LAS VEGAS — The MGM Grand Conference Center is usually bustling, its wide hallways filled with people moving hurriedly toward their next meeting.
These days, though, there is nothing but an eerie silence that fills the place, as the coronavirus pandemic has largely gutted a major part of the business of the gambling capital of the world.
Teofimo Lopez, who on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) will face Vasiliy Lomachenko in the most significant professional bout of their careers for the undisputed lightweight title in one of the empty ballrooms, took the opportunity to relax after a stressful news conference Wednesday.
His father, Teofimo Lopez Sr., had a Nerf football, as his son ran routes and caught passes. They were like any father and son enjoying time together and hooting and hollering as they goofed around.
Their futures, as were their pasts, are inextricably linked. Teofimo Jr. is on the verge of history, of becoming the youngest man to win all of the titles in the four-belt era. He’s barely 23 years old and according to traditional boxing dictum, it’s way too soon for him to take a bout of this significance.
Lopez, who is blessed with a fun and charismatic personality, has dubbed his chase “The Takeover.” If he beats Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who’s regarded by many as the pound-for-pound best in the sport, it would most likely make him the face of boxing.
“This is where ‘The Takeover’ comes in,” Lopez said at the final news conference. “That’s not necessarily just a phrase that we threw out there. This is the part where I’m leading the new generation. Winning this is that stamp and that mark to put on for the new era. That’s what it’s all about.”
The journey to the top is far more of a ride-share with his father than anything else. Teofimo Sr. started his son in boxing at 6 years old, and saw in him great promise early.
“Right from the beginning, I knew he was going to be great,” Teofimo Sr. said of his son.
It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at that comment and imagine Lopez Sr. as the typical Little League father. So many dads see their 12-year-old sons as the next Mike Trout, but when they’re 25, the only way they get into an MLB stadium is by buying a ticket.
But Lopez Sr. insists he’s not just another proud father bragging about his son.
“This kid, you may not know this, but you should, but when he was 12 or 13 years old, he was in there beating up world champions,” Lopez Sr. said. “He was getting the best of everybody. I knew then he would be great. I told everybody and what’s happened: He’s a world champion and here he is.”
Lopez Sr. on Lomachenko: ‘We’re going to surprise him’
There have been many characters like Teofimo Lopez Sr. in boxing history. Two prominent recent examples are Floyd Mayweather Sr., who spoke outrageous trash talk as his son, Floyd Mayweather Jr., went on to become one of the greatest boxers who ever lived; and Angel Garcia, who is as outrageous and crass as his son, Danny Garcia, is soft-spoken and classy.
When the dads talk, they put a burden on their sons to live up to their words. Teofimo Jr. is a playful trash talker and not necessarily a nasty, mean guy outside the ring. But it often seems like any thought that comes into Teofimo Sr.’s head immediately comes out of his mouth.
His son is facing a two-time Olympic gold medalist who was 396-1 as an amateur and as a pro has already won world titles in three weight divisions and is already regarded as one of the best of all-time.
None of that bothers Teofimo Sr., who told Yahoo Sports that it could be a first-round knockout on Saturday.
Asked if the punching power that has led him to 12 knockouts in 15 fights came naturally to his son, Lopez Sr. said no. Teofimo Jr. had won the U.S. Olympic Trials, but didn’t qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic boxing team in Rio de Janeiro. So he went as the representative for Honduras, where his parents were born.
He lost in the first round to the eventual silver medalist, but Teofimo Sr. said he went to work. His son needed power, he said.
“I implemented that into him after the Olympics,” Lopez Sr. said when asked if his son were a naturally hard puncher. “I realized that for us to win, we couldn’t leave it to the judges, so I implemented a couple of things with him that I had seen with a lot of the heavyweights who were big punchers. I’ll explain it after the fight, but it’s a technique you don’t see in boxing. Nobody does it. That’s what we’re going to do to Lomachenko on Saturday. He’s not going to understand why my son is doing the things he’s doing.
“We’re going to surprise him. We’re going to surprise him with a lot of things that I’ve taught my son. We started changing right after the Olympics. We worked on it and he hated it. He hated it, he hated it, he hated it, but I kept on going. It took me about six months for him to start catching onto it. But we’re doing it more often and we’re going to do it on Saturday, and that’s why I’m saying, this fight could go in the first round.”
Teofimo Lopez drawing comparisons to Roberto Duran
There is no denying the power in Lopez’s fists. His title-winning knockout of a highly regarded champion, Richard Commey, is reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s famous title-winning KO of Trevor Berbick. Berbick went down, got up, went down, got up and then went down again, all from the same punch.
Commey went down from a blistering right hand, got up, staggered and fell over again.
Abel Sanchez, the longtime trainer of Gennadiy Golovkin, raved about Lopez to Yahoo Sports.
“He is the closest thing we’ve had in this business to Roberto Duran in the last 25, 30 years,” Sanchez said.
A boxing person comparing a young fighter to Duran is akin to a high school football coach comparing a 16-year-old quarterback to Tom Brady.
Lopez, though, has that kind of a buzz. He was twice the Yahoo Sports Prospect of the Year and as he was on his meteoric rise to the top, he left scores of bodies in his wake.
He faced mostly B- and C-level competition, but he left no doubt. When he was 9-0 and just 20 years old, he blew out 25-1 veteran William Silva despite having a broken right hand.
He nearly sent Mason Menard into orbit and almost cruelly battered Diego Magdaleno into submission.
“I have seen a lot of fighters over the years and you see these guys getting knockout after knockout, but you learn not to get too excited because you know who it is they’re knocking out,” promoter Bob Arum said. “Teofimo was doing that, even though we were matching him aggressively. But when he fought for the title, it was different.
“Richard Commey is no bum. Richard Commey is a terrific [expletive] fighter and look at what Teofimo did. That said a lot, it really did.”
But never was the pressure as great on him as it is now. He’s got to fight one of the best fighters in recent history and he’s got to back up his father’s oft-biting words.
He and his father have had their moments, and the son teared up at the end of a brilliant documentary as he talked about their relationship. But as the fight looms, he says there are no issues that worry him.
“I was built for this; I was born for this, man,” he said to a reporter who questioned whether he’d be nervous. “You know me, man. This is who I am and what I’m all about. These situations are what I live for.”
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