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‘I could kill a guy and get away with it’: Teofimo Lopez and his concerning path through boxing

Teofimo Lopez has become an increasingly divisive figure in boxing in recent years  (Getty Images)
Teofimo Lopez has become an increasingly divisive figure in boxing in recent years (Getty Images)

All that was visible of Teofimo Lopez was his left sleeve, the white of his jumper beaming in the dark. The orange flash of a street lamp splashed through the car, where the boxer reclined in the backseat. He leaned forward, easing his body out of the shadows. His face, however, remained obscured by the rear-view mirror. “One thing I love about my sport: I could kill a guy and get away with it.”

In the driver’s seat, Lopez Sr whipped his gaze from the road to his phone screen. His face cracked into a cackle. “You gotta edit that one!” he laughed, somewhat uneasily, aiming the request at Eddie Gomez on the other end of the call – on the other side of the split-screen. Gomez, best known as the host of Punsh Drunk Boxing, howled a laugh back down the line.

“No, you can’t edit that,” came the call from the backseat, street lamps now strobing against the shadows.

“Don’t edit that.”

It was on 17 October 2020 that Teofimo Lopez became a unified world champion. In the depths of lockdown, in a hollow hall inside MGM Grand Arena, in front of a lean crew of nameless masks, the American launched an oppressive offensive against Vasiliy Lomachenko. That offence was in fact suppressed as the fight wore on, but at the end of 12 rounds – having thrown 659 punches to the Ukrainian’s 321, and having just survived a foreboding comeback – Lopez would leave Las Vegas with Lomachenko’s titles, adding them to the one he had brought with him.

The result, a unanimous decision, surprised many. It surprised those who had predicted a customary win for a generational great; it surprised those who had witnessed Lomachenko fight back from the brink to threaten Lopez’s early lead. It did not, however, surprise either Teofimo Lopez in the building. The Brooklyn-born, 26-year-old Lopez – 23 at the time – had never doubted the outcome. Nor had his father. The pair have long walked a thin, fragile line between confidence and delusion, but Lopez Jr had never been beaten and they could not entertain the notion that any fighter would change that fact; not even Lomachenko.

As his father hoisted him aloft, a tearful Lopez Jr preached to a near-empty room that the result had been inevitable, even from his days as an Olympian representing Honduras in 2016. The fight was close, but for Lopez it was career-making.

The problem for the American was that his next fight was equally close, but career-making for George Kambosos Jr. Lopez had touched the mat in round two, a shotgun right hand collapsing the champion to the canvas. Kambosos Jr, too, was forced to climb off the mat before all was said and done, toppled off balance and off his feet in round 10. But it was the Australian who would have the world titles to show for his sacrifices across 36 minutes. What did Lopez have to show? Little more than bruises stamped over his eyes, highlighted by smeary circles of blood. Incredulous, the American began his celebrations anyway.

Lopez and George Kambosos Jr after their title fight in 2021 (Getty Images)
Lopez and George Kambosos Jr after their title fight in 2021 (Getty Images)

Somewhere inside, however, Lopez recognised that changes had to be made, even if he would never admit as much in words. And so the “Takeover”, beginning a fresh bid to become world champion, underwent a makeover.

***

Returning at 140lbs, kickstarting a pursuit of super-lightweight gold, Lopez took on Pedro Campa in August 2022. Lopez had won every round on each judge’s scorecard when, in round seven, he quite literally danced into range. Bullying Campa with hooks and uppercuts as the Mexican offered few signs of response or escape, Lopez forced the stoppage. The simple vein of victory was a welcome one for Lopez after his back-to-back, brutal battles with Lomachenko and Kambosos.

The simplicity of such a win was short-lived, however, with his next bout proving surprisingly challenging and ushering in a concerning phase in Lopez’s still-young career. Sandor Martin, stepping in on short notice in December 2022, fought through a broken nose – brought on by a clash of heads in the very first round – to drop Lopez twice, only to watch the win elude him in a moment of cliched boxing injustice. That was how most observers saw it, ESPN’s commentary team included. It was not, of course, how Lopez saw it, even though he was heard asking his team after the bout: “Bro, do I still have it, man? Do I still got it?”

