Truthfully, the top lightweight in the world long ago outgrew one of the deepest divisions in boxing, where a ton of awesome fights could’ve, and should’ve, been made by now.
Just don’t blame Teófimo López, the unified lightweight champion who rose to stardom after an impressive victory over pound-for-pound great Vasiliy Lomachenko last October, for depriving boxing fans of a marquee matchup between him and WBC lightweight champ Devin Haney. Or López vs. box office star Gervonta Davis. Or Lopez vs. the talented but troubled Ryan Garcia.
Blame boxing’s putrid politics, or a few specific characters all you want. But López maintains he’s the one who is being ducked, and it’s increasingly looking like a fight between him and any of the other top lightweights sadly won’t go down at 135 pounds.
“They all had the chance to step up to the plate, and not one of them stepped up to the plate,” says López (16-0, 12 KOs). “So I’ve been sitting here for a whole year and no one has presented me with anything. One-forty is what I’m looking forward to doing, and if anyone has a problem with that, OK.”
When you own three of the division’s four belts—the IBF, WBA, and WBO lightweight titles—and have the best résumé out of all the young stars at 135 pounds, you can talk tough without any blowback. López wishes his return to the ring was with one of the aforementioned bold-faced names. He would relish another challenge to further cement his status as the best fighter under 25. Instead, López’s long-awaited return is against undefeated Australian challenger George Kambosos, Jr. (19-0, 10 KOs) in a fight that could easily serve as “The Takeover’s” springboard to 140 pounds.
If Haney, Davis, and Garcia really want a shot at López, a native of Brooklyn, that’s where they’ll have to meet him in the future. Same goes for Lomachenko, as many fans of the sport clamor for a rematch between the soft-spoken Ukrainian southpaw and braggadocious native New Yorker.
“The only way if people want to see a rematch, he’s gotta meet me at 140,” says Lopez. “I beat him fairly. So if you guys want to see it, you have to give me something. So meet me at 140.”
But he’s gotta take care of Kambosos first (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, DAZN). And after a long road to get to fight night—which included numerous venue changes, promotional shenanigans, and cases of COVID that delayed this bout for months—López couldn’t be more hyped to be back fighting at Madison Square Garden. Six of his 16 professional fights have come at MSG, and all have ended via KO. Six days after he welcomed his son into the world, we caught up with the 24-year-old López via Zoom to talk about Saturday’s showdown, what it was like taking a body shot from Hafthor Bjornsson of Game of Thrones fame, why he feels the top fighters at 135 have ducked him, and why a rematch with Lomachenko has to happen at 140 pounds.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Still sticking with your Round 1 knockout prediction for Saturday?
I just feel like I’m on a whole ’nother level. I don’t think anybody at this point can last with me. And it’s been showing in my training. If it’s been showing in my sparring, I don’t see it changing come fight night with 8-ounce gloves. You know me with 8 oz. gloves.
Kambosos says he wants a war with you. Why is that a bad idea?
Everyone wants a war with Teófimo until they get punched by me. Then they step back and say, “Whoa. OK, I gotta change my plan.” Lomachenko had to feel that. Especially toward the late rounds, toward the championship rounds, once he started getting active. I said, “OK, now we have a fight.” It’s just things like that. Kambosos can say whatever he wants. If that’s the fight that he wants, we’re prepared for everything—from inside work, from in the pocket, to outside, to sides, and also boxing. In case this guy is too aggressive, and chasing me, we’ve got something for that, too.
“I just wish that the fighters could understand that you cannot make $100 million if you’re not fighting the top guys in your division. The only way you do that is by taking a chance. I had to take that, so if I had to take that, why shouldn’t they?”
This has been a long road to fight night. Do you feel a sense of relief? Is the frustration gone? Give me a sense of how crazy this episode was.
It’s a miracle right now. The Miracle on 33rd. [Laughs.] But it’s realizing that, hey, the sport didn’t get better. It got worse, business-wise. I don’t think it gets better than where it is right now. It’s just learning those things, especially at this young age that I’m at. I still have a lot of potential, so it’s all about how I move from it and just staying positive through it all. That was a big, big factor in all this, throughout the pandemic, COVID, postponement after postponement. How do I keep myself in good spirits? I figured that out throughout this whole time and I’m thankful for that. It’s a huge relief to finally be fighting in a couple of days at the Garden. What better way than to bring all my belts back? Back home. New York. Brooklyn. Madison Square Garden. New York, New York. We’re just going to put on a show for everybody. Seven-one-eight, all my people that love and support me always.
Is this your final fight at 135?
It could be. I feel like at this point my body is ready to go up to 140. It’s been ready for a long time. The reason I’m still at 135 is because of my mental. My mental state is like, “No, we can keep going. You got this. Let’s try and shut everybody up.” But I realize I’m the king of the crop. So if they want to fight me, meet me at 140. They all had the chance to step up to the plate, and not one of them stepped up to the plate. So I’ve been sitting here for a whole year and no one has presented me with anything. One-forty is what I’m looking forward to doing, and if anyone has a problem with that, OK.
Obviously, we ask because the best, some of the most intriguing fights in boxing can arguably be made at lightweight, and we all hope you guys—I’m talking Devin Haney, Gervonta Davis, Ryan Garcia—can eventually fight each other. It’s frustrating for us as fans and observers that those fights aren’t happening, and maybe won’t happen. What’s your frustration level?
That I gotta maintain 135 for it. That’s the only frustration, because my body’s like, “Bro.” When people see me, they’re like, “Bro, how do you make 35.” I’m getting bigger, getting stronger. I’m maturing more as a man. We don’t stop growing until, what, 25 or 26? You get what I’m saying? Those are the things that come to play when it comes to these guys not wanting to step up or fight me. It’s like, OK, I’m staying at this weight so I can make these fights happen with you guys. Why are we not taking it?
For my money, the “Email Champion” nickname you gave Devin Haney is one of the funnier lines in boxing in recent memory. Who gets credit for that: you or your father?
Me right here, baby. My father, we take over. We’re dynamic. I just want to clear it up: how can a fighter become a world champion without actually fighting in the ring? It’s like in the NBA Finals and they win a game without winning the game and they get a trophy. For these [points to his championship belts], I had to fight for these. What the hell did he, Email Champion, fight for? That’s why we call him Email Champion, because you got the world championship title via email that was sent to you. When he went to defend it, he fought a guy that was 56th-ranked in boxing. How are you a world champion fighting guys that are not in the top 50?
I hope you and Devin finally fight. Boxing needs to see it.
I’m hoping for it. It needs to happen. These guys are just focused more on—I get it—the money part of it. But it’s like, how are you going to pass up on this?