2020 Fighter of the Year: Teofimo Lopez Jr.
SAN DIEGO, Calif., January 1, 2021 – The year of the pandemic threatened to limit choices for year-end awards to athletes in the ring during the first 10 weeks of 2020. Fortunately, nearly every name on the pound for pound list and those aspiring to join it got into the ring for at least one bout this year.
While it’s harder to pick a 2020 Fighter of the Year from just one bout versus a resume of two or three, it’s not impossible. Given this understanding, it actually turned out to be simple.
He talked the talk, and then he walked the walk. He delivered a sophisticated performance against an opponent many considered the best pound for pound fighter on the planet and a sure first-ballot lock for the Boxing Hall of Fame. And he did it at the age of 23. No question, unified lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez, Jr. of Brooklyn is the 2020 Fighter of the Year.
Boxing purists got everything they hoped to see in the championship fight between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez Jr. in October, but nothing they expected.
Lopez Jr. won without delivering the power-punching beatdown common to his previous fights. Instead, he took a page from the master’s playbook, producing a patient, crafty performance against Lomachenko to become the youngest ever unified champion.
Executing the perfect game plan
Lopez Jr. demonstrated boxing skills and ring IQ most people hadn’t ever given him credit for. It didn’t require a knockout or even a single knockdown for him to dominate a fighter who had made former champions quit in frustration. Lopez Jr. made a believer of any doubters left.
As expected, Lopez Jr. was the busier fighter in the early rounds. He gave Lomachenko a lot to think about. Lopez Jr. showed good speed along with power. Most impressive and counterintuitive, Lopez Jr. was patient. He won rounds without putting himself in danger, mostly by being the busier man in the ring.
After five rounds, Lopez Jr. had thrown 170 punches; Lomachenko only 40. But Lopez Jr. had to know when Lomachenko is still, he is as dangerous as a rattlesnake. When Lomachenko finally began to ramp up the action and gain back rounds, Lopez Jr. stayed composed, remaining patient and efficient. He didn’t swarm Lomachenko, but he never stopped applying pressure. Round after round, the hole grew deeper for the Ukrainian champion. It turned out to be too deep to dig out from.
Lopez Jr. looked as if he could end the fight with a punch, but he didn’t need to. His boxing skills were so disciplined, and on point, he could control the action without much risk. It was Lomachenko who needed to take a risk and stop Lopez Jr. from picking him apart. Defensive caution can’t win a fight. He exchanged with Lopez Jr., and the surprise was seeing Lopez Jr. be smart and fight intelligently, not recklessly. Lomachenko could not score either the knockdowns or stoppage he needed to pull out the victory.
“I‘m a fighter, I got to dig in deep. I know he was coming,” said Lopez Jr. “I can’t give him that chance. I don’t know if they got him up on the cards or not.
Lopez Jr. explained how he was able to win when so many others had fallen short. “Honestly, you just gotta keep pressuring him, keep putting the gas on him. All you got to do is keep sticking the jab, and don’t give him the opportunity set up. Every time he did want to throw, I had something ready for him to stop his momentum.”
The champion’s trainer and father, Teofimo Sr., gets due credit for coming up with the game plan doubters never saw coming. “He did something no one thought he could do. He outboxed him. He gave him a clinic. He took those shots really good, I have to give it to him … he’s never fought a guy like my son. He’s his Kryptonite,” said Lopez Sr.
Big gamble pays off for Lopez Jr., ESPN, and Top Rank
Not only did Lopez Jr. put himself in front of a dangerous opponent, he did it during the pandemic, and he was willing to take the pay cut it took to get the chance. ESPN also took a chance by rolling the dice and putting the fight on free cable TV. According to Nielsen’s rating service, the Lopez vs. Lomachenko fight was watched by an average audience of 2,729,000, peaking at 2,898,000 viewers. When the ESPN app and ESPN+ figures are added, RING Magazine estimated the total number of viewers at 4.2 million, the biggest audience of the year in the U.S. by far. Even LeBron James was watching and impressed by Lopez Jr., tweeting about him.
Imagine the next bout for Lopez on PPV. No one will miss it. Top Rank and ESPN will make up whatever money they lost and then some. Fox and PBC, are you following?
Lopez Jr. now says he’s ready to move up and do the same thing at 140 pounds. “Take me to 140, I can go and get, fight the two-time world champion Devin Haney if they want that. I love messing with everybody. It’s the takeover man, it’s time for the new generation to come up. I’m leading the way. Shakur Stevenson, Edgar Berlanga, Jose Ramirez. So many cats are ready to take over the world.”
It’s a new mindset among the younger stars. They’re ambitious, and they’re unafraid. They aren’t interested in marinated meals like some of their elders. When a fighter of their generation like Lopez Jr. bets on himself and wins, he positively influences others like Stevenson, Ramirez, Berlanga, Ryan Garcia, Gervonta Davis, and Devin Haney. It’s good news in a year when we could all use some good news.
Honorable Mention: Tyson Fury
The runner-up in a close contest is unified heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. In their rematch in February, his dominance over Deontay Wilder shook up the division in the best possible way. The other men in the top tier of the division all stayed active, positioning themselves for a shot at Fury. It’s good for the sport, and it’s even better news for fight fans.
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Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is a veteran boxing observer covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
Please credit “Gayle Falkenthal for Communities Digital News” when quoting from or linking to this story.
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