By Chip Mitchell
As early as 2008, a winner-takes-all showdown between undefeated featherweights Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa seemed inevitable. It was a 50/50 fight if there ever was one, and Bob Arum proclaimed that it could be built to be the “biggest featherweight fight of all time”.
Top Rank Boxing began promoting cards that featured Lopez and Gamboa in co-feature fights. The effort was made to develop the proposed battle into mega-fight status. Hardcore boxing fans, as well as casual observers began to clamor for the fight to take place. Arum had other plans, however, and as subsequent fights and years went by, many wondered if the fight would occur.
Each time Arum was pressed with the question, he would say that the time wasn’t right. He wanted to continue building it up to a mega-fight, one that crossover fans and boxing purists alike would desire to see.
Top Rank then came up with an idea, which was to have ‘JuanMa’ Lopez and ‘El Ciclon de Guantánamo’ Gamboa fight common opponents. It was a good idea, but risky because of the unforgiving nature of the sport of boxing. For example, if JuanMa looked light-years better than Gamboa versus the same opponent, the luster of a mega-fight could dampen a bit.
Funny thing, that sport of boxing. There are no guarantees, and on the night of October 10, 2009, the luster of a mega-fight did diminish a bit. The place was Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater, where a spirited crowd watched Lopez enter the ring against Rogers Mtagwa. The first six rounds went as expected and Lopez was clearly in charge. The seventh round featured a right hand by Mtagwa that staggered Lopez a bit. Lopez didn’t look too hurt but he began to eat Mtagwa’s leather.
In four of the next five rounds, Mtagwa put the Lopez/Gamboa match-up in serious jeopardy as he gave Lopez a serious beating during their exchanges. Lopez miraculously survived the twelfth round and gutted out a decision victory. News out of the Lopez camp was that JuanMa had problems making weight, and that he’d move up to 126 pounds.
The Gamboa fight was still on, as Yuriorkis cruised to a fourth round stoppage of Whyber Garcia.
The next time these two warriors were featured, JuanMa was able to stop a game Steven Luevano. It was a good win against a fighter who had five title defenses, and had never been knocked out.
Earlier that night, Gamboa beat Rogers Mtagwa (yes, that one) via second round TKO. It was “easy work”, a term talented fighters have used in the past to describe scintillating ring performances.
By now, some felt the luster had worn off to the point that they implored Arum to make the fight as soon as possible. Arum wouldn’t hear of it, and told all within listening distance that the fight was still quite a ways down the road.
Gamboa fought Orlando Salido in 2010 and won a unanimous decision. JuanMa won a thrilling fight about two months later against Rafael Marquez. Lopez had his breakout fight and seemed to have reached star status. Fans again asked for the JuanMa/Gamboa match-up.
Top Rank wanted to build the fight up even more and on April 16, 2011, the unthinkable happened. JuanMa fought Orlando Salido (yes, that one) in Puerto Rico and was stopped (while standing). The referee, Roberto Ramirez, Jr thought JuanMa had taken enough punishment. The luster of a super-fight with Gamboa had just about lost its gleam.
As I poll hardcore boxing fans on occasion, most feel Gamboa will run through JuanMa if they meet. I usually ask a follow-up question such as if they felt the same way two years prior. Most feel that it would’ve been an even fight in 2008, but it has taken too long to make. I counter that Bob Arum is one of the best promoters and part of the reason is because he can build certain fighters up and get them a solid fan base. Most fans I polled agree and still hope that the fight happens.
I ask myself, what would change their opinion that this could once again be a 50/50 fight? The answer is simple and it’s already been visited in this story. A common opponent!
If Daniel Ponce de Leon can beat Yuriorkis Gamboa this weekend, the pendulum will swing back towards JuanMa and make it closer to being the even fight it was a few years ago. JuanMa had an “easy work” night against Ponce de Leon (yes, that one) in 2008. He won by first round TKO. A win over Mike Oliver in October and a rematch victory over Salido would surely bring the odds back to 50/50.
Fans stay tuned. A victory on HBO this Saturday by Ponce de Leon over Yuriorkis Gamboa doesn’t just do wonders for his career. It will also play a part in boosting fans’ belief that JuanMa can still beat Gamboa. More so, a Gamboa loss will help facilitate Top Rank’s original quest to make this an even money mega-fight that hardcore and casual fans want to see.