In an extraordinary performance, Rogers Mtagwa nearly pulled off the upset of the year by battling Juan Manuel Lopez tooth and nail over twelve desperate rounds last night at the WaMu Theater in New York City. Final scorecards were 116-111, 115-111, and 114-113 all in favor of Lopez, but the numbers do not reveal the fact that the Puerto Rican star barely made it to the final bell.
What looked like a grotesque mismatch on paper turned into a thrilling free-for-all that had a crowd of just over 3,000 gasping and screaming by turns. Somehow, without a jab, without much head movement, without consistent body punching, and without fancy footwork, Mtagwa, 26-13-2 (18), found himself nearly flattening one of the top young fighters in the game. A heavy underdog going into the bout, Mtagwa, 121, showed just how much courage, hunger, resilience, and conditioning–when cranked up to near pathological levels–can offset superior technique. Mtagwa appeared ready to walk through coals, charge a pack of wild dogs, and lie down for a spell on a Catherine Wheel to win last night. And he almost did.
During the early rounds Lopez, Caguas, Puerto Rico, flashed his classy combinations and outboxed Mtagwa from the outside with relative ease. He caught an onrushing Mtagwa, Philadelphia via Tanzania, with flush shots and an accurate jab and often sent Mtagwa off-balance with his blows. Lopez scored a flash knockdown in the fifth round but Mtagwa rose and kept the pressure on, and his roughhouse tactics–particularly headbutts–had Lopez bruised and finally cut over the left eye by the fourth round.
Referee Eddie Cotton resembled an astral projection of himself and decided early on that a hands-off approach would best serve his obscure needs for the evening. At one point, Lopez, retaliated with a blatant headbutt that Cotton also ignored. The bout was filled with butts, low blows, elbows, and punches thrown after the bell. Needless to say, this kind of mayhem benefited Mtagwa, who succeeded in turning the fight into a brawl.
Little by little Lopez, 121, found himself in a shootout against a far less skilled opponent and almost paid for it. His technique seemed to unravel as Mtagwa increased the pressure. Lopez might also have been affected psychologically by the fact that Mtagwa walked through crushing blows time after time without decelerating. (Compubox figures reported that Lopez landed over 300 punches in the fight.) By the eighth round Lopez, 26, was winging shots with abandon and getting caught during wild exchanges by overhand rights and sweeping left hooks. Although he connected with jarring rights and straight lefts, Lopez could not discourage Mtagwa, who showed startling determination throughout the fight. Mtagwa, 30, simply ignored the hurt. Lopez, on the other hand, could not match his opponent in the pain management department. He was rattled by Mtagwa in the 10th round, and just before the bell to end the 11th, Lopez took a thunderous right hand that left
him shaken and shaky on the stool during the rest period.
Lopez emerged from his corner at the start of the twelfth round like a somnambulist. A few seconds later the fight appeared to be over as Mtagwa launched a ferocious attack that left Lopez reeling and apparently out on his feet. Indeed, Eddie Cotton might have been justified in waking up from his public nap and stopping the fight at any moment. Only the fact that Lopez, in between desperate clinching, still poked out his gloves once in a while kept him from being a TKO victim. He lunged in to clinch, staggered around the ring without being hit, was bounced off the ropes after getting nailed by a right, slipped to the canvas, held Mtagwa pinned to the ropes with his gloves, and was hammered relentlessly by a fighter determined to win at all costs. Somehow Lopez made it to the bell and instead of scoring a dramatic knockout, Mtagwa had to settle for a 10-8 round.
When the decision was announced cheers were quickly drowned out by boos. Lopez, now 27-0 (24), showed remarkable heart getting through the last round, but, inevitably, questions must be raised about his defense and perhaps his chin. He was seriously hurt in a fight with a journeyman at least three times and ended the evening bruised and bloodied.
For brave Mtagwa, who emerged from the fight without a nick or a bruise, the future apparently does not include a rematch with Lopez. When asked about the possibility of a return bout, Bob Arum nixed the idea outright and instead mentioned something about Steven Luevano, a fighter from Planet Earth.