Yuriorkis Gamboa (28-2, 17 KOs) and Juan Manuel Lopez (35-6, 32 KOs) will co-headline a card this weekend from the Miami-Dade County Fair and Expo. Several years ago, this duo once headlined cards that were broadcast on premium cable outlets in major events. This particular promotion is being distributed as a small, independent pay-per-view offering with minimal fanfare.
Yes, how the mighty have fallen.
Gamboa is matched with Miguel Beltran (33-6, 22 KOs), while Lopez will take on Cristian Ruben Mino (19-2, 17 KOs). The plan calls for both of these faded veterans, who have certainly seen better days, to finally meet should they come out victorious.
It makes you wonder -- is it really better late than never?
Back in 2011, as both were undefeated featherweight champions who were just hitting their physical primes, this matchup was considered by hard-core enthusiasts of the sport as one of the best that could be made in all of boxing.
But alas, it never came to fruition, as this fight was basically put on the back burner, and at that time there simply wasn't enough of a financial impetus in this fight to bring both sides together to the bargaining table. As "Juan Ma" was knocked out by the rugged Orlando Salido in April 2011 in eight rounds, the value of this fight quickly declined, and soon it became another fight that simply never happened. It turns out that neither Lopez nor Gamboa were ever as good as advertised, but during this particular stretch, they were as highly regarded as they ever would be.
At that point in time, Bob Arum, the head of Top Rank, had an interest in both boxers.
"I think, really, that we had evaluated the two fighters at the time, and we felt that Gamboa had the skills to walk through Lopez, and Lopez was a tremendous attraction, and we didn't want to lose Lopez to Gamboa," he told ESPN. "In other words, our matchmakers did not feel that fight was competitive. They felt there was one winner in that fight, so to protect Lopez, we didn't make that fight."
Given that Lopez is Puerto Rican, he was a valuable commodity. It was believed back then that he would continue the lineage of standout prizefighters from the island following in the footsteps of Felix Trinidad and Miguel Cotto, who became legitimate ticket sellers and pay-per-view attractions who regularly played to packed houses on the East Coast. It's clear that with Lopez there was a future franchise to protect. However, the veteran promoter points out, "That's not to say that Lopez didn't want that fight. But sometimes you've got to protect the fighter from what he wants."
Meanwhile, Arum had struck a deal to co-promote the gifted Gamboa with Ahmet Oner, and with his influence with HBO, he was able to quickly get him on the network. But like many of his Cuban colleagues, Gamboa simply didn't grasp the business side of professional boxing.
"Gamboa was a tremendous prospect and a tremendous fighter," Arum said. "He had covered himself with glory at the Olympics; he was very skilled, and he really didn't get the full value out of his talents because he wouldn't listen to anybody when it came to money, and he had no grounding in capitalism, having come from Cuba."
It's clear that if the brain trust at Top Rank believed that Lopez would have defeated Gamboa, that they would have pulled the trigger on this bout back then.
"Forget Top Rank, it wasn't the right thing for Lopez," Arum said. "We didn't believe Lopez could win that fight at that time."
Perhaps if both boxers -- and in this case, specifically, Lopez -- could have kept their winning ways, this fight could have eventually been consummated as the interest and the value grew. Arum is often credited with the term "marinating" a fight, in other words, waiting as long as possible to make a certain fight to max out its financial worth. It's something that frustrates a legion of fans who have no financial stake in the fighters they follow and would just like to see more palatable offerings from the sport.
There's a fine line between marinating and overseasoning.
Arum bristles as you bring this up in regards to Gamboa and Lopez.
"It's not a question of 'marinating,'" he said. "The idea was to protect Lopez, and therefore we didn't want to make the fight because there was one winner. Maybe I used the word 'marinate' and so forth, but as far as I was concerned, it might very well be in my mind that that fight was never going to happen."
Soon after the first defeat at the hands of Salido, Lopez was stopped once again by the resurgent Mexican two fights later in their rematch. And it was from that point on that his career declined quickly. Once the next potential Puerto Rican star, he was then the B-side to the likes of the rising Mikey Garcia (who brutally stopped him in four rounds in 2013), and soon stoppage losses at the hands of Francisco Vargas (TKO3) and Jesus Cuellar (KO2) followed in 2014.
