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Talented Lopez needs real challenge

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

For years, Puerto Rico has produced boxing talent the way the Dominican Republic, another tiny island in the Caribbean, has produced shortstops.

Men like Sixto Escobar, Wilfred Benitez, Wilfredo Gomez and Felix Trinidad have set a standard of excellence in boxing that few countries can match.

The one, though, who may turn out to be better than all of them is Juan Manuel Lopez, the World Boxing Organization super bantamweight champion. Lopez, who is ninth in the Yahoo! Sports poll of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters, defends his belt on Saturday on a Top Rank pay-per-view card in the theater at Madison Square Garden in New York against Rogers Mtgawa.

Mtagwa is tough, as evidenced by his slugfest with Tomas Villa that looked like a Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots fight brought to life. He has as much chance of winning on Saturday, though, as the Pittsburgh Pirates do of winning the 2010 World Series.

Lopez, 26, will blow Mtagwa out, probably by the sixth round, en route to setting up a 122-pound unification bout with World Boxing Association-International Boxing Federation champion Celestino Caballero early next year.

Then, in June, Top Rank plans to move Lopez to featherweight and have him headline a show in the big arena at Madison Square Garden against highly regarded Yuriorkis Gamboa, the WBA champion.

Lopez, 26, is one of those special talents who comes along once a decade or so. There's little he's incapable of doing.

He's 26-0 with 24 knockouts, so he's got the power thing down. He hasn't gone to a decision in 3 1/2 years and hasn't really been close.

"I don't look for knockouts," Lopez says. "They just come. But I know the fans love to see knockouts and so I like to give them what they came to see."

But Lopez isn't a wild bomber. He sets up his power punches expertly with smart, technical boxing and rarely leaves himself exposed for counters.

As glittering as his record is – he's one of the few men, if not the only man, to have three consecutive first-round knockouts in world title fights – he knows he has much yet to accomplish in his young career.

Boxers are never judged by their wins over the men they defeat at the beginning of their careers.

It's how they perform against the elite that will determine their place in history.

For Muhammad Ali, that means he's judged by fights against Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sonny Liston and Ken Norton. For Sugar Ray Leonard, it was Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

But for Lopez, it's hard to pick any defining opponents, so it's hard to say he's Puerto Rico's best fighter ever.

Trinidad, Gomez and Benitez, to name just three, accomplished far more.

Lopez, though, is just moving into his prime and is fighting at a weight in which there are a number of serious challenges.

He simply hasn't had a major opponent to build a reputation on yet. Daniel Ponce de Leon is a tough guy and a heavy puncher, but he was noted for glaring defensive issues. Lopez won his first world title by running Ponce de Leon out of the ring, stopping him in the first round on June 7, 2008.

Nobody has ever mistaken Ponce de Leon for Israel Vazquez, let alone an all-time great such as Gomez. He caught Filipino veteran Gerry Penalosa at the end of his career, though on his best day, Penalosa wouldn't have been able to handle Lopez.

Saturday's fight is important for Lopez, though, because it's the one that will set him up for the big bouts that will define his career.

Get past Mtagwa and he's looking at a unification bout with Caballero, then a featherweight title fight with Gamboa and then possibly bouts against Steven Luevano and Chris John.

"He's an exciting, charismatic guy and if you see him fight once, you'll never miss him again," his promoter, Bob Arum, said. "He's one of those kinds of guys. He's not out there with no skill, but if you want to stand in the middle of the ring with him, he's going to do that.

"Those are the best kinds of fights, when you have two guys with a lot of skill and a lot of boxing talent standing in front of each other and throwing hard punches. I can't wait to see him fight Gamboa."

Lopez has spent much of his week fielding questions – fending them off might be more accurate – about a slew of boxers, none of whom he's fighting on Saturday. And Lopez has learned enough in his short time in the ring is that the best way to get to 28-0 is to make certain you get to 27-0 first. He's insisting he's not looking past Mtagwa even though if this were an NFL game, he'd be a two-touchdown favorite.

"I know the guys who are out there and I hear all the talk about what I'm going to do," Lopez said. "I'm not worried about any of them. The only one who can beat me is the one I'm fighting and I'm fighting Mtagwa. I'm only thinking about him."

Lopez has much to do in his young career and many gifted fighters have failed to achieve their promise.

But if Lopez performs the way he has to this point of his career as he gets older, more mature and more understanding of the game, himself and his opponent, he'll be standing shoulder to shoulder with icons like Benitez, Trinidad, Escobar and Gomez as the best to ever come from Puerto Rico.

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