Rising lightweight contender Teofimo Lopez looking to defy boxing clichés

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Teofimo Lopez has star power. (AP)
Teofimo Lopez has star power. (AP)

There are not many 21-year-olds who are new to their jobs and expected to support their entire immediate family, but that’s the situation in which budding superstar Teofimo Lopez finds himself.

The rising lightweight contender — he was the 2017 and 2018 Yahoo Sports Prospect of the Year, but says he’s well past prospect status — is garnering plenty of headlines because of his concussive punching power and his ebullient personality.

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But there is more to him than is at first obvious. He’s only 12-0 with 10 knockouts and hasn’t fought anyone who would be remotely recognizable to anyone but the hardest of hardcore boxing fans, yet he’s already chirping at the two top fighters in his division.

Vasiliy Lomachenko is regarded by many as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the sport. He won two Olympic gold medals in an amateur career in which he was 396-1, and now has won world titles in three weight classes as a pro while going 12-1.

Lomachenko made former world champion Ant Crolla look like a pug in a fourth-round knockout in a lightweight title defense in Los Angeles last week.

Lopez, though, isn’t on the Lomachenko hype train.

“You don’t have to ask me if I want to fight him, because you know the answer to that question,” Lopez said. “The problem is, does he want to fight me? He knows I’m a threat.”

Lopez, who fights Edis Tatli on Saturday at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of the pay-per-view show headlined by Terence Crawford and Amir Khan, loves to be the center of attention and never met a camera he ran from.

Behind the scenes, though, is a young man of substance. He has a fiancée who has a job with Delta Airlines whom he lives with in Brooklyn. He supports his mother, father and two sisters.

His mother, he says, is in charge of his nutrition. His father, Teofimo Sr., is his trainer. His sister, Jasmine, is his masseuse.

“They all came to Vegas with me when I went there because it seemed like the best thing for me, career-wise,” he said. “They’ve been so supportive of me and I wanted to do this. Of course it can be stressful at times, because you’re the person they’re depending on, you know? I realize, any mistakes I do in my life, it’s going to not only affect me, it’s going to affect all of them, as well.

“Me and my fiancée, she helps me and I help her. We help each other. She doesn’t want to feel like she’s another dependent. She’s independent and she doesn’t want to be another person I have to take care of. And that’s what I love about her.”

Teofimo Lopez faces the crowd after flattening Diego Magdaleno during a lightweight boxing match Feb. 2, 2019, in Frisco, Texas. (AP)
Teofimo Lopez faces the crowd after flattening Diego Magdaleno during a lightweight boxing match Feb. 2, 2019, in Frisco, Texas. (AP)

It’s not uncommon for boxers to support their families, but it is highly unusual when the fighter is at Lopez’s stage of his career. He hasn’t made serious money yet and has plenty on his plate.

But that responsibility is one of the ways in which Lopez is different. Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti compared him to New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley in terms of maturity.

“There is something beyond the ordinary with this kid,” Moretti said of Lopez. “That’s why I mentioned a Barkley type. He is mature well beyond his years. He has great common sense. He is not a guy going around finding trouble. Trouble doesn’t find him.

“He chills a lot. He’ll go parachuting, or something very harmless where he can’t get into trouble, where there isn’t a place to get into trouble. He’s a mature kid. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have fun, but it’s just different than you typically see from young athletes who become stars.”

He further showed his maturity not long after his last bout, when he brutally knocked out Diego Magdaleno on Feb. 2 in Frisco, Texas. When Magdaleno was down on the canvas, Lopez did a backflip in the ring, as he usually does after a win. But then he went over to the fallen Magdaleno and made a motion like a grave digger.

There was a lot of bad blood between the fighters and their camps in the buildup, and Lopez made a classless move and was roundly criticized.

He didn’t respond by getting defensive, though. Instead, he apologized.

“It was a heat-of-the-moment thing,” Lopez said. “So many things were being said, before the fight and throughout fight week, and my emotions were going in the heat of the moment when the fight ended. Do I regret it? No. All I can do is learn from it. I apologized to the people themselves. Honestly, the thing for me is just to learn from that, which was a mistake, and move on from it.”

He seems on a collision course with Lomachenko sometime next year. If he beats Tatli, who is ranked No. 3 in the IBF, he’ll fight the top available contender in either the WBC or the IBF in July.

That could lead to an end-of-the-year title shot and a showdown with Lomachenko in early 2020.

“He’ll be a world champion at 135 and 140 for sure,” Moretti said when asked what he sees as Lopez’s ceiling. “And he’ll be a world champion who will not need to be nurtured or protected. You’d feel comfortable with him fighting pretty much anybody, and I think you’ll see his popularity rising each and every time he fights.”

Most prospects — contenders — don’t hit their ceilings, so the follow-up to Moretti was simple: What is realistic for him down the line?

“Pretty much that,” he said. “That scenario is definitely realistic.”

Lopez isn’t impressed by such praise because it’s what he expects of himself. He knows that the more successful he is, the more issues will arise. As he makes big money, long-lost friends and relatives will suddenly appear and try to insert themselves into his life.

He’ll be pulled in many directions by the many competing interests. Boxing has a sordid history in this regard, and it often cannibalizes its young. Young men who had nothing and lived in extreme poverty make it to the top because of talent, and they make a ton of money.

Soon, though, it’s gone, and often by the end of their careers, they keep fighting even though it’s dangerous for them because they have no other way to pay their bills.

Lopez, though, said it’s possible to become a huge success and save money while avoiding trouble.

“I’m mentally strong and I’m aware of what could happen,” he said. “I’m not out there clubbing or drinking. I’m not posting things. There are fighters out there who are doing those things, and they’re not even where they want to be, but because they’re undefeated, they’re like, ‘I’m the sh--.’ Excuse my language, but that’s what they do and they go down that road and it’s hard to come back.

“When the opportunity comes, I’ll be more than ready for it. God has put me here for greatness and for positivity and I know this: I am going to be the man He has wanted me to be.”

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