Sports

Teofimo Lopez Jr. is in the Canelo position against Vasiliy Lomachenko

It’s rare, but we’ve seen this before in boxing, where the young hungry lion faces a seasoned world champion and the overarching narrative is “Youth vs. Experience.” There is danger on both sides — “Youth” risks a humbling while “Experience” is concerned that a loss will be seen as a passing of the torch. 

On Saturday, 23-year-old IBF lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez Jr. will challenge 32-year-old unified champion — and arguably the top pound for pound fighter in boxing — Vasiliy Lomachenko in a highly anticipated showdown that epitomizes this narrative.

MORE: Vasiliy Lomachenko vs. Teofimo Lopez fight date, start time, odds & full boxing card

There are those who are surprised that a 23-year-old with only 15 professional fights to his name is getting an opportunity to face the best the sport has to offer. On the other hand, boxing has far too often been plagued with the idea of promoters letting fights marinate until the timing is right. 

More often than not — with the exception of Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao — this concept doesn’t quite play out like the promoters want. That’s been a huge turn off to boxing fans who have to watch young fighters plow through lower-level opposition before challenging the biggest names in the sport.

Making the fights fans want now is what the UFC has done so well over the years that has endeared it to a younger demographic. It also has helped dissolve the archaic notion that a loss will destroy a boxer’s career. Boxing is now seemingly more open to making these kinds of fights sooner than later where a loss by the young fighter is seen more as a learning lesson than a catastrophic event that derails their career. 

That’s why this fight is eerily similar to the 2013 showdown between 36-year-old Mayweather and 23-year-old Canelo Alvarez.  

Like Lopez, Alvarez was viewed as the toughest test to date for boxing’s pound-for-pound best due to his youth, size and strength. Meanwhile, Lomachenko is being viewed in the same light as Mayweather due to his age, skill and smaller stature. 

It was considered to be a close fight on paper, and played out far differently in practice.

Mayweather brilliantly outclassed the fighter who was 13 years his junior with a blistering buffet of speed, skill and defense as Alvarez simply couldn’t catch up to his opponent. Although it was a bizarre majority decision due to judge C.J. Ross’ inexplicably terrible 114-114 scorecard, it was a clinic by Mayweather who proved that “Youth” would be no match for “Experience.”

The fight was great for the sport as it raked in 2.2 million PPV buys, but also served as a learning lesson for Alvarez, who has gone on to be recognized as one of the top three pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Not all losses are catastrophic, and Alvarez took his beating and used it as fuel to take over as the sport’s biggest star when Mayweather decided to retire.

Other examples where “Youth” was turned back by “Experience” include a then-43-year-old Bernard Hopkins dominating 26-year-old Kelly Pavlik and 45-year-old George Foreman knocking out a 27-year-old Michael Moorer. However, both Hopkins and Foreman were not outsized by their opponent, and the younger fighter never recovered from the beating. 

For the sake of this column, it’s highly likely that Teofimo Lopez is more akin to Alvarez than Moorer, and Mayweather-Canelo is almost identical to Lomachenko-Lopez in a number of ways.

The questions heading into Mayweather’s fight with Alvarez were similar to what Lomachenko is dealing with ahead of his fight with Lopez. It was deemed as a “dangerous” fight for Mayweather as he was stepping into the ring with an undefeated young fighter who possessed a size advantage against an aging opponent who appeared to be saddling up for a ride into retirement.

MORE: “Underdog” Lopez eager to hurt Lomachenko

Lopez possesses many of the tools that Canelo had against Mayweather. The 23-year-old is a strong and technically sound fighter who has often bulldozed through opponents but has also demonstrated a high boxing IQ when the power alone won’t get it done. That unique combination poses a considerable threat to the reign of Lomachenko and could disrupt the established narrative despite oddsmakers seeing the unified champion as a considerable favorite.

There are a few differences that could work in Lopez’s favor. For one, Lomachenko has been knocked down before by lesser punchers (Jorge Linares) and has suffered a loss against a bigger opponent (Orlando Salido). Lopez has a significant power advantage over Linares, but it has yet to be seen if he’ll be able to utilize his size to bully his smaller opponent.  While Lomachenko is widely recognized as one of the greatest amateur boxers in history, he still has limited experience as a professional with 15 only fights on his docket. 

There are questions regarding whether Lomachenko will be able to absorb Lopez’s punching power. He’s not as slick defensively as Mayweather, who often used a combination of body position and footwork to prevent his opponent from landing a clean shot. Lomachenko possesses surreal footwork that always puts him in a position to land a big shot, but he’s not quite as defensively sound as Mayweather. If Lopez is able to cut off the ring, can Lomachenko escape?

The true test for Lopez will be his ability to adjust in the middle of the fight once his first two game plans are thwarted by Lomachenko. When Alvarez fought Mayweather, he deployed a strategy where he opted to try and box with Mayweather early. When he realized he had the wrong game plan, he resorted to following Mayweather and lunging with power shots that he could only pray would land due to a mental lapse on Mayweather’s part. 

That didn’t happen, and Alvarez was a big cat chasing a small mouse in an almost comedic episode of “Tom & Jerry.” If Lopez isn’t careful, this will also be his fate.

The 23-year-old has tremendous confidence in himself and his ability to put down any opponent. But is this truly something that Lomachenko has never seen before? If nothing else, Lomachenko’s amateur experience that yielded two Olympic gold medals is a testament to the Ukrainian’s ability to make adjustments. A remarkable amateur record of 396-1 is something that Lopez cannot take for granted, and he’ll need to be prepared for different variations of Lomachenko. If he’s unable to figure it out, he’ll find himself in a deep hole and resort to desperation, which is what derailed Alvarez’s dreams of beating Mayweather. 

Perhaps the most significant part of the parallel between Lomachenko-Lopez and Mayweather-Canelo is that Lopez has a lot more to gain than Lomachenko, even in defeat. Obviously, the world will be his oyster should he defeat Lomachenko and become a unified lightweight champion at 23. However, should he come up short, Lopez is young enough to use this as fuel to get better. Unlike most of Mayweather’s opponents, Alvarez was young enough to take in the lessons of the night and apply them later in his career. It made him a better fighter, and it’s difficult to say that he would have improved in the manner that he has without facing Mayweather. 

Lopez will certainly be distraught if he comes up short against Lomachenko. But landing this fight at this age should be viewed as a victory no matter what happens. There is no shame in losing to someone like Lomachenko, and if he keeps his head on straight, the value of that experience cannot be duplicated. 

As for Lomachenko, it’s all on the line. Like it would have been for Mayweather, a loss would be devastating for his career. He’d be knocked off of his perch as the pound-for-pound king, and it might be too late to reclaim that spot, no matter what he does. He simply cannot take this fight lightly. 

Ultimately, fights like this are what the sport needs. When two fighters want to face each other, there’s no need to wait until the time is perceived to be right. Boxing could benefit heavily by not protecting young fighters and pairing them with the best the sport has to offer. A loss by Lopez shouldn’t be viewed as a career-ending failure and open the door for the new generation of fighters to challenge for world titles sooner than later. All of the ingredients are there for this to be a spectacular affair, and the future for the sport will be mighty bright, regardless of the outcome. 

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