The rebirth of a star: Teofimo Lopez is back on top and now has a whole division chasing him

Boxing

NEW YORK — Teofimo Lopez climbed over a chair to hold court with reporters ringside after the fight, two Ring Magazine belts strapped around his waist, proof that he once was the man at 135 pounds and now, in a sudden turn of events, the lineal champ and the fighter to beat at 140 following an eye-opening victory over Josh Taylor on Saturday.

Before a sold-out partisan crowd at The Theater at Madison Square Garden, Lopez (19-1, 13 KOs) served notice to the junior welterweight division — his division — that he’s still an elite fighter and is now calling the shots in perhaps boxing’s deepest weight classes.

No, this fight wasn’t officially contested for the undisputed junior welterweight championship, but it might as well have been. Taylor held all four 140-pound titles after he defeated Jose Ramirez in May 2021. The Scotland native vacated three of those four belts to pursue a rematch with Jack Catterall that never happened after Taylor suffered a torn plantar fascia.

Catterall, who appeared to deserve the decision over Taylor when they met in February 2022, rose to No. 1 in ESPN’s rankings while the titles were splintered. One was claimed by volume-punching machine Subriel Matias of Puerto Rico. Another was re-captured by Regis Prograis, whose lone career defeat came at the hands of Taylor in October 2019.

And then there’s Rolando “Rolly” Romero, the trash-talking power puncher who won the vacant WBA title last month in dubious fashion when referee Tony Weeks curiously stopped the fight against Ismael Barroso.

All three of those boxers have a claim to the junior welterweight championship, but it’s Lopez who truly is the division’s king following his vintage performance where he laid a beating on Taylor down the stretch.

“I’m still the king, and all these other guys who’ve got the belts are … phony champs,” Taylor told ESPN on Thursday. ” … All these other champions, they’re not the man because I’m the man, and they haven’t beat me yet.”

Using Taylor’s words, Lopez is now the man. With his star power shining brighter than ever, a wealth of options are at his disposal. Lopez claimed afterward that he could retire at 25, but that’s not realistic. What is: a long-awaited fight with Devin Haney, who defended his undisputed lightweight championship with a narrow decision victory over Vasiliy Lomachenko last month. The same Lomachenko that Lopez defeated in October 2020 to claim three lightweight belts and the lineal championship.

Haney’s father and trainer, Bill Haney, was in attendance on Saturday, and there’s no question that a fight between Lopez and Haney is the most appetizing matchup that can be made at 140 pounds.

Besides unification fights with the aforementioned trio of titleholders, the same guys Taylor referred to as “phony champs,” Ramirez was also ringside to catch an up-close look at who he hopes is his next opponent.

“I’ll fight [Lopez] and I don’t think it will go the distance,” Ramirez, the former unified junior welterweight champion, told ESPN hours before Lopez defeated Taylor. “I want that belt so I can unify against Regis Prograis.”

Ramirez has one fight remaining in his agreement with Top Rank, the same company that promotes Lopez. There’s also Ryan Garcia, one of the biggest stars in boxing. Coming off his April defeat to Gervonta Davis at a catchweight of 136 pounds, Garcia returns to campaign at 140 pounds and will no doubt be pining for a shot at Lopez.

Lopez could even turn his attention to a rematch with George Kambosos Jr., who defeated him in ESPN’s 2021 upset of the year. Kambosos fights at 135 pounds and will meet Maxi Hughes on July 22 on ESPN, but a return bout would be attractive after the brutality of the first meeting, and Lopez said this week that he’s looking to exact revenge.

No matter whom Lopez faces, those who doubted him will have to reconsider his status in the sport. And if boxing can continue its current run of delivering the best possible matchups, Lopez should meet Haney in a super fight. Their fathers discussed a future meeting at Friday’s weigh-in, and Lopez took care of business to ensure it could still happen.

Haney is a promotional free agent and has publicly explored the possibility of moving up to 140 pounds following his sensational fight with Lomachenko.

But this night was about the rebirth of a star. Lopez entered the ring rated No. 10 in ESPN’s junior welterweight rankings, and in a matter of days, will surely debut as the rightful No. 1 boxer in the division. Just like he once was at 135 pounds.

“Challenges bring the greatness out of you,” Lopez said. “I don’t know how to say it or express it enough. Walter Elias Disney, who [founded the company that] owns ESPN and ABC and everything here that we all are on tonight, that man, he said it best. He says, ‘I like the impossible because there’s less competition there.'”

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