Superstars are hard to build. Some don’t have the style. Some don’t have the fanbase. Some don’t have the talent. And others just don’t have the foil. But when a true superstar is made, his celebrity lingers, his presence stirs, and his legacy lasts. Top Rank titan Bob Arum believes he has all the tools needed to build Juan Manuel Lopez into a superstar. Lopez has an undefeated record, a power-punching style, and a Puerto Rican following. The Top Rank show last Saturday night at Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater was a tuning of those tools, particularly in the sharpening of a foil. Cuban Yuriorkis Gamboa could have the potential to be Lopez’s rival. Or, Gamboa could become the superstar himself.
I arrived at Madison Square Garden a little before 7:00 PM, after having a tough time finding the media entrance. Since the fight was in the smaller WaMu Theater instead of the main arena, they had moved the entrance a bit. I circled the Garden at least once before I located it.
As I stood in line with the other press personnel, featherweight titlist Steven Luevano and his lieutenants waltzed in. Luevano wore solid-colored full body sweats, with the hood tightened over his face. He reminded me of a high school wrestler wearing matching warm-ups. As his group did their dance with security, the press remained silent. I guessed it was out of respect. Or perhaps it was, as one writer suggested, out of unawareness. Luevano was relatively unrecognizable for a main event fighter. It was easy to forget that it was Lopez who was the challenger that night.
I made my way up to the 33rd Street Balcony overlooking the ring. The balcony offered a Colosseum-like elevated view of the proceedings. In fact, the whole venue was shaped like some amphitheatre from yesteryear. A New Yorker named Tommy “Razor” Rainone finished an undercard match after I found my seat. For a guy with the nickname “Razor,” he seemed like something less than sharp in there. The locals in the crowd didn’t mind, though.
Another New Yorker a light heavyweight named Will “Power” Rosinki came out next. According to the ring announcer, he had won the New York Golden Gloves at one point. Rosinki had a tattoo across his white back like MMA champion Brock Lesnar. Yet even with the crowd behind him, his opponent refused to give him the satisfying knockout. “Power” only managed a unanimous decision. I thought his burst-like fighting style was too sporadic.
Next, a featherweight prospect named Jorge Diaz starched a poor fellow named Tommy Atencio in the opening round. Atencio went down hard off a right cross before Diaz stopped him with a body shot. Atencio suffered what A.J. Liebling might call “a sit down and think it over” type knockout. The body hook didn’t seem to land cleanly on the replay, and Atencio indeed sat up and looked around before he continued his mat convulsing. Whatever the case, Atencio had finished fighting for the night.
Top Rank showcased Chris Algieri, a 140-pounder, in the following bout. His opponent, a black fighter by the name of Hope, seemed game enough. In long stretches, however, Algieri stayed too inactive for my tastes. In his worst moments, Algieri fought like a bad Paulie Malignaggi poor workrate, hands low, lots of unnecessary wiggling, too much flash and not enough substance. He still won the fight in my eyes (and the judges’ eyes), but he failed to wow any of the crowd.
A junior middleweight contest between once-beatens Ishmael Arvin and Pawel Wolak produced fireworks. Or, at least, it should have. Wolak unleashed non-stop punches from close range, but his punches had none of the spark or crackle that you’d expect. Like the “Razor,” though, the crowd especially his large contingent of supporters in the near the back didn’t care. They reveled in Wolak’s decision win.
Afterward, the announcer introduced a trio of fighters in the ring. 154-pound titlist Yuri Foreman, pound-for-pounder Miguel Cotto, and hall-of-famer Felix Trinidad rounded out the squad. It appeared to me that Trinidad had been eating well in his retirement. The largely Puerto Rican fans showed a lot of love for the fallen Cotto, however. “PACQUIAO’S ON STEROIDS!” I heard a Boricua in the audience scream, in reference to Cotto’s conqueror. The Puerto Rican people seemed fiercely loyal.
Following a few anthems, popular Irish brawler John Duddy walked to the ring accompanied by loud applause. The middleweight received a far bigger ovation than Yuri Foreman, even though the latter had accomplished more in his career. Duddy ripped his showcase opponent Juan Astorga apart in under two minutes to preserve his lucrative date on the Manny Pacquiao Joshua Clottey undercard in Cowboys Stadium. Duddy left the ring with LMFAO’s alcohol anthem “Shots feat. Lil’ Jon” booming in the background. “If you ain’t takin’ SHOTS, get the FUCK out the club,” opined Jon. Astorga should have listened.
A long intermission followed, and the Theater morphed into something akin to a low-rent club, complete with cheap lighting effects and decorated with middle-aged denizens. I observed a pair of Rogers Mtagwa supporters running and dancing up and down the aisles nonstop, flying twin Tanzanian flags across their backs. In the middle of the crowd, a group of five forty-something men continued to dance and waddle and shimmy badly for forty-five straight minutes. I wondered which group would stop motion first.
