JuanMa’s war within a war

JuanMa’s war within a war

Published Apr. 13, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Juan Manuel Lopez’s (30-0, 27 KOs) path was supposed to be clear.

He was supposed to be the next big featherweight in a long line of historic names in the 126-pound division and, as Miguel Cotto entered into the final phase of his career, the heir apparent to the coveted honorary title of “Puerto Rico’s Champion.”

From decorated amateur star to Olympian to his first world title via a one-round annihilation of Daniel Ponce de Leon in the 122-pound division, “JuanMa” was a star whose shine was only destined to get brighter.

Along the way, the native of Rio Piedras let his foot off the gas a bit, partying with his ever-growing posse of yes-men and putting on significant amounts of weight between fights. But it was all good. Lopez’s natural talent was enough to push him past most opposition, and his casual smile was enough to charm fans and media alike.


Then came Yuriorkis Gamboa, the Cuban exile and Olympic gold medalist, who opened eyes with his nearly superhuman athleticism and compelling backstory of poverty and repression in Cuba.

By the time Lopez ventured up from 122 to 126 pounds, Gamboa already was capturing headlines and sitting at the top of the featherweight rankings. And no matter what he did, JuanMa’s Cuban counterpart seemed to be able to one-up him.

Whereas Lopez struggled with tough veteran Rogers Mtagwa, nearly getting stopped in the last round, Gamboa blew him away in two rounds. When Lopez captured his first featherweight title by stopping the crafty Steven Luevano, Gamboa followed up with a unification of WBA and IBF titles by beating reigning IBF champ Orlando Salido.

The rivalry between the two has been raging for about a year and a half now, but an actual showdown is on the backburner thanks to promoter Bob Arum, who wants more money on the table before risking a loss for either of his young stars.

So fans will have to settle for a war by proxy, with both fighters looking to upstage each other with quality performances.

Gamboa’s last bout was a four-round blowout of super featherweight contender Jorge Solis. Now, Lopez is set to take on former champ and Gamboa opponent Salido (34-11-2, 22 KOs) this Saturday at the Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.

Expect Lopez to be pushing hard to top Gamboa’s unanimous decision win over Salido about seven months ago. But, as Gamboa learned in a tougher-than-expected contest, Salido is no easy out and is more than capable of generating a huge upset.

What many fail to see is that Salido, despite his 11 losses, is most definitely a bad man.

If Lopez is the big man at the gym, Salido is the shady-looking character in the parking lot, playing with a switchblade. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about the 30-year-old former champ from Ciudad Obregon, Sonora, Mexico.

This is the man who followed up his 2004 decision loss to Juan Manuel Marquez with an arrest in Mexico for stealing cars and a six-month prison sentence.

Salido also tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone after his unanimous decision win over Robert Guerrero in 2006. Despite testing negative the day after the commission test at an independent lab, the Guerrero bout was ruled a no contest and Salido found himself sitting out nearly a year before his next fight.

Never a blue-chip prospect or an amateur star, he’s been well seasoned on the pro-fight circuit against opponents such as Gamboa, Marquez and Guerrero, as well as Mtagwa (TKO5), Alejandro Gonzalez (L10), Cesar Soto (W10) and Cristobal Cruz (L12, W12). Even in losing efforts, Salido was nowhere close to being a pushover and always managed to take his rivals to war.

Not gifted with tremendous athleticism or blessed with an amateur pedigree, Salido is a two-fisted puncher with solid skills and the toughness to drag the fight into a dirty, bloody war if need be.

A less-than-focused Lopez is an upset ready to happen. If Salido can hit you, he can hurt you — and Lopez, even at his best, is supremely hittable.

Fighting at home, with all the distractions that entails, is hard enough, but JuanMa will be dealing with two wars in one contest on Saturday night: The one in front of him, in the person of the tough, upset-minded Salido, and the other, a virtual war for supremacy of the featherweight division against Gamboa.