NEW YORK – For the next six months, perhaps a year, boxing promoter Bob Arum is going to be like the kid who dangles a toy on a string just out of a cat's reach.
Mere seconds after Juan Manuel Lopez had knocked out Steven Luevano in a featherweight title match in The Theater at Madison Square Garden, Arum was inundated with pleas to make a match between Lopez and the other winner on Saturday's card, Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Gamboa was electrifying while retaining his World Boxing Association featherweight title with a second-round stoppage of Rogers Mtagwa, setting the idea firmly in everyone's mind that a Lopez-Gamboa fight had to be next.
Not so fast, said Arum, who relishes the idea of letting it percolate while building the fighters' profiles. It's an intriguing fight now, but a year from now, when both have appeared on HBO a few more times and their visibility expands beyond their hardcore bases, a match between them could be the modern-day equivalent of the 1981 classic between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns.
For years fans clamored for that fight, as Leonard and Hearns roared through the welterweight division. But Arum, at the urging of Leonard manager Mike Trainer, waited until the demand was so great that even non-boxing fans were calling for the fight.
"Mike Trainer was a genius," Arum said. "He made Ray a lot of money. And I owe these kids the same thing."
Gamboa (17-0, 15 knockouts), the 2004 gold medalist from Cuba, opened the HBO broadcast with a stunningly efficient performance. From his earliest days as a professional, Gamboa was a world-class offensive fighter. He combines speed, power and combination punching like few others.
But it was frequently easier to miss the ocean from the side of a cruise ship than it was to miss Gamboa's chin, which has never been the most sturdy.
On Saturday, though, it was a professional, controlled Gamboa who made the hard-nosed Mtagwa look like a beginner.
He was electrifyingly fast and brutally powerful in a typically brilliant offensive effort, but he gave Mtagwa little to hit in a rare defensive gem. According to CompuBox statistics, Mtagwa managed to land just 10 of the 57 punches he threw before referee Steve Smoger stopped the bout at 2:35 of the second round.
"I've started to fix the flaws in my defensive game," said Gamboa, who sold his gold medal so he could have enough money to throw a birthday party for his infant daughter. "I've been working on it and I think I'm improving. Basically, I came here to demonstrate my skills. My message is simple: I'm here to fight the best featherweights."
The division is teeming with talent and there are a lot of quality fights that can be made. A Lopez-Gamboa match would have the kind of star quality that would make it an unforgettable show, but fans are going to have to settle for the appetizers while Arum builds interest.
"There are a ton of great featherweights, so if I let these guys go in there and clean out the whole lot of them, that just makes them a lot bigger than if I threw them in there together now," Arum said.
Lopez had a tough task following Gamboa, as well as facing a quality champion who came into the bout with a 37-1-1 record. Luevano, though, turned out to not be much of a match for Lopez, who had struggled and was nearly knocked out by Mtagwa in his last outing in the same ring just three months ago.
But Lopez wasn't concerned and believed he was just drained by struggling to make the super bantamweight limit of 122 pounds for the October fight. After that bout, he announced he'd give up his World Boxing Organization super bantamweight title in order to pursue Luevano's WBO featherweight belt.
He raked Luevano with right hooks and uppercuts as well as straight left hands. He wasn't as dynamic as Gamboa, but when he had the chance to finish, he showed why he's considered one of the game's rising young stars.
Lopez (28-0, 25 KOs) hit Luevano with a right uppercut in the center of the ring that badly hurt the reigning champion. Luevano, who was bleeding from his mouth and nose and whose left eye was nearly swollen shut, staggered back into a neutral corner.
Lopez pounced and fired several shots, putting Luevano down. Luevano pulled himself off the campus, but he wobbled around in his corner and referee Benji Esteves wisely halted the bout at 2:16 of the seventh round.
Lopez insisted he wasn't trying to live up to Gamboa's effort – he was getting prepared for his bout and didn't know what had happened in the Gamboa-Mtagwa bout – but he managed to put on a show that had the sellout crowd of 5,142 delirious.
"I knew I was as good a boxer as he is and I knew I would be stronger," Lopez said of Luevano. "You have to be smart and be patient, and I did that."
And now the public is going to have to be patient, because Arum knows the value of waiting. He'll dangle Lopez and Gamboa in front of the public a few more times – he said they might fight on a split-site doubleheader in the spring or early summer – and said there is at least a chance they won't fight at all this year.
"If I have to wait until 2011, that's what I'll do," Arum said. "I don't want to make this fight too early, because then that's taking money out of these kids' pockets."
With as much talent as there is in the featherweight division and the skills that Lopez and Gamboa possess, Arum began mentioning them in the same breath as pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao.
As the public gets to see them more and comes to appreciate their fan-friendly styles, they'll grow increasingly popular.
"I want to hear you guys ask me that question [about when they'll fight] over and over and over," Arum said, grinning. "Because then I know they're taking care of their business and we're doing our jobs. They're terrific young fighters and terrific kids, but this fight is going to be huge one day. If I just threw them in there now, yeah, you'd love it and it would be a great fight, but it wouldn't do the kind of business it's going to do a while from now.
"Believe me when I tell you, down the road a fight between these two guys is going to be huge. You watch."