If you have followed boxing at all in the past five years, it would be easy to describe the rise (and fall, and back again) of two-division champion Teofimo Lopez Jr. as nothing short of a soap opera.
From upsetting pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2020 to losing his trio of lightweight titles one year later to George Kambosos Jr. (amid a life-threatening health scare), the now 26-year-old who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and now fights out of Las Vegas, has lived the life of a reality show star.
Even as Lopez (19-1, 13 KOs) rebounded from his lone career defeat with a pair of 2022 decision wins in a new division, the narrative surrounded whether he had noticeably lost a step (if not himself, emotionally) in the process. It’s a narrative that followed Lopez into a showdown last June with unbeaten, lineal 140-pound champion Josh Taylor during a time when Lopez’s interviews appeared to double as open cries for help as his personal life was overrun by family drama and an impending divorce.
It turned out, all of the drama was just a smokescreen — set up by Lopez, himself — not just as a way to scream “gotcha” to the boxing media and all of his critics who suggested out of fear that he wasn’t mentally fit to fight. It was also a power move cooked up for motivation as Lopez went on to school Taylor over 12 rounds inside New York’s Madison Square Garden to reclaim his clout and establish himself as possibly the best and most marketable boxer in a division that has suddenly become the sexiest in all of boxing.
On Thursday, Lopez returns to headline a Top Rank card inside Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas, just days out from Super Bowl LVIII at nearby Allegiant Stadium. He will make the first defense of his WBO title when he welcomes former amateur rival Jamaine Ortiz (17-1-1, 8 KOs) in a fight that could kickstart a massive 2024 for Lopez, who calls himself “The Takeover,” in his search of career-defining paydays against the biggest names at 140 pounds.
So, what about that time ESPN cameras caught Lopez after his split-decision win over Sandor Martin openly asking himself, “Do I still got it?” Yes, according to Lopez, even that was choreographed.
“I told myself that since everyone is still [stuck] on the ‘do I still got it’ conversation and everyone already thinks that I’m crazy, let’s psyche all of you guys into thinking I’m not ready for this fight,” Lopez told “Morning Kombat” last month. “And it worked in my favor. Pretty much all boxing experts had Josh Taylor winning this fight and not one had me winning. So, it’s great to give everyone else a humble pie and know how it tastes. Now we all can talk about it and eat this humble pie together and relate.
“I learned that I can use any kind of platform and take any negative and turn it into a positive. So, I’m learning and it’s a phenomenal thing but who knows what I am going to do after this? I might retire again after this fight. Who knows? I’m a crazy guy.”
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Lopez’s “crazy like a fox” behavior is either proof he’s one step ahead of everyone else at controlling his own narrative or possibly a calculated cover-up to take the focus off of some of the narratives that were causing him so much stress, including his on-and-off again issues with his promoter, a bitter custody battle for his son with his now ex-wife and the never ending conversation as to whether his father and trainer with the same name provides more distraction than discipline.
Either way, it’s clear from an armchair psychology standpoint that Lopez has noticeably matured as a result of said difficulty. He now credits a deeper connection spiritually with helping him return to form.
“I trust God. I really trust in what he is doing with me,” Lopez said. “I’m not leaving it to my own understanding, I’m leaving it in his hands and realizing that I am nothing and everything at the same time. It’s how I conduct myself as a man, as a boxer and, most importantly, as a human being.
“I’m overachieving things in myself as a character. I am the only person that can beat me, no one else can beat me. A wise woman told me, ‘You get bees with honey, not with vinegar.’ And it’s very true so I am here to be a whole bunch of honey so all of us in the boxing world make a whole ton of money.”
Ortiz, a 27-year-old native of Worcester, Massachusetts, is no slouch, however. Despite having lost to Lopez in the finals of the 2015 National Golden Gloves tournament, Ortiz has enjoyed a two-year breakout that has established his name, from a professional standpoint, as a rising threat.
“I think I’m more athletic and have more speed than Teofimo,” Ortiz said during last week’s media day. “I have a better jab and movement. I have a lot of advantages that will show when we fight.”
After rising from the canvas twice to take home a majority draw against then-unbeaten Joseph Adorno in 2021, Ortiz rebounded to defeat rising prospect Nahir Albright on Showtime’s “ShoBox: The New Generation” series before sending former champion Jamel Herring to a year-plus retirement following a decision win.
Then came a chance for Ortiz to be Lomachenko’s first opponent back from serving his native Ukraine in the war with Russia. Although Oritz lost a 12-round division to the former unified lightweight king, he put his name on the map as a professional with an impressive performance in defeat.
Ortiz, who returned to the win column by easily outboxing Antonio Moran last September, will now officially move up to 140 pounds to challenge Lopez and hasn’t been shy in using social media to predict a major upset is coming.
