Felix Trinidad was the latest in a long line of Puerto Rican boxers who became icons. Some think young Juan Manuel Lopez can be just as popular as Trinidad, and one of them is Tito's father and trainer Felix Sr.
Since Trinidad "retired" from the ring in 2005, Puerto Ricans have been yearning for someone to come along and excite them the way Tito did. For a while Miguel Cotto looked like he might fill the bill, but despite becoming highly popular and winning titles in two weight divisions, he has fallen short of icon status. Now along comes Lopez, an exciting 25-year-old southpaw with insane power and consummate boxing skills. Lopez has won all 24 of his fights, 22 by KO, and his all-action style and effervescent personality make "Juanma" a prime candidate to equal, if not surpass Trinidad in both popularity and accomplishments. Can he do it?
"There are many factors that come into play and have to be considered when it comes to reaching the popularity level that Tito reached on the island and abroad," Papa Tito said through translator Luis Cadiz. "Without going into comparative play between Juanma, Cotto and Tito, if anyone has the potential to reach such status, it's Juanma."
Lopez's promoter Bob Arum feels the reason for Lopez's growing popularity is that he has the best qualities of both Trinidad and Cotto. "He's like Cotto in that he comes across very serious," Arum says. "Cotto is sort of dour, however, because he's a relatively private person. But even though his personality is not bubbly, Cotto is able to talk to the press and make intelligent statements that the media can run with. With Trinidad he was a tremendously bubbly person. Whether he wasn't very bright -- which I have always suspected -- he just wasn't able to say anything that the press could say, 'Wow, what a great statement.' Lopez is bubbly and can talk to the press very intelligently. He's the whole package."
Arum went as far as to compare the 2004 Puerto Rican Olympian to one of the island's greatest and most popular fighters, Hall of Famer Wilfredo Gomez. "He reminds me of Gomez in that he has the same quick hands and really dynamic punching power. What makes Lopez's power so great is he can see openings quicker than virtually any other fighter. Yet Juan Manuel is an accomplished boxer with a very good amateur background (126-24)."
Gomez's big ticket was his phenomenal knockout power. At one point in his career, Gomez stopped 32 straight opponents, and 42 of his 44 career victories came by way of knockout. Lopez has punched his ticket in similar fashion. He has not had to go the distance in almost three years, and has stopped his last 12 opponents. Remarkably, as the quality of Lopez's opponents has gone up, Lopez has been even more devastating. Starting with his stunning first round knockout of then super bantamweight champion Daniel Ponce de Leon last year, Lopez has put away his last three opponents in first round blitzes.
If there's been one thing Lopez has yet to demonstrate, it's the ability to go to the body. But both Papa Tito and Arum chalk that up to the ease in which Lopez can knock people out by simply headhunting. "I know Juanma can box," Papa Tito says. "But since his fights have been short-lived, people haven't appreciated his boxing talent. But he has skills. As his competition level increases, Juanma will channel his boxing resources, demonstrating to everyone that he can be a boxer and not just a puncher."
Arum agrees it is only a matter of time before Lopez will let it all hang out. "People don't realize he is a master boxer because he has such great punching power, but when he moves up to featherweight it will not be as easy for him to get a quick knockout, so you'll see him work the body more."
"People don't realize he is a master boxer because he has such great punching power, but when he moves up to featherweight it will not be as easy for him to get a quick knockout, so you'll see him work the body more." -- Bob Arum
Going to the body is something Lopez likely will have to do when he defends his title on April 25 against wily veteran and former champion Gerry Penalosa (54-6-2), who in 62 career fights has never been knocked out. Penalosa has a vast edge in experience, having fought 444 rounds to just 79 for Lopez. The Filipino has also gone 10 rounds or more 20 times, compared to just once for Lopez. Despite that disparity, Lopez says he has been in training for this fight since January and is prepared to go the distance. "I'm ready for twelve rounds," Lopez told Prima Hora. "(But) I hope to be finished quickly. I know I have the ability to stop Penalosa. If he gets hit with my right hook, the fight will be finished before the 12th round."
That hook was a show stopper in Lopez's last fight against Sergio Manuel Medina. Lopez put Medina down three times in the first round, and each time it was a right hook that sent the fighter sprawling to the canvas.
What makes Lopez even more appealing to his fans is the way he lives his life outside the ring. "Juanma is a very social person," Papa Tito says. "He's a family man, good father and son and good husband. Based on my personal experience, and what I read and see in the media, he's a people person."
Of those people, the ones most important to Lopez are his family. When he travels he does not have a large entourage with him like some boxers. "If he goes to a fight," Arum says, "you only see him with two people. He takes his wife (Barbara De Jesus) and his mother. He goes everywhere with them, and there isn't a trace of any kind of scandal or drinking."
Sound too good to be true? Perhaps. But if Lopez lives up to his press clippings, in years to come Puerto Ricans will be yearning for the next Juanma.