Once the intermission ended and the HBO broadcast began, Rogers Mtagwa took his time coming to the ring. Mtagwa seemed to relish every moment during his prolonged “Eye of the Tiger” ringwalk. A smattering of applause echoed, his supporters confident, perhaps. because of the difficult time Mtagwa had given Lopez in his last bout. Gamboa appeared next, and when he entered the ring he looked to me to exhibit a startling Roy Jones-like physique. “But he’s just a featherweight,” I thought. “He’s supposed to be just a little guy…”
From the opening bell, the difference in speed was apparent. Gamboa did not miss with his left hook. Mtagwa had no answer for Gamboa’s speed, and he seemed to not see any of Gamboa’s punches coming. The Cuban wobbled the Tanzanian early, forcing Mtagwa to take a knee at one point. In the second stanza, a few fierce exchanges did Mtagwa no favors. A flurry from Gamboa that ended with a vicious overhand dropped Mtagwa again. Referee Steve Smoger, known for letting fights go on maybe too long, stopped the contest shortly after in the second.
“Guy can crack,” said a writer in front of me.
“Gamboa made him look like Mtagwa’s (26-13) record actually looks,” I said.
“Yep. I don’t know if you heard, but Gamboa had trouble making weight,” said the writer. “He didn’t show up to the last press conference because he was still sweatin’. I didn’t think he’d look like that, though.”
“Really? Wow. Lopez better impress, then,” I replied. I searched for the Tanzanian flagbearers in the crowd. They had stopped dancing.
Lopez trekked to the ring soon after. A group of boys in matching hats made up part of his entourage. I never understood why several fighters brought young children to prizefights. After all, boxing was not child’s play, and if the child was yours and you took a beating I failed to see the benefit.
Luevano entered the Theater next, led by a large Mexican flag. The flag elicited more boos from the Puerto Ricans than Luevano. The Puerto Ricans didn’t need to know who Luevano was. Perhaps, they just needed to know he was part-Mexican. As Luevano stood next to Lopez in the center of the ring for the staredown, I thought Lopez looked the tiniest of the four main event fighters.
Lopez began the bout by kicking up his legs, as a bull did before charging. The fighters looked more like a pair of matadors than bulls in the first round, though, taking few chances. Lopez landed more power shots, but there was little to choose from. In-between the first and second, I spied a photographer in front of me snapping pictures of the leggy round card girl. “Professionalism at its best,” I said to myself.
Rounds two and three continued the measured pace. Luevano refused to throw more than one or two flurries a round, but he did appear ready for Lopez’s right hook, which repeatedly sailed over his head. As this was Lopez’s money punch, Luevano forced Lopez to rely more on his left cross. The fourth featured Luevano backpedaling, and I gave Lopez that round, too, off of sheer aggression. In the fifth, Luevano began to make things dirtier with more clinches, but his in-fighting looked more Ivan Calderon than Bernard Hopkins. For Luevano, his wrestling seemed more like a necessity than a strategy. The sixth saw Luevano start to wilt from the damage and the pressure.
“What round was that?” asked the writer in front of me.
“[Luevano] won’t last into the eighth, I’ll tell ya that. Look at his face. He’s banged up.”
“He started excessively clinching not too long ago,” I said. “I think you might be right.”
In the seventh, Lopez abandoned the left uppercut that he had tried earlier to discourage Luevano’s hugging. Instead, Juanma caught Steven with a picture-perfect right uppercut when Steven lowered his head. The punch generated a piercing pop, and Luevano became stiff-legged at the sound, like a Chihuahua before a dog whistle. A follow-up right hook made Luevano play dead in the corner where, even though Luevano made it to his feet, referee Benjy Esteves called the bout off at 44 seconds of the seventh. His handlers carried a jubilant Lopez around the ring in celebration.
Before I exited the Theater, I heard a great deal of commotion emanating from the crowd. Felix Trinidad had climbed to the ring apron, and chants of “TITO! TITO!” drowned the arena. After giving a fist-pump worthy of an Italian, the Puerto Rican hero was escorted to the back by security. I realized after he passed by me that he hadn’t gained much weight. Rather, only his head appeared larger somehow. Despite the enhanced cranium, though, the mere sight of him brought out the cheers and the screams and the cell phones. “Look at him, man,” I overheard a fan say a few feet from me. “He’s still smilin’. Dude’s always smilin’.” Trinidad placed a smile on the faces of his fans for years. He had the style, the talent, the fanbase, and the foil. His celebrity lasted and his legacy lingered. He was a true superstar.
Last Saturday night, Juan Manuel Lopez took another step in that direction.