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Growing pains: Teofimo Lopez's search for legacy and peace with his family

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Lopez taking back control of his life (5:53)

Teofimo Lopez opens up about his rocky relationship with his family; his new wife, Cynthia; and living with anxiety. (5:53)

Editor's note: This story was originally published before Lopez's fight against Richard Commey in Dec. 2019.

PITTSTOWN, N.J. -- Early last August, Teofimo Lopez and his bride of three months boarded a flight home from Athens. It had been an idyllic Greek vacation: four-wheeling, jet skiing and traipsing through ancient ruins. They watched sunsets in their bathrobes from the deck of their rooftop suite in Santorini. On his 22nd birthday, she got him a cake. To watch him blow out the candles amid her serenade is to see a young man in his bliss.

He was 14-0 with 11 knockouts. His 44-second destruction of veteran contender Mason Menard -- a year ago Heisman night at Madison Square Garden -- didn't merely go viral, but upstaged a main event featuring Vasiliy Lomachenko, arguably the greatest fighter in the world and quite suddenly mentioned (most insistently by Teofimo's father) as Lopez's inevitable opponent.

ESPN, The Ring and Yahoo! Sports (twice) had declared Lopez their Prospect of the Year. He was the most electrifying young fighter in the game. What's more, his next bout would be a title shot.

But as the JFK-bound flight reached its cruising altitude, his mind was racing -- each thought taken to its catastrophic extreme. His spirit had darkened. Mimosas in the first-class cabin were of no help. He was shaking. It felt as if his heart was pounding through his chest.

Then Teofimo Lopez -- the personification of young male bravado -- began to weep.

His wife, Cynthia, hugged him, pressing her lips to his forehead. "It's OK," she whispered. "Everything's going to be fine."

But Teofimo wasn't having it.

He was the breadwinner for a family that disapproved of his wife.

He'd been tasked with the salvation of a profoundly damaged father.

And he saw no way out. Forget about boxing; he didn't want to go home.


THIS SATURDAY, AFTER yet another Heisman presentation, Lopez will challenge for the IBF lightweight title at the Garden. Richard Commey, the Ghanaian champion, is a decade older, unconflicted with a fierce will and a dangerous right hand. But Lopez is generating the heat. There's a sense (a hope, actually, if you're Lopez's promoter, Top Rank) that this is the first in a two-fight installment. The sequel, or finale, would be a unification bout with Lomachenko, in whose head Lopez's father claims to reside. It could reconfigure the sport and christen a new star.

America -- nation of voyeurs raised on "Dance Moms" and "Mob Wives" and patriarchies of hunters and fishermen -- here is your fighter. It's not merely the possibility of transcendent talent. It's that talent laced with exuberance (no KO's complete without his trademark backflip) and depression, vulnerability and rage. Will it destroy his opponent, or consume him? It's the family on display: dysfunction and dependence, loss and love. Teofimo Lopez seems the most explicitly Oedipal construct in sports, caught between the family he came from and the one he's trying to start, trying to figure out which demons are his, and which ones belong to his father.


TEOFIMO's GRANDFATHER WAS born in 1916 in Spain. He had Popeye forearms and people said he could wrestle a bull to the ground by its horns. After the Second World War, he emigrated to Honduras, where he maintained several businesses (a bakery, a taxi stand and a shoe store) and fell in love with the beautiful Yolanda Romero. She was no older than 18. Three years later, in 1968, she bore him a son named Teofimo, whom we'll call Senior.

"My dad was 51," Senior says. "I was a mistake."

His parents had a complicated relationship, their passions and the distance they maintained beyond the grasp of a child's understanding. Senior recalls once pushing them together.

"I want to see you kiss," he said.

His mother hit him with a four-punch combination.

Senior spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between Honduras, with his father, and Brooklyn, with his mother when he was 5. She worked in a soap factory. They lived with an uncle. He beat Senior with a belt. She beat him with an electrical cord.

If their intention was to make him a good kid, they failed miserably. By the time Senior was 10, he was robbing houses and selling nickel bags of oregano he passed off as weed. With his father's physicality and his mother's temperament, he was already a feared streetfighter.

"Got to the point where my mother couldn't control me," he says.

Then he was back in Honduras. His father spoiled him, treating him to club sandwiches in hotel restaurants. One morning, when Senior was 14, a worker from the shoe store came to see him.

"Your father's not feeling right," he said. "He wants to see you."

Senior had a terrible hangover. "I'll see him later."

The worker returned around noon. Before the guy could say anything, Senior threw himself on the floor. He already knew his father was dead.

"My mother must've loved him," he says. "'Cause she was never no good after he died."

Yolanda Romero Lopez started communing with spirits. She would get up in the middle of the night wielding a knife. She'd remove her shirt in public.

