Juan Manuel Lopez: Once Manny Pacquiao Retires, Is He Boxing's Next Star?

Dave CarlsonCorrespondent INovember 6, 2010

LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 06:  (L-R) Juan Manuel Lopez of Puerto Rico celebrates his first round knockout of Sergio Medina of Argentina during their WBO junior featherweight title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena December 6, 2008 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

You may have noticed that the world of boxing has become the world of Manny Pacquiao.  Looking at any major boxing news site, well over half the articles (this one included) are in one way or another about the Filipino superstar.

There's a reason for that.  Manny Pacquiao is making an almost indisputable claim to being the best boxer in the world (Floyd Mayweather, Jr. can't claim he's the top dog while ducking Pacquiao to fight guys over the age of 36 about once a year). 

Writers like writing about Pacquiao because he is fan friendly, puts together big fights and is without a doubt dominating the boxing news scene right now.  An article with Pacquiao in the title generates about four times as much traffic as a comparable one without.  That is a sign of true dominance.

It also puts the boxing world in a very precarious position.  It has been common knowledge for a while that Pacquiao does not plan to fight much longer.  I think there is no doubt that he would be willing to step into the ring with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. if that increasingly-unlikely fight were to ever be signed, but Pacquiao has accomplished so many extraordinary things in boxing and there isn't a tremendous amount left to fight for. 

He fights Antonio Margarito to go after his eighth divisional boxing title next week, but it's unlikely he can tip the scales much more than that.  He is only 5'6", and for even the staunchest Pacquiao lovers, it's hard to believe he could contend that well at 160 pounds against fighters such as Paul Williams or Sergio Martinez. 

He might be able to handle those fighters at lower divisions, but 160 pounds seems like an extraordinary stretch for someone with a frame the size as Pacquiao's.  The only reason some people don't believe that is because we've gotten used to Manny outdoing our expectations.

Still, it's not likely that Pacquiao will be around for much longer, and given his stature in the sport, this casts a considerable cloud over the future of boxing.  What will happen after Pacquiao retires?


MYTH: Boxing Will Become Extinct Due To MMA's Popularity

This idea is being bandied about among fans of combat sports, but it is simply unrealistic.  The reason it is so popular is because people love predicting the apocalypse.  However, not even Nostradamus could do that, and certainly no casual sports observer can either.

The reason is simple: MMA is simply a different sport.  It is not a replacement for boxing.  Like many people, I am somewhat of a boxing purist, and I would rather watch a boxing match between two lower-level contenders than all but the most significant MMA fight.

By no means am I trying to disparage mixed martial arts as a sport. It is a difficult and impressive sport populated by extraordinary and admirable athletes, and it clearly has a large following.  The complexity of the attacks and counterattacks, and the many styles of fighting make it understandably exciting for many people, even me on occasion. 

Still, MMA isn't boxing, and there's enough room in sports for the two to coexist peacefully.  MMA itself consists of two different components—a hand-to-hand competition similar to boxing, and a competition more akin to wrestling, involving holds and counters. 

There are people who prefer both, but in terms of delivering on the fascinating stand-up aspect of combat, nothing holds a candle to boxing.  As Freddie Roach once said, MMA is an extraordinary sport when they are standing up, but I don't much care to see two guys rolling around on the ground.

So rather than open up this great debate, let's put it to rest as we speculate on the future of the long and storied sport of boxing.


FACT: A New Boxing Star Will Emerge To Follow Pacquiao's Footsteps

Someone will step in to fill Pacquiao's shoes.  It is this fact that allows the ongoing narrative of professional sports to remain fresh and current.  People claimed that basketball would die after the retirement of Michael Jordan, and though it certainly experienced some down time, new stars have arisen to carry on the mantle.

So it is in boxing.  Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Manny Pacquiao. The next great star of boxing is right under our eyes, but hasn't yet made himself known to the world.

Boxing's Next Great Star: A Candidate List and Why Juan Manuel Lopez Could Be It

There was a time not too long ago when Manny Pacquaio was a talented and impressive fighter who was under the radar of all but the most serious fight fans.  Boxing's next great star probably is following a similar path, although there could be some exceptions.

One possibility is Floyd Mayweather, Jr. The case for him is obvious and argued constantly.  He is one of the top two fighters in the world, has never lost and usually fights top quality opposition (although much more rarely lately).  However, Mayweather will again become boxing's next huge star only if he steps into the ring and defeats Pacquiao. 

He is kind of like boxing's version of Allen Iverson: undersized and immensely talented, but with an attitude that simply doesn't align with being the top dog (or 800-lb gorilla, for that matter) in the sport.  If Pacquiao's retirement happens in the absence of a conclusive victory for Mayweather, then Mayweather will not become the most popular man in boxing.

