Teófimo López eyes star turn against imperious Vasiliy Lomachenko

Bryan Armen Graham
·5-min read

From the time Teófimo López turned pro as a teenager after the 2016 Olympics, the heavy-handed Brooklyn native was billed not only as a future world champion but as boxing’s next major star.

After taking the express lane from prospect to contender with one highlight-reel knockout after another, López made the first part look easy in December when he demolished the rugged veteran Richard Commey inside two rounds to capture the IBF lightweight championship. The second part is where it may get more complicated.

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On Saturday night, the 23-year-old López will climb through the ropes at the MGM Grand Conference Center for a lightweight title unification showdown with Vasiliy Lomachenko, the three-weight champion from Ukraine widely regarded as boxing’s pound-for-pound best, in the most anticipated fight since the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder rematch back in the beforetimes.

The scheduled 12-round encounter has been grandiloquently framed as a clash of experience v youth, impeccable skill v weapons-grade power, a storied legacy v a future of limitless promise. But the breathless promotional bluster can be condensed to a simple topline: Lomachenko, the two-time Olympic gold medalist who holds the WBA and WBO titles at 135lbs, represents the hardest test in boxing today. And López, after a scant 15 paying fights, might just be the type of rare generational talent with the skills to meet it.

“It’s everything,” said López during Wednesday’s final press conference, where the ill temper and trash talk that had marked the nearly two-year build-up gave way to a more subdued tenor. “It’s the best fighting the best, and that’s what it comes to. All the belts. Everything’s on the line in Vegas, just like everything else. All in.”

Born to Honduran parents in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park before the family moved to south Florida, López took up boxing when he was six and embarked on a decorated amateur career that included a national Golden Gloves title in 2015. He won the lightweight division at the US Olympic trials, but was forced to compete for Honduras at the Rio Games when he was left off the American team on a technicality. By the end of the year he’d signed with Top Rank, drawn in by the promotional giant’s track record of developing Olympians into professional stars, including Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Miguel Cotto.

Teófimo López
Teófimo López celebrates after his second-round TKO of Richard Commey in December at Madison Square Garden. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty Images

López, whose formidable combination of speed, skill and concussive punching power is matched only by his charisma and sense of showmanship, rapidly scaled the ranks with a series of crowd-pleasing knockouts on televised cards. The whole package was on display in December when he detonated a right hand on Commey’s jaw to win the title with a second-round stoppage before a hometown crowd in the big room at Madison Square Garden, punctuating the triumph with his trademark celebratory backflip.

“I’m an entertainer,” he said. “Everybody’s getting this fight because I’m an entertainer. Many people look forward to seeing Teófimo, maybe it’s not just the knockouts, it’s the backflips, the celebrations. I’m just the type of person, it’s all about entertainment. I’m in the entertainment sport. What it comes to is, I like to show off.”

While López has so far made good on his enormous potential, the truth is he’s never been in with anyone in the category of the 32-year-old Lomachenko, who entered the professional ranks after an extraordinary amateur career where he won 396 of 397 fights and Olympic golds at the Beijing and London Games. The Ukrainian southpaw equaled the all-time record for fewest bouts to win a world championship when he outclassed Gary Russell Jr for a featherweight title in his third pro contest, then made it two titles in seven outings, another record, when he stopped Rocky Martinez at 130lbs.

He’s made it look easy against a whole line of top operators, including Nicholas Walters, Jason Sosa, Miguel Marriaga and Guillermo Rigondeaux, each of whom retired between rounds rather than endure further humiliation. Though he’s betrayed occasional flickers of vulnerability in more recent fights with Jorge Linares, Jose Pedraza and Luke Campbell since moving up in search of bigger game at lightweight, Lomachenko was dominating all three of them with machine-like poise by the end.

The prevailing sense that Saturday’s fight is not merely a step up in class for López but a flying leap into the unknown is reflected in the 3-1 odds against him, but the defiant American brushed aside the notion that he’s taken on the challenge too soon.

“That’s what it takes to go from a good fighter to a great, all-time fighter,” he said. “You gotta do things like this. We’ve spoken about this for a while now. Why am I gonna go back on my word? I talk the talk and I walk the walk. I believe that I can and I know I will become undisputed world champion.”

López will no doubt have his hands full with the sport’s most technically proficient fighter, whose ability to control distance and create angles with balletic footwork evoke the bullet-time origins of his initial nickname (‘The Matrix’, since usurped by the equally evocative ‘Hi-Tech’). But Lomachenko is small for 135lbs and will be making physical concessions against a naturally bigger opponent with ambitions in higher weight classes. It’s also been more than 13 months since he outpointed Campbell in his most recent outing at London’s O2 Arena, which suggests rust could be a factor.

What’s certain is it’s a matchup the entire sport is excited for, if only for how seldom they come around: a star-in-waiting daring to be great and testing his limits by volunteering for a mission impossible.

“I want more,” Lopez said. “The job’s not done. I don’t need to look at what I’ve done in the past. I’m looking ahead and looking forward.”