Later, speaking to Punsh Drunk Boxing from the back of a car, moments after relishing in the thought that he might kill a man in the ring someday, Lopez said: “At the fighter meeting [before the bout], I dissed [analysts] Andre Ward and Timothy Bradley in front of ESPN’s production. [I dissed] all of them for all their affiliation and corruption that they do. And what happened? When I slipped with the first knockdown they called, what did Bradley say right away? ‘He’s hurt, he’s hurt.’”

Lopez won a controversial decision against Sandor Martin in December 2022 (Getty Images)
Lopez won a controversial decision against Sandor Martin in December 2022 (Getty Images)

With residual resentment coursing through him, Lopez looked ahead to his next fight, June 2023’s clash with WBO champion Josh Taylora man who has courted a few controversies in his time. “This is my last fight on ESPN,” Lopez said of his bout with the Scot. “This is why this fight means everything.

“If they want the black fighters, they can keep them.”

According to Lopez Sr, his son’s comment – which was cut from the interview but not before viewers had shared it on Twitter – was not racially motivated. Lopez Jr, for his part, has claimed that his words are often twisted. “I don’t apologise for any of the stuff that I say. If you ever take it wrong, then that’s on you, because I never take it to that extreme. I just speak a certain kind of way, strategically, on one specific thing. Others will turn my words and switch it around, and do what they gotta do to play with it.”

Perhaps, though, the words are simply twisted in essence. There is an irony to Lopez claiming that they are taken out of context while saying plainly: “I said it like it is. I want to kill Josh Taylor.”

Again speaking to Punsh Drunk Boxing, who were arguably enabling him by this point, Lopez said: “This is a kill-or-be-killed sport. I mean, someone [Kenneth Egano] just passed away; 6 May, a kid, 22 years old, passed away. [Still], I said it like it is: I want to kill Josh Taylor.

Lopez during his decision win over Josh Taylor at Madison Square Garden’s Theater (AP)
Lopez during his decision win over Josh Taylor at Madison Square Garden’s Theater (AP)

“What the f*** does that mean? People are like, ‘Well, let’s get back to boxing.’ I’m like, ‘That is boxing.’ This is what we sign up for. You’re gonna probably lose your life. If I’m gonna die in that ring, at least I died for something bigger than me and some integrity. I went out there like a warrior. Boxing is that, it’s: ‘You’re gonna die – maybe. You may die.’”

As much as Lopez sought to add a noble sheen to these sentiments, they were troubling words – enough so to suggest that he might be a troubled young man. He is, of course, just that: young, with time to learn. Yet he is already a father, and so far, he has been surrounded by people who have seemed content to watch him – and help him – sabotage himself.

In the ring, however, there was little to criticise when Lopez produced a stunningly dominant performance to outpoint and dethrone Taylor, a former undisputed champion who was forced to watch his final world title slip away with every passing round. Just like that, Lopez had elevated his legacy in becoming a two-weight world champion.

But just like that, the wax-and-wane cycle continued in February as he barely edged past Jamaine Ortiz in his first title defence, winning another controversial decision and leaving the Las Vegas arena to the sound of boos. Unsurprisingly, Lopez slated the crowd and bizarrely blamed his uninspiring performance on Ortiz. “I tried my best for the people. I even tried to box going backwards, and he didn’t want to commit,” Lopez said. “We cannot for one second claim these people, these fighters that don’t wanna come and fight, [are real fighters]. If you ain’t ready for this life, get the f*** out of my sport.

Lopez raises the WBO super-lightweight title after retaining the belt against Jamaine Ortiz (Getty Images)
Lopez raises the WBO super-lightweight title after retaining the belt against Jamaine Ortiz (Getty Images)

“I’m gonna be real with you guys, [my performance was] 10/10. I did everything that I could do, I hit him with the shots I needed to hit him with. I was waiting for him to do his thing, and he didn’t wanna compete.”

Then, Lopez doubled down on his calls for a clash with pound-for-pound great Terence Crawford. Such a showdown could be theatre. With Lopez involved, it might feel more like a circus.

Teofimo Lopez has at times trodden a disturbing path through boxing. The hope is that his next step will be one of maturation – as a boxer, yes, but more importantly as a man.

N.B. Article first published in June 2023 and updated in February 2024