Two other potential options are Paul Williams and Sergio Martinez.  Both of them are already among boxing's most-talked-about stars, have handsome looks and a crowd-pleasing personality.  Both can also speak English (in Martinez's case, it is not his primary language, but he can speak it at a functional level and has an alluring Spanish accent that shouldn't hurt his popularity any more than De La Hoya's hurt him). 

Both of these boxers have a major drawback though.  Firstly, one of them will lose to the other in the near future, and if it's Martinez, he will probably be out of the picture unless he is robbed of a victory.  Martinez is also 35 years old, which is old for any division except heavyweight, so it's unclear how much he has left.  He's obviously well-conditioned, but the odds are against him becoming the next great worldwide boxing phenomenon.

Williams, on the other hand, has that potential, but may not have the star power for it.  He is no doubt charming and likable, but it's tough to say whether he has what it takes to be a crossover star in the sport.  He hasn't proven the ability to draw big money, and sometimes his work on the microphone leaves a bit to be desired.  Still, he has to be considered as a very strong possibility to follow Pacquiao.  It could go either way.

England's David Haye is another compelling option.  He's a cool, cocky, good-looking guy and fights in the heavyweight division, which was once boxing's marquee division.  Haye is frequently cited as the guy who can breathe new life into his division, but that is only if he can get past a Klitschko at least once.  Given that few people think he can, and given his reluctance to step into the ring with either of them, it's hard to feel comfortable putting good money on Haye's chances.

There are other options: America's Timothy Bradley, Devon Alexander and Andre Ward are the most prominent of them, and England's Amir Khan (who is also a Freddie Roach-trained fighter and Pacquiao's current sparring partner) is another viable option.  However, one loss would seriously expose any of these fighters except Khan, whose meteoric rise has already been somewhat stifled by a loss to Breidis Prescott last year.

The next boxer to carry on the mantle could be any of these fighters, or a relative unknown like Canada's David Lemieux, but there is one fighter who arguably has a greater likelihood than anyone else of being boxing's next big star.


Why Puerto Rico's Juan Manuel Lopez Could be The One

Many boxing fans already know Lopez.  He is one of the most talked-about young fighters and has stunning knockout power with both hands.  He fought on the undercard of the De La Hoya-Pacquiao fight, and he fights Mexican legend Rafael Marquez tonight on Showtime in what some (myself included) are pegging as a potential fight of the year.  In the event that Lopez (who is the favorite) wins convincingly tonight, he could find himself on the brink of stardom.

He has unquestionable charisma and, like Pacquiao, is a national hero.  In his last fight, against a game but overmatched Bernabe Concepcion, the two fighters wore pink and white trunks and boxed with pink gloves, which they later auctioned off to raise money for breast cancer research.  Lopez, who came up with the idea, doesn't even know any breast cancer victims, but decided it was the right thing to do.  It's actions like that which confirm his likability and star power in the eyes of many observers. 

So why isn't "Juanma" already boxing's hottest rising star?  Well, he does have some legitimate drawbacks.  For one, he is still very much viewed as a prospect.  Though he hasn't lost, and has won most of his fights by knockout, he has also tasted canvas several times in his career, including in the first round of his last fight against Concepcion (who he ended up knocking out a round later). 

These defensive liabilities make him a bit rough around the edges and keep people from really getting behind him as the heir apparent to Pacquiao's throne.

He also doesn't speak much English, but neither did Pacquiao when he was a rising star.

I could be wrong, but Lopez has all the tools necessary to be boxing's next crossover success, who steps across the line between boxing fans and the rest of the sporting world.  His defensive liabilities are things that can be worked on, and they almost have a blessing in disguise in that he oftentimes looks fallible, which makes for exciting fights. 

The defensive woes don't appear to belie a weak chin (which Khan has often been suspected as having), but rather some technical skills that need to be refined.  His knockdown against Concepcion wasn't anything other than an off-balance fighter who had over-committed to knocking out his opponent after some early knockdowns.  This is something that he can learn from, if he hasn't already.

Beyond that, Juanma has what it takes.  He is already becoming a national hero on the level of Hector Camacho in Puerto Rico, and is well-liked by nearly all ring observers.  The fact that he has found so much success while still being considered an "unfinished product" speaks to his extraordinary potential as a fighter.

He approaches the biggest test thus far in his career tonight on Showtime against grizzled Mexican veteran Rafael Marquez (a fight that Bleacher Report columnist King J is covering live from the MGM Grand).  If Juanma can get by Marquez convincingly, as many boxing fans think he can, then he could find himself on the brink of international boxing superstardom.