Lopez then made the decision to retire from the sport, but as often is the case in this unforgiving business, he found himself having to return to the ring in October 2016, where he shockingly defeated the younger Wilfredo Vasquez in what was a local grudge match in San Juan. After scoring an 11th-round TKO of Vasquez, Lopez was then halted by Jayson Velez in 12 rounds this past March. What's alarming is that all six of Lopez's defeats are of the stoppage variety.
Gamboa remained undefeated through 23 fights until he faced Terence Crawford in the summer of 2014 for the vacant WBO lightweight title. After a quick early start, he was eventually worn down by the talented Crawford, who knocked him down four times and later won by 9th-round TKO. In truth, this fight came at a weight class that was simply not optimal for Gamboa (who was really a natural featherweight, who could function well at junior lightweight, if need be), but it was his own curious decisions with his career that led him to this point. Gamboa severed his relationship with Top Rank after reneging on a deal to face Brandon Rios, where he infamously didn't show up to the press conference in Miami to announce that fight. It was as elusive as he's ever been as a professional prizefighter.
From there, he had an ill-fated union with 50 Cent and his promotional company, SMS Promotions, which eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2015. What's interesting is that Gamboa, for the most part, has kept up his winning ways. Since the loss to Crawford, he has won five out of six fights, but his always-shaky set of whiskers has made him perpetually vulnerable to any punch that comes in his direction. Three fights ago, in May 2017, he was halted in seven rounds by Mexican journeyman Robinson Castellanos, but he has since rebounded with two victories. His last was a rather controversial 10-round decision against Jason Sosa last Thanksgiving weekend.
Both Lopez and Gamboa have had solid careers. They captured world titles in multiple weight classes and have been featured on some of the sport's biggest stages. They've made significant money (and unfortunately spent most of it) and provided boxing fans with memorable moments. The sense is, though, that there should have been more to their legacies.
How these careers unfolded has surprised Arum.
"I mean, Gamboa just never had any direction," Arum said. "Nice guy, but impossible to make a deal with as far as money was concerned. He had crazy notions, and therefore he took some risky fights he couldn't win, like with Terence Crawford, to get more money. So I'm not surprised Gamboa's career went in the direction that it did, knowing Gamboa. Now I'm somewhat surprised with Lopez that he seemed to fall apart."
Arum still has no regrets on not making this fight, which will infuriate a good number of fight fans. But there is a reason why Top Rank has consistently been able to develop world champions and pay-per-view stars. While you service the fans, you don't always listen to them or acquiesce to their short-term demands.
"That's part of what we do," he explained. "As promoters, we sell fights to the public, but a lot of these kids have entrusted their lives and their careers to us. We have to sometimes protect them from themselves because most fighters are courageous guys, and given their own druthers will fight anybody because they're athletes, and they believe that they're better than anybody.
"But for a veteran promoter like myself, we have to take a realistic view at the situation and hold them back sometimes."
So here they are now in 2018, sharing the bill at a small venue. Originally, this show was scheduled to take place at Marlins Park, but perhaps realizing that this card would draw less people than the average Marlins games in the middle of June, the prudent decision was made to downsize the building. Jesse Rodriguez, the head of New Champions Promotions, estimates that they will have a crowd between 3,000 and 4,000 people on Saturday night.
"With the local Cuban fans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody, they're all welcome, and we're going to have a large crowd of veterans," Rodriguez said. He admitted, "We've given a lot of tickets out to the local military."
But at age 36 (Gamboa) and 35 (Lopez), have these guys gone from being marinated to simply past their expiration date? Not for Rodriguez.
"I don't think it's past its expiration date as much as (Manny) Pacquiao-(Floyd) Mayweather, and it will actually be a better fight than Pacquiao-Mayweather."
If these two come out with wins this weekend, Rodriguez says they will finally hook up "most likely in March -- it's a big Hispanic, Cuban festival here in Miami, Florida."
So, yes, just a little bit more marinating to take place.
"They've already agreed to it; it's on paper," Rodriguez said. "But we've got to get over this weekend first."