Lopez can prove himself vs. Concepcion

Juan Manuel Lopez burst upon the scene as quickly and as violently as the right hand that helped him end the reign of then- WBO junior featherweight champ Daniel Ponce de Leon.

A well-regarded prospect with an excellent amateur career, Lopez was immediately pushed on to the main stage and expected to act the role of heir apparent to fellow Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto.

What we’ve been getting over the last two years is exactly what one would expect of a talented, but slightly immature young fighter who suddenly finds himself the talk of the town.

JuanMa’s partying and lack of focus between fights has been well-documented. It’s also no surprise that a fighter gifted with one-punch power and given volumes of press clippings for it would fall in love with that power at the expense of his finer skills. Still, the reigning 27-year old WBO featherweight champ has passed all his tests so far and has still managed to win two world titles in two weight classes in his 24 months on the main stage.

From tough-as-nails veterans like Gerry Penalosa and Rogers Mtagwa to smart, crafty boxers like Steven Luevano, Lopez has maintained his undefeated record and has been slowly building his name among casual and hard-core fans alike.

Detractors may point to the absence of elite-level fighters on his resume and that Mtagwa nearly stopped him late in their encounter (and a legit case could be made that any fighter not named Juan Manuel Lopez in the main event of a Top Rank Latin Fury card would’ve had the ref wave the fight on him), but the fact remains that Lopez has so far passed every test.

Now Lopez faces his final exam Saturday in the form of tough, talented Filipino, Bernabe Concepcion … the last obstacle between him and the elite of the division. Beyond Concepcion, fights with Yuriorkis Gamboa, Celestino Caballero and Chris John await.

Concepcion is the first fighter JuanMa has ever faced that will not be at a decided physical disadvantage. The 22-year old Concepcion is strong, quick and confident, but has the focus expected of a fighter his age. As demonstrated by his DQ loss to Luevano for hitting late, he often has lapses in concentration. If he snoozes on Lopez, he will be stopped. But the script can be flipped on that statement as well. If Lopez snoozes on Concepcion, it’ll be lights out.

Lopez will have to dig in and work hard for the win and he very well might have to fight hurt or fight from behind for the first time in his career. This fight, more so than any other in his career, should tell us what’s in the heart and soul of this talented champ and whether he’s worthy of the elite exposure and paydays that are almost within his reach.

Will Lopez pass his final exam or will we see Concepcion burst upon the scene in the same manner that Lopez did — by beating a talented, but unfocused title holder who had fallen in love with his power to the detriment of his overall game?

Final grades will be posted Saturday evening at the Coliseo Jose Miguel Agrelot in San Juan, Puerto Rico.