It comes as no great surprise that boxing’s most compelling fixture – another episode in the ongoing saga between Puerto Rican and Mexican prize fighters – produced 2014’s Round of the Year (as was the case in 2012). Equally unsurprising, perhaps, was Juan Manuel Lopez’s inclusion on the Puerto Rican side of the tie. “JuanMa,” as Lopez is known, had been saddled with the hallmarks that made the likes of Arturo Gatti, Bobby Chacon and the post-Marvin Hagler version of Thomas Hearns must-see TV: concrete fists, a chalk chin and the spellbinding ability to override concussion.
A little over half a decade ago, Lopez, then a junior featherweight, had looked like the sport’s future – the true heir to the island’s former king of boxing: Felix “Tito” Trinidad. Between the summers of 2008 and ’09, Lopez eviscerated five opponents thanks to an acute sense of timing and his bullwhip of a right hand. A grim life-and-death struggle – one wholly unexpected – with Philadelphia-based Tanzanian Rogers Mtagwa in Madison Square Garden later that year, however, left the Caguas southpaw forever diminished; his penance for repeatedly ignoring boxing’s basic tenets in preference for a series of more reckless shortcuts was a progressive physical decline culminating in blackouts and bouts of amnesia.
In July, coming off the back of his latest escapology act performed against Daniel Ponce De Leon, a faded Lopez took on undefeated 2008 Olympian Francisco “El Bandido” Vargas for a pair of minor junior lightweight titles in Las Vegas. The bigger, stronger man, Vargas advanced upon Lopez in round 3 and forced him to trade left hooks on the ropes. In chess, they call it putting an opponent in zugzwang (an unwinnable position). Lopez, rolling the last dice of his career, crashed home a pair of beautiful, short lefts against Vargas’s chin with around 1:50 left in the round – yet the Mexico City contender didn’t so much as flinch.
Lopez was already done at that point. In that prolonged, exhilarating exchange he, too, had fielded a series of hooks that had left him semi-conscious. The rest of the round served only to highlight Lopez’s immense willpower.
As the duo brawled with gusto, Vargas – the straighter puncher of the two – was able to score readily inside of JuanMa’s more raggedy swings; a left uppercut turned Lopez into a nodding dog, while a searing right hook flung his head horribly about his shoulders. Lopez went down but got up with 18 seconds left on the clock. Upon rising, he lashed out blindly up to the bell before careening, rather pitifully, into third man Vic Drakulich. It was as if his body, completely spent, was pleading desperately for safety.
A boxer is rarely credited for merely enduring this type of prolonged agony: in order to validate such heroism they must, somewhat cruelly, also secure victory. Despite displaying valour beyond the call, Lopez could not manage it. He wilted on his corner stool before the commencement of round 4.
Lopez would succumb to another needless drubbing before the year was out – one that persuaded him to retire. He was done, finished: washed up at 31. Who knows what sort of terrible toll JuanMa’s final year may have exacted on him? Will he look back on boxing’s most thrilling round of 2014 with pride or regret? Will Lopez even look back at all?