NEW YORK — Teofimo Lopez stood in the ring, hat on his head, a red WBO belt around each of his arms and two The Ring belts around his waist. There was a massive smile on Lopez’s face, something seemingly missing the past two years. Putting the entire package together, this looked like the man we once knew.
That man, a few years ago, could’ve been tabbed as the future of boxing, one of the sport’s brightest stars. The man who, for the past two years — in and out of the ring — had been confusing at best, uninspiring and concerning at worst. This fight, against Josh Taylor, who entered the night undefeated and as the WBO junior welterweight champion, was another worry.
The trash talk had been brutal, even by boxing standards. Taylor and Lopez weren’t even allowed to face off against one another at the news conferences or Friday’s weigh-in. The comments made by Lopez about wanting to die in the ring and the depth of his struggles were eyebrow-raising.
And yet, by the time Saturday night turned to Sunday morning, it was Lopez doing a small shuffle in the ring. It was Lopez celebrating as Taylor walked out of it. It was Lopez with all the belts, chanting “Hon-du-ras,” as the crowd at The Theater at Madison Square Garden cleared out.
“Tonight was for me,” Lopez said. “And I like against all odds. I like when I question myself. I do it on purpose. I need the pressure on me because that’s what makes diamonds.
“And tonight, I shined very bright tonight.”
It was here, in New York, his hometown, where Lopez put on a career-changing, question-answering performance. He’d held the nickname “The Takeover” for years at that point, suggesting domination of the sport. For the past two years, all The Takeover represented was the promise of what was and might have been.
Of the consistent questioning by outsiders. By Lopez himself.
“I questioned myself for a good reason,” Lopez said. “You guys don’t understand. I’ve always been my worst critic. And you guys got a little glimpse of it. But I’ve just got to ask you one thing, and one thing only.
“Do I still got it?”
The reference came from his last fight, when he was caught on camera asking his team if he still had it? On Saturday night, in The Theater chanting his name — “Teo, Teo, Teo,” over and over again, round by round, Lopez momentarily answered the question.
This was the Teofimo Lopez the boxing world had waited for, the one they’d seen that magical night almost three years ago against Vasiliy Lomachenko in Las Vegas, where he became the future superstar the boxing world banked on.
Lopez increased his aggression in the fourth round and continued, three-minute increment by three-minute increment. This was the confident, charismatic Lopez, the one looking back in the seventh round after Taylor missed a punch badly in a taunt as if to say, yeah, dude, you’re not beating me tonight. Not here. Not with this crowd. Not with my groove back.
With the bell after the 11th, Lopez raised his arms like he won. Before the 12th, it appeared as if his father, Teofimo Lopez Sr., was telling him “Hands up” to make sure he protected himself and what looked like a clear victory despite two of three scorecards having the fight 115-113 instead of the more realistic 117-111.
Afterward, Lopez was asked if he carried the last two years — all the in-ring concerns and out-of-ring drama — with him? Did Saturday become boxing catharsis?
Lopez said Saturday night was for him. After he won, Lopez — who has been open about his entire life throughout his career — once again shared his pain. A reality so many in this world can empathize with — a career and personal life in flux at age 25. When a lot of his contemporaries are working their way up in their careers, Lopez has been to the top, fallen down and is now finding his way back up again.
In the ring. In life.
“I was with somebody for five years. They gave me a hard time,” Lopez said. “And really screwed me up mentally, but I can’t really express too much because we’re going through the legal and custody purposes right now.
“But that’s my next battle right now. Fighting for my kid.”
Lopez, for 12 rounds Saturday night, put everything he’d been going through aside. What Lopez did for himself against Taylor was a masterpiece, a clinical performance against a long-reigning, well-respected champion.
Lopez said after he might retire. Said it multiple times. Only he knows what he’s dealt with, what he’s dealing with, what’s coming in his personal life.
“I need to take a break,” Lopez said. “I’m tired of everybody bullying me. I’m young. I’m a kid, too, at heart. I think y’all need to go after the Devin Haneys, the Shakurs, the Tyson Furys and all that.”
It’s a curious statement — one we hear all too often in boxing throughout their careers. Especially after they’ve been through in-ring or out-of-ring strife. Maybe Lopez means it. Maybe he doesn’t.
Yet there’s this. He said this at 25, in a situation where the nickname he and his sister, Andrea, came up with and started pushing in 2018, before he was a champion. That nickname has once again become a possible reality.
In 2018, it was the start of something and not the intense, pressure-filled world Lopez’s life has become. But now he can claim it again. He’s a titleholder again. As he reminded with those belts across his waist, a lineal champion again.
The Takeover, after a hiatus to figure things out, may have just proven to be once again restarting.