20/20 Hindsight: Juan Manuel Lopez Goes From Prodigy to Paradox

One of the things I love most about boxing is that even fights that look crappy on paper can turn exciting unexpectedly. The reason the phrase "puncher's chance" is understood in society at large is because it's rooted in the truth.

That was clearly evident this past Saturday, when a fairly ordinary title defense for Puerto Rican superstar-in-waiting Juan Manuel Lopez almost went horribly awry. Challenger Rogers Mtagwa, from Tanzania by way of Philadelphia, had virtually no chance of winning on the scorecards but stil managed to give Juanma much more than anyone could have predicted.

While Lopez flexed his superior skill and speed early and often, Mtagwa stayed in the fight with relentless pressure, an iron chin and wide punches that hurt when they found their mark. Lopez was stunned several times, including right at the end of the 11th round, setting up high drama as he literally held on for dear life and Mtagwa gave his all trying for the buzzer-beating KO.

We learned something by seeing Lopez pushed to his limits, something that had never even come close to happening in his previous 26 pro fights, and he put on a show of heart that was exactly what you want to see from a champion. Still, it's hard not to think the contradictions on display raised more questions than were answered.

How could Juanma, who has a complete arsenal on offense and is at least defensively aware, get tagged so often by Mtagwa's wild power shots? It could have been a desire to prove something - he briefly showed signs of boxing his way to victory in the middle rounds before reverting to trading in the championship rounds - or it could be that we saw an Achilles heel, a vulnerability to right hand thrown over or around his left.

Since Lopez landed numerous bombs of his own, including right hooks, straight lefts and body shots, why couldn't he get Mtagwa out of there? It was widely thought that we saw Gerry Penalosa show off a superhuman chin hanging around for 10 rounds back in April (and even then, the stoppage was because Freddie Roach had seen enough, not because Penalosa got starched). Mtagwa may have been showing one too... or maybe Juanma isn't quite as devastating a puncher as we assumed he was. Since he's going to be moving up in weight, the answer to that question could be critical.

Finally, it was a little surprising to hear Lopez say in his post-fight interview that he's rather fight champions than guys with nothing to lose like Mtagwa. On one hand, it was refreshingly honest, and it was easy to understand his point. On the other, it seemed like a bit of excuse-making, and Bob Arum made that impression worse by acting like it would be ludicrous to give Mtagwa a rematch.

Every boxer has off nights or makes occasional poor tactical decisions. Either or both of those things happened to Lopez on Saturday and he still won, so that counts for something. It may be a cliche, but real champions find a way to come out on top when the script gets tossed out the window.

But Lopez and his team are doing themselves a disservice if they simply dismiss what just happened. He may simply brush off that life-or-death 12th round and return to racking up victims. For the first time, though, there's some doubt about whether that's a slam dunk.

That's especially true when you consider that Juanma is being positioned for an eventual showdown with Yuriorkis Gamboa, who looked great in dispatching Whyber Garcia in just under four rounds. I've always favored Lopez in that hypothetical bout. Now I'd say it's a toss-up.

Juanma may not have become a full-fledged enigma on the basis of one surprisingly tough fight, and his future still looks bright. It's just a little tougher now to figure out if he's as good as advertised than it was a few days ago.

Posted by The Franchise

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