“[Beating me] is easier said than done. Everyone talks on social media now and they think that’s a new thing,” Lopez said. “[But] Jamaine Ortiz is a great fighter. He’s not a walk in the park. He made it to the finals of the national 2015 Golden Gloves, which I believe him and I can agree is the toughest, toughest event in amateur boxing. It’s even tougher than the Olympics, at least for me it was. So, I’m not fighting no chump over here. He gave Lomachenko a run for his money and when [Ortiz and I] faced each other in that ring, it was a great showdown.
“[Ortiz] gave me things to think about and it’s only three rounds. Now, we are doing 12, so it’s just a longer gap of what we can see from each fighter. I have been studying him, focusing on what he does and doesn’t do best.”
Lopez, who has compared himself to “the hottest chick in the world” now that his phone won’t stop ringing after the redemptive win against Taylor, understands that none of the big matchups in the division — including Devin Haney, Gervonta “Tank” Davis, Ryan Garcia, “Rolly” Romero and Subriel Matias — are possible unless he gets through Ortiz first.
“I’m having a great time now and I think now is the time where I have fun,” Lopez said. “A happy fighter is the most dangerous fighter and when ‘The Takeover’ is at its happiest, you are going to see stuff like Taylor and Loma and [Diego] Magdaleno. This is my time and this is my time more than ever and I understand that because I have great power. And with great power comes great responsibility.
“I have a huge, huge opportunity here to set that tone this year and to have all this young generation following Teofimo instead of the Haneys, instead of the Wahid [Davis] and so on.”
“There hasn’t been respect. It’s a fight. I’m coming here to take his head off. It is what it is,” Ortiz said. “There is a calm before the storm. you’ve got to know to keep control of your mind and body, especially before you go into battle.
“I feel like I’m going to be the guy having the clown do whatever I want to do. It’s going to be that kind of show.”
The undercard sees the return of rising lightweight prospect Keyshawn Davis. The 24-year-old was a silver medalist at the 2020 Olympics Games. He turned pro in 2021 and has amassed a perfect 9-0 mark to date. He had his toughest test to date in his most recent outing where he scored a majority decision win over Nahir Albright in October, but the win was overturned after Davis tested positive for marijuana post fight, which is still on the banned substance list in Texas where the fight took place. He takes on veteran Jose Pedraza, who is 0-2-1 in his last three appearances.
“Pedraza said that he has all the experience. And he did fight a lot of great fighters,” Davis said at the final press conference. “But he hasn’t fought me before. I don’t care about all the experience he has because he hasn’t fought me yet. So he’s going to see everything I bring to the table.
“He’s a great fighter. He’s been in a lot of great fights for the sport of boxing. And I believe he’s good for the sport of boxing. But I feel like he’s got the biggest challenge yet in front of him. A young, hungry, real fighter. When that bell starts, I won’t be here to play. It’s going to be an action-packed fight. I’m definitely coming out victorious, but the fans are going to be the winners that night.”
Pedraza feels a similar sentiment as he looks to bounce back from falling short against title holders recently.
“At this point of my career, it doesn’t matter who is my opponent. Keyshawn Davis is an excellent boxer. He doesn’t have the experience that I do in professional boxing, but he had a great trajectory in amateur boxing. He is an excellent boxer. It doesn’t matter what the record is. You have to face those challenges. It doesn’t matter if he’s a prospect, a veteran or a contender. You have to accept it. Let’s fight,” Pedraza said.
“I prepared very well for this fight. I’ve come to do my job. I don’t look the result. But don’t misinterpret me. I do expect a great victory. But I don’t expect a particular result. I simply go to do a good job for the fans, so that they can leave happy.”
Let’s take a closer look at the latest odds before getting to a preview and prediction on the main event.
|Teofimo Lopez Jr. (c) -1000
|Jamaine Ortiz +600
|WBO junior welterweight title
|Keyshawn Davis -1000
|Jose Pedraza +650
Date: Feb. 8 | Start time: 10:30 p.m. ET (main card)
Location: Michelob Ultra Arena — Las Vegas
TV channel: ESPN/ESPN+
Asked for a deeper explanation at the form he regained against Taylor, Lopez credited his recommitment to training and said he began training for a return last August and hasn’t stopped yet. That should go a long way in keeping Lopez sharp as he looks to snap an eight-month layoff.
Ortiz is a smart boxer who can pressure and counter well depending upon the matchup, even if the size advantage he held over Lomachenko won’t be a factor against Lopez when he debuts at 140 pounds. Ortiz also lacks fight-changing power, which could be an issue as he looks to time the explosive (and sometimes unorthodox) Lopez.
Should the version of Lopez who barely edged out Pedro Campa and Martin in the aftermath of the Kambosos loss return, then there’s little doubt Ortiz becomes a live dog as an upset threat. But the version of Lopez who was dialed in against Taylor is simply too dynamic not to pass this test without issue, especially given how much he genuinely appears to have rededicated himself to his craft.
Pick: Lopez via UD12