Nothing irks a world-class fighter more than knowing he is considered little more than a stepping stone for his opponent. Bernabe Concepcion, who faces Juan Manuel Lopez on July 10th in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is now certain of his status as fall guy after Bob Arum and Showtime announced that Lopez was set to face Rafael Marquez on September 18th in Las Vegas. Of course, in order for that to happen, Concepcion will have to lose. A decided underdog entering the ring, Concepcion does have one possible advantage: Juan Manuel Lopez might be looking forward to bigger and better things.
Is Lopez underestimating Concepcion? If so, he will be giving an edge to a solid prizefighter. And Lopez has, in the past, appeared somewhat unfocused in the ring.
At times Lopez seemed to be on auto pilot against Olivier Loncthi and even walked into a few hard right hands that seemed to surprise him. Then came the near-disaster against Rogers Mtawgwa in New York City. Mtagwa, all heart and tenacity, but little more than a raw clubfighter, pushed Lopez to the brink last November. In a wild brawl, Lopez saw his discipline break down in the ring when Mtagwa roughhoused him and forced him to trade haymakers willy nilly. It looked like Lopez would be knocked out a few times during the fight, especially at the end of the 11th round and throughout the 12th, when Mtagwa was one solid shot away from scoring a major upset. Lopez was practically out on his feet during the last three minutes of the fight and showed incredible moxie just getting to the final bell. Still, it may be that Lopez was mentally unprepared for stiff resistance from a fighter all but written-off prior to the opening bell. When Mtagwa was subsequently
annihilated by Yuriorkis Gamboa in only two rounds, it made Lopez look even worse.
Right now, Concepcion is the best fighter Lopez has faced. Gerry Penalosa is the most accomplished and skilled, but the veteran Filipino craftsman was giving away 10 years to Lopez and was above his best weight class when they faced off in 2009. Steven Luevano, a solid southpaw boxer, was already showing signs of decline by the time he fought Lopez in January. In addition, neither Luevano nor Penalosa (at junior featherweight) could hurt Lopez. For all of his flaws—and there are many—Concepcion might have enough power to stun Lopez and he might be wild enough to get Lopez to swing freely in the ring and neglect his defense.
Concepcion will have to walk through a minefield to get Lopez into that position, however. Lopez is an offensive obstacle course and it will be hard work for Concepcion to get through round after round without being upended by any number of tripwires—straight lefts, right hooks, uppercuts, and bodyshots. One of the biggest issues for Concepcion concerns how he will manage to neutralize that vicious Lopez right hook to the body. Against Mario Santiago last February, Concepcion fought well and scored the best victory of his career, but seemed to sag from body shots late.
But there is still the possibility that Lopez may not be focused on the task at hand. Lopez recently received the 2009 Fighter of the Year award from the Puerto Rican Boxing Commission and is at the peak of his confidence level. Could that lead to complacency? There might be other small indications that Lopez might be entering his fight with Concepcion on a letdown. Although he has been training diligently at the Jose “Cheo” Aponte Gym in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Lopez recently admitted to overeating on Father’s Day. Even the fact that the Marquez fight is scheduled so close to the Concepcion bout—only two months, rare for a top flight boxer to return to the ring that soon—indicates a possible lack of respect for Concepcion. Lopez does not make the decision as to when he fights, of course, but can the overconfidence of his team become contagious?
If Lopez shows up in San Juan expecting easy listening only to find himself in the middle of a mosh pit, it could make for a very interesting fight.