Teofimo Lopez still remembers the first time boxing broke his heart. Before being crowned the undisputed lightweight world champion, before dismantling one of the sport’s modern greats with searing impudence, he was competing at an amateur boxing tournament in Florida, and he was running. After the result was read aloud, the eight-year-old sprinted out the gym, not physically beaten but psychologically bruised, and the tears streamed uncontrollably down his cheeks. “I started crying because I felt like I’d let my father down,” he says. “I just ran and ran, I didn’t stop. My dad used to call the cops and they’d try and look for me for hours. I was ashamed. But little by little, I learned to take the losses like my wins. A true champion has to learn that. You can’t be a sore loser.”
In keeping with boxing’s rituals, Lopez preaches a lurid brand of trash talk with near-biblical intensity - few, after all, have earned the right so emphatically. But every so often, moments of genuine grief slip from behind that swaggering mask. “I’ve had my heart broken by boxing seven times,” he says. The worst was not the mortification of that first ever defeat, though, but the reaction to his greatest triumph when he dethroned Vasyl Lomachenko last October. “Achieving what I did and have everyone kind of discredit that. That was the biggest.”
Make no mistake, there has been plenty of adulation, too. Lopez’s captivating victory will always be remembered as the night when one of the sport’s divine technicians was stripped of his majesty. Lopez was immediately instated as one of boxing’s pound-for-pound superstars and was named 2020’s fighter of the year. But then, inevitably, boxing’s more lamentable machinations sputtered into life.
First, Lomachenko bizarrely claimed the ringside judges had been bribed and demanded a rematch. Soon afterwards, largely as a result of the governing bodies’ greed and an endless supply of titles, prodigious rivals Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia both began signalling their own claims of supremacy. Throughout his short but staggeringly successful career, Lopez has always become fixated by those slights, a sense of injustice that he sometimes deliberately blows out of proportion, hoarding it as a fire that burns “in the heart” and is then channelled into every punch.
“I’m the king of the division. There’s only one and that’s Teofimo,” Lopez says, raising each of his belts aloft in evidence. “At 23, I did something that’s never been done before in my division. That’s the difference between myself and these other guys. They’re fake champions. [When people discredit me] they don’t realise that’s what motivates me. From the Olympic Games [when Lopez was denied a place on the US team and then lost a controversial decision while representing Honduras], when I was younger in the amateurs, still not being acknowledged as the best. The damage has been done since I was little.”
Sometimes, the hurt has been self-inflicted. One of Lopez’s earliest memories is of training at a local gym with his father and catching his arm on an exposed hook while hitting the punchbag. “I had a big gash, it was so open, and I went up to my dad and he freaked out and took me to the hospital,” he says. “I think I had something like 36 stitches… That was my sacrifice. I gave blood to the sport. I was six years old.”
Largely, though, the “rage” and determination has been inherited. Lopez’s father was born in Brooklyn but spent a large part of his childhood in Honduras. He stole and sold to make ends meet - later serving 11 days in jail on drug charges -and already had a reputation for fighting in the street before his volatile life was tragically upended by the deaths of his parents. Lopez Sr only had one amateur fight, but when his son was born, he transferred his passion for boxing with equal measures of love and fury. “He first put gloves on me when I was two years old,” Lopez says. “My father is very intense, just like every other coach.”
For all Lopez Sr’s pugnacious antics, which are now better recognised in furious denunciations of his son’s opponents, his fierce passion and prowess as a trainer are inarguable. As a young teenager, with minimal outside influence, Lopez won national championships and proved himself as one of boxing’s most valuable prospects. His career has been fast-tracked ever since, but the pursuit of success also bears a toll, and in one memorable televised interview prior to the Lomachenko fight, Lopez broke down when discussing how the relationship with his father had deteriorated.
“It took us a long time to find the balance [between being a father and a coach],” Lopez says now of that rift. “Nothing comes easy when it’s done the right way. Now we’ve understood each other more, we respect each other in a much better way. Sometimes I have to be like the father and talk to him about certain things. A lot of people think we’ll break up eventually, but that will never be the case. He’s a tremendous father and an incredible coach and I think a lot of people need to give him more respect. For everyone out there, he may seem different, he may seem crazy, but he knows what you need to become an undisputed champion.”
For all their bluster, Lopez Sr’s lofty prophecies for his son have almost always been realised. So, perhaps, it is only right that Lopez taps into that same vein when considering what comes next. “Last year, I put my foot on everyone’s necks. This year, I’m choking them,” he says, before bursting into laughter. “What I did with Lomachenko was just a little taste. This is just the beginning. Tyson Fury, I love you. Canelo, te amo. But this is the new generation. Teofimo is taking over and nobody can stop that. We’re going to be the face of boxing.”
And what of the man behind that face, who still remembers every heartbreak? Slowly, Lopez says, the image of that small child running out of the gym will be hidden from view completely. “People don’t need to know [what’s happening behind the mask],” he says. “I am who I am in boxing because I have to be. It's a very dirty sport. When people think you’re soft, they think they can do something. It’s about protection. Whether they like me or not, they’re still going to watch Teofimo.”
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