez said. "And I know that if I do knock him out, it might be real late. I'm very aware of how good he is. I'm not caught up in being the favorite and everything. I know it's going to be a hard fight."
But if he needs any extra motivation during the bout, he'll only need to glance over toward ringside where his wife, two children and three stepchildren will be.
"I do this to make a better life for them and that's a great way to motivate yourself," he said. "It makes it easier to keep going."
- Juan Manuel Lopez