There were two chances Teofimo Lopez had to meet one of his favorite artists and he’s still kicking himself for blowing both of them.

As the Brooklyn-bred boxer’s profile has risen, especially after winning his first world title last December at Madison Square Garden, so have the perks of being a professional athlete in the Big Apple. Like courtside seats for Knicks games.

“MSG, that’s my home so they always give me tickets and there were these two times I said no and those two times he was there and I was like, ‘Fuck,’” says Lopez. 

Soon enough J. Cole could lament missing out on meeting Lopez because the IBF lightweight champion of the world, with a sledgehammer for a right hand and a future potentially as bright as any young fighter in the game, is on the cusp of attaining boxing superstardom this weekend. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the charismatic Lopez—known for showboating in the ring after dominant performances—he’s entering the biggest fight of his life, and the best one of 2020 (coverage starts 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN) with a ton at stake. Beat Vasiliy Lomachenko—our No. 2 pound-for-pound best boxer—to become the unified lightweight champ and he turns one of the sport’s best divisions on its head, instantly becomes the top young draw in boxing, and starts commanding the kind of heavy paydays few professional fighters will ever see.

No pressure or nuthin’. The task awaiting the 23-year-old that stands at 5’8”, and will slim down to 135 pounds for Friday afternoon’s weigh-in after sporting a much heavier frame during quarantine, will be his most difficult yet. Lomachenko has one of the most celebrated resumes in modern boxing history—two-time Olympic gold medalist, awesome amateur career, title-holder after his third professional fight, and three-division champion. Inarguably one of the best athletes in the ring today, Lomachenko surgically dismantles opponents and has looked practically invincible since his only loss in his second professional fight in 2014.  

As if that fazes Lopez, a quintessential tough-talking New Yorker, one bit.

“I’ve got the biggest balls in the game,” he says.

Lopez absolutely deserves props for manifesting this matchup since he’s been talking about a showdown with Lomachenko for years—much to the consternation of Lomachenko. Lopez has long been hot on the champ’s trail and started demanding a fight with “Divachenko”—one of the many taunts Lopez has lobbed Loma’s way—right after his father and trainer, Teofimo Lopez Sr., reportedly confronted Lomachenko in a NYC hotel in 2018. According to Sports Illustrated, the elder Lopez told Loma his son would, essentially, fuck up Lomachenko in the ring and soon dominate the sport.

"As you grow into this industry that we’re in—whether it’s rapping or sports—what I realized from him as I’ve seen how he progressed, I understand the kind of life I wanted and just the fact what it means to really have it all.” — Lopez on J. Cole

Nearly two years later, Lopez has earned his shot by establishing himself as one of the most entertaining and talented young boxers thanks to his devastating power. But he’s still a work in progress and many will knock Lopez (15-0, 12 KOs) for being a big puncher rather than a complete boxer like the 32-year-old Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KOs).

He’ll call bullshit on that and then flip the script ask what makes Lomachenko so special? The lead up to the fight has featured a ton of verbal jabs from Lopez ranging from the comical (“Divachenko”) to something more sinister (he told Boxing Insider, “I just think that he is a conniving son of a bitch.”) Is there really bad blood or is Lopez just promoting the fight? 

“When it comes to Lomachenko, it really comes down to the fact I don’t like the guy personally,” says Lopez. “I have my reason why. And for that reason, I’m looking forward to this fight.” 

Real or manufactured hate, we do know that Lomachenko long ago grew tired of hearing Lopez’s name. Back in 2018 and 2019, it seemed like every time the WBA, WBO, and WBC franchise lightweight champion was asked about a future fight with Lopez an eye roll soon followed.  

“Teofimo Lopez is not a name. Why do a lot of people talk about Teofimo Lopez, because he said a couple of stupid things about me?” Lomachenko told Complex Sports in April of 2019. “That’s why people know about him. But he’s never fought with the top fighters. That’s why I don’t like trash talking.” 

Lopez officially became a name, world champion, and Lomachenko’s next opponent after a vicious knockout of Richard Commey this past December. Originally scheduled to take place in May at MSG, the pandemic delayed their lightweight unification bout five months and forced a change of venue—they’ll fight in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in a bubble-like environment for division supremacy. The delay allowed Lopez to relentlessly tee off on Loma.

Teofimo Lopez Backflip 2018
Image via Getty/Alex Menendez

When asked if the insults have crossed the line, Lomachenko is emphatic. “Absolutely not,” he says. But there’s a bit of a language barrier between the two fighters since Lomachenko’s still trying to fully grasp English even though he acknowledges the rhetoric wouldn’t fly in his native Ukraine.   

“Here in the States, there’s completely different laws,” says Lomachenko, who will be noticeably smaller in the ring than Lopez. “Back home, people aren’t running their mouth like this because they know they’ll have to answer somehow.”

They also don’t have a reputation for being such a showman in the ring after every victory. The backlips and other hilarious antics—like imitating LeBron James’s press down celebration or doing the Fortnite dance or rocking the jerseys of the past two Heisman Trophy winners since he’s fought on two straight Heisman nights—have become as much of a Lopez signature as his power punches. Know he always has something spectacular planned when the fight’s over.

“It just comes into my train of thought—what can I do next to either shock the world or just put myself out there even more,” says Lopez. 

Boxing fans in other sports have taken notice, like Blazers superstar Damian Lillard. Watching the point guard author another one of his crazy performances that dragged the Blazers to the playoffs in the NBA bubble this summer, Lopez tweeted out a gif of Dame mouthing “I do this shit.” Lopez wanted his 34,000 followers to know he was going to channel that same energy against Lomachenko two months later. About an hour and a half later, Lillard retweeted it and said “You know who I’m rolling wit!!” Lopez still thinks it’s crazy he’s got Lillard on his side.

“With Dame, man, that’s huge. It’s bigger than me,” says Lopez. “That’s what I can say. I got his number, too, so that’s cool.” And soon enough he’ll hopefully get to meet J. Cole and chop it up with the rapper often seen courtside for Knicks games.

It’s kind of ironic the brash Lopez considers Cole one of his favorite artists simply because Cole has largely eschewed the shit-talking and braggadocio culture of hip-hop. But there are similarities between the two, namely in how Lopez usually dresses—not a whole hell of a lot different from the low-key Cole’s usual get-up of athleisure and Jordans—and how appreciative he is of what he already has at such a young age. That’s why if you check out Lopez’s Instagram, you’ll find more posts featuring his family and adventures than jewelry and expensive sports cars. You’ll also see a recent post featuring an old interview of Cole proclaiming he’ll never let success and stardom screw up what matters most. 

“I’d like to pick his brain on some things,” says Lopez. “As you grow into this industry that we’re in—whether it’s rapping or sports—what I realized from him as I’ve seen how he progressed, I understand the kind of life I wanted and just the fact what it means to really have it all.”

It should come as little surprise that “Love Yourz” resonates heavily with Lopez. If you’re a J. Cole fan then you know the single from “2014 Forest Hills Drive.” If you’re not, Cole spends 3:32 rhyming about the emptiness of chasing clout and wealth at the expense of what really matters. 

Despite his age, Lopez sees the beauty in the struggle and the ugliness in success. Forget having money minus the happiness or going through the hard times without his people. He’s about family, faith, the gym, cement hands, and a sharp tongue, aka the perfect combination he believes pays off in a big way on his big day.

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