Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Passing the Baton in Puerto Rico-Maybe

Passing the Baton in Puerto Rico-Maybe By Ted Sares: Names like Ortiz, Torres, De Jesus, Benitez, Gomez, and Vazquez and so many others dot the Puerto Rican boxing landscape, one that is as rich with greatness as any in the world. In recent years, at least three have emerged in keeping with the traditions of this greatness.

Felix “Tito” Trinidad (1990-2008)

There is little doubt that three time champion “Tito” Trinidad will become a member of the Hall. This great KO artist now looks to be retired with a fine slate of 42-3. Before losing to Bernard Hopkins in 2001, he was 40-0. He also made fifteen successful defenses of his welterweight title. With a suspect chin and bricks in his glove, he brought great excitement into the square circle, and in that regard, he was not unlike Edwin “El Chapo“ Rosario (1979-1997)

Miguel “Junito” Cotto (2001-present)

“Junito” has been another in a long line of Puerto Rican warriors who has stormed upon the scene. He participated in one of the great fights of 2008 when he lost to Tony Margarito with his WBA welterweight title at stake. “Junito, one of the great body punchers in the tradition of Jose Torres,” was 32-0 at the time. A win over outmatched but game Michael Jennings was little more than a confidence builder, but his gritty, albeit close, win over Joshua Clottey in June 2009 seemed to have removed “The Ghost of Margarito.”

However, his devastating stoppage loss at the hands of Manny Pacquiao later in 2009 suggests that his reign as a superstar may well be over. After all, one can only sustain so many grueling battles.

Juan Manuel “Juanma” López (2005-present)

“Juanma” is the latest Puerto Rican super sensation having exploded upon the scene with a 26-0 record and a remarkable KO percentage of 92.31. He served notice by icing Giovanni Andrade in one round in 2007 to win the WBO Latino super bantamweight title. In June 2008, he knocked out rugged Daniel Ponce de Leon in the first round by moving in between Ponce wide punches and taking him out with short and crisp shots the power of which were generated by super hand speed. He the did the same with Cesar Figueroa, but this time it only took him 47 seconds to close the show. Two months later, he met Sergio “Rocky” Medina and ended this fight in 1.38 of the first stanza by rocking “Rocky.” In Juanma’s last 5 outings to that point, he went only 8 rounds–which begs the question, was he that good or were his opponents that bad?

On April 26, 2009, Lopez became the first fighter to ever stop Gerry “Fearless” Penalosa in a fight that had the drama of a rising star vs. a battle-tested veteran who has never been stopped let alone decked. Penalosa has been called a “Master Tactician,” but that moniker belonged to the rising star on this exciting night in Bayamon. If Penalosa’s only chance was to get Lopez into the late rounds to test his stamina and mettle, Lopez passed the test with an A.

Setting CompuBox records for power shots landed and punches thrown, Juanma simply overwhelmed the courageous and teak tough Filipino to win the WBO super bantamweight title as the partisan crowd roared its approval throughout. While “Fearless” (now 54-6-2) landed some solid counters and engaged in just enough fierce exchanges to stay in the fight, he was given the worst beat down of his long career. Finally, trainer Freddie Roach had no alternative but to stop the fight between the ninth and tenth stanzas. Indeed, it was painful to watch the old warrior sustain so many blows both to the body and head, but by the same token, he was in against a shooting star of the sport—and only shooting stars land 80 power punches in one round, particularly on someone like Penalosa.

Displaying all-around strength, a solid chin, dazzling hand speed, punishing and heavy-handed combos, superb body work, great stamina, and incredible ring smarts, Juan Manuel Lopez answered any lingering questions as to his growing stature.

However, he was then tested by rugged Roger Mtagwa in a savage outing in October 2009 and barely made it through the last round as he pulled out an MD victory. This thriller raised many an eyebrow as to whether the baton should be handed off to him after all.

The Baton Will Be Passed

Now, his chance for redemption comes on January 23, 2010 when Mexican American Steven Luevano (37-1-1) defends his featherweight title against “Juanma,” who is moving up in weight at Madison Square Garden. This should prove a tough test for Lopez as Luevano is a well-disciplined, methodical and skilled fighter who relies on stiff jabs and a good defense as much as his solid chin and decent to win. He should be able to keep his Puerto Rican foe at a safe distance in the early going, but Juanma will torque things up around the fifth or sixth stanza and will be the first to stop the game but overwhelmed Luevano in the late rounds. And if so, look for the baton to be passed to Juan Manuel Lopez as the next next great Puerto Rican fighter.

But if not, you can rest assured that somewhere on this Island, there is a young fighter ready to step up. Maybe his nickname is “El Chamaco, or “Azuquita” or “El Niño De Hierro,” or even “Rocky,” but make no mistake, he is out there.

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