Teófimo López has the kind of swagger that makes you believe he can do anything he wants, even when he’s staring down a confrontation with the best boxer in the world. On Saturday night, the fight that the 23-year-old López and his trainer/father have been talking about and thinking about since he was an undercard prospect two years ago finally comes to television. The kid from Brooklyn will try to make good on a mountain of trash talk and move the immovable object at the top of the lightweight division.
On ESPN—not a streaming service or pay-per-view but the country’s honest-to-god default sports station—the 15-0 López will fight Vasiliy Lomachenko, whose accolades as a two-time Olympic gold medalist and dominant pro loom large over the up-and-comer who’s nine years his junior. Loma, a Ukrainian supercomputer that’s been programmed to box, has spent two years and counting at the top of the Lightweight division and is, by most estimates, pound-for-pound one of the two top fighters today. But thanks to López’s mouth, his charisma, and his undeniable talent, this will be Loma’s most anticipated bout yet.
Boxing, being a sport where talent in itself doesn’t necessarily get you the big-money championship fights, is no stranger to guys with transparent marketing gimmicks, and perhaps López could have been lumped in with those try-hards in the early part of his career. On his rise to fame—which he dubbed “The Takeover”—López seemingly tried to go viral whenever he got on TV. He would do dances from Fortnite after winning, wear the jerseys of Heisman Trophy winners in the ring, and regularly put himself in the company of fighters whose status he had not yet earned. As early as February 2019, he was actively putting down Lomachenko with absurd confidence, and for over a year-and-a-half now he’s been calling Loma names like “diva” and “bitch” while proclaiming his own supremacy.
“I feel like (Lomachenko) does the same thing over and over again when it comes to footwork, moving to the same side,” he told Max Kellerman on ESPN2 long before this fight was made. “There’s three or four ways to beat Lomachenko. … But I can’t say.”
López’s dad, Teófimo Sr., also found a place as a sort of LaVar Ball figure in the boxing world. Though he had little prior experience with the sport, López Sr. taught himself the ins and outs of boxing with the help of YouTube as the son he trained climbed through the amateur ranks. And when López Jr. entered the national spotlight, his father carried with him a kind of nouveau riche attitude that helped lead to this weekend’s battle. In a 2019 ESPN profile, López Sr. told the story of a confrontation with Lomachenko a few days before the two fighters would share a card in New York in late 2018.
“How you doing, Lomachenko?” Senior said, offering his hand. He probably had a few drinks.
Lomachenko just gave him a look.
Real or imagined, drunk or not, Senior knew exactly what that look meant to him.
Who the f— are you?
I’m better than you.
Your son is not at my level.
Now came the rage, from the deepest, most damaged part of himself. Senior started screaming, cursing, frothing, making a scene.
“Yo, you ain’t gonna do nothing. We coming for you. F— you! Come Saturday we’re gonna steal the show!”
Dismissing López Jr. as simply the product of a hype machine trying to manufacture a mainstream boxer might have been a valid beef at the onset of “The Takeover.” But the most crucial ingredient to the kid’s popularity cannot be faked: he wins fights and he does so spectacularly, pulverizing veteran stepping-stone boxers gleefully and with ease. After Teófimo Sr.’s proclamations in New York, for instance, Junior went out and crushed Mason Menard in just 44 seconds, making his opponent slowly crumble to the canvas in a way that’d be almost comical if one wasn’t so worried about his health. Then, after the job was finished, he danced and flipped.
Lomachenko, on the other hand, does not have the kind of talk-show personality that would create big PPV receipts. He’s never even headlined a high-profile Vegas fight until now. López says he sees himself as an entertainer, but Loma has all the vibes of a professional assassin, one who strikes more fear in opponents and more awe in audiences with each successive achievement. While he’s been known to get stylish on occasion (mainly in his younger days), and is no stranger to backflips himself, Loma is a serious craftsman, someone who’s honed his skills and earned the nickname “Hi-Tech” through hundreds of amateur matches (where he had a record of 396-1, getting revenge for that one loss multiple times) before finally turning pro at the age of 25.
His record since then is oddly imperfect, thanks to a controversial split decision loss from when he tried to win a world championship in just his second fight. But in the ensuing six years, it’s been 13 straight victories as Loma’s established his reputation as a Terminator who can identify any fighter’s weaknesses, then attack them with terrifying brutality. In his final four defenses of the Jr. Lightweight title before moving up to his current division, Loma not only won, but forced all of his challengers to quit on their stool between rounds. Resilient opponents and a couple of injuries have made his four fights at Lightweight slightly less mythical, as two went the distance, but Loma remains someone you try to survive, not beat. A list of everything he is great at—my favorite, his superior footwork, is supposedly borne out of traditional Ukrainian dance classes he reluctantly took as a kid—is just a list of every ability a boxer can have. Fighting him is like trying to win a chess match using nothing but pawns.
In the past, as “The Takeover” gained momentum, Loma brushed off questions about López for quite some time, rightfully noting that the brash prospect had not yet done anything to warrant his attention. Even in the press conference this week, he diplomatically withdrew from the war of words. When asked about López’s many uncomplimentary remarks, he responded by saying, somewhat dubiously, “I don’t understand it. It’s not my native language. I don’t know what some of the words mean.”
But even if it may not be personal for Loma—even if he sees López as just another of the hundreds of faces he’s punched into defeat—the favorite has made no secret of the fact that Teófimo has something he badly wants. In December of last year, López won the IBF title with an overwhelming second-round knockout of Richard Commey—the kind of KO that persuades boxing fans that he could be a legit test for Lomachenko. Suddenly, López stood in the way of Loma’s desire to be an undisputed champ. And in that instant, both fighters set their sights on this Saturday’s showdown.
Let’s be clear: López toppling Lomachenko would definitely be a shock to the boxing world. Though the long, COVID-induced layoff for each fighter adds to the uncertainty, the odds, of course, favor the proven commodity. Lomachenko has faced better fighters, and has done so for a longer stretch. And just because López has impressed in prior matches does not mean he can’t crack as soon as he experiences firsthand an opponent of Loma’s mind-blowing caliber. (His sloppy decision win against Masayoshi Nakatani, a few months before the Commey KO, stands out as the biggest red flag on his resume.)
But this is such a thrilling, high-stakes matchup because both the top guy and the de facto challenger have the potential to get embarrassed. Loma, who has ruthlessly made it his mission to own this division, could see all his work dissolve as the younger guy passes him in both championships and relevancy. But López, even if he’s not expected to leave with the belts, still runs the risk of being exposed before the world as an immature pile of empty bluster.
These two fighters will spend as much as an hour with each other trying to avoid either of these fates, trying to seriously hurt each other in a bid to escape the shame of losing. And yes, it’s because they’re ostensibly both pursuing these titles, and because people love to watch and give them money for it. But even beyond those reasons, López and Lomachenko are putting themselves in very real danger for their pride, their reputations, and their legacies. The beauty of this fight, like all great boxing matches, is that it barely even bothers to be a metaphor.