Curiously enough, it was Senior's benders that brought out her vestigial tenderness. He'd come in after three or four days of cocaine and booze. She'd cook him a sopa de res and hold him until he fell asleep.

Then, soon enough, she'd be back in the Bellevue psych ward.

One day when Senior was 17, a cousin came looking for him. His mother had been calling out his name. But Senior was shacked up with a girl and couldn't be bothered.

By the time he returned to their apartment, she was dead. She'd hanged herself.

"She was on the bunk bed," he says. "So I just started hitting it. I wanted to kill everybody. ... I was gone. I lost the two things I loved the most, and twice I f---ed up. ...You can't take that guilt away.

"That rage, that anger, it's never going to leave me."


TEOFIMO LOPEZ JR., the first son after two daughters, was born July 30, 1997, at the former NYU Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn. His father was a drug dealer, his territory along Fourth Avenue, from Sunset Park to Bay Ridge.

When the boy was 5, the family moved to Florida, where his father had apparently cut a deal with prosecutors to serve his only drug charge. After 11 days in a Broward County jail, Senior began anew as a limo driver.

"My dad was still hustling in Florida," Teofimo says. "But him and my mother always did what they had to for the family."

They moved to Davie, two blocks from the local Police Athletic League gym.

Seminal boxing memories? For Teofimo, he was 6. His father was outside in the limo and, as was his custom, was talking to some guys. Teofimo threw a hook at the double-end bag and wrapped his arm around an unfastened steel clasp. Twenty stitches.

"That's the day I started giving blood to the sport," he says.

Senior recalls something else. Again, he was outside in the limo, talking to his guys, when he was approached by a trainer who'd been holding mitts for the kid. "Your son just did something it takes guys five years to learn."

Three years later, on Dec. 29, 2006, Senior's photograph appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel: His big fist raised, he wore a backward baseball cap and an unmistakable expression of triumph. In agate type, under the caption "PROUD PAPA," one learns that his son just won the 70-pound title in the Florida Silver Gloves. Teofimo was 9.

"God had a plan for us," Senior says.


IT IS NO longer unusual for American fathers with little or no boxing experience to train their sons to the championship level. But the entirety of Senior's competitive boxing career consists of a single bout in the novice division of the New York Daily News Golden Gloves. It was Jan. 28, 1999, at Blessed Sacrament in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn. He was stopped 33 seconds into the second round.

"I was 191, fighting a guy who was 220," he recalls. "I just gassed out."

He was also 30 and a father of three.

A fool's errand. But it's also one of boxing's oldest stories: He wanted to prove he wasn't a bum.

But only as Teofimo began climbing the amateur ranks did Senior come to understand. Redemption was never to come as a fighter, but as a trainer.

"I gave up boxing and I dedicated my life to my son," he says.

Like many of his fellow boxing dads, Senior relied on YouTube for instructional videos -- often featuring Floyd Mayweather or Andre Ward. What seems unusual, perhaps, is the degree to which Senior insists his inspiration was divine.

"I learned tricks no other coach knows," he says. "But when you ask me, 'How did you learn boxing?' I don't know how to explain it."

All he knew was that the jagged shards of his memory had finally begun to make sense: His mother taking him to kung fu triple features on 42nd Street: "Enter the Dragon" and "Game of Death." "Shogun Assassin" and "Drunken Master," and Sonny Chiba in "The Street Fighter." She'd be tired from the soap factory and fall asleep in those crusty velvet seats. But Senior was mesmerized.

Now he saw it again in what he was teaching Teofimo: the vision, the coordination, the catch-and-shoot style. "When you watched my son, it was like watching a movie," he says. "... It's a vision of God."

Teofimo would go on to win the 2013 National Silver Gloves, the 2015 National Golden Gloves and 2015 Olympic trials.

"We're connected," Senior says. "When he's in there fighting, I feel like I'm in there with him."

Could anyone else have trained Teofimo Lopez Jr.?

"No," Senior says flatly. "Never."

It's not something his son would ever deny. "When it comes to boxing," Teofimo says, "my father is a magician."


IF THE SON were a manifestation of divine will, then father was still living a less than holy life. None of it was lost on Teofimo. Among his teenage recollections:

"Picking up my dad at the bar, laid out drunk on a pool table. ... Going down to the basement, seeing my dad laid out drunk. ... I saw my dad do coke once at a club. Yeah, that hit home. ... He didn't want me to see those things, but I figured it out.

"He put my mom through a lot of s---."

His mom, Jenny. She was still a teenager when she fell for Senior. She loved the way Senior loved his mother. And no, it didn't bother her that he was, as the phrase goes, nice with his hands. She once watched him singlehandedly clean out a whole bar in Red Hook. "Like Bruce Lee," she says, a gleam in her eye. "People, they mock him. But he never let anyone disrespect me. Me and my husband, we know the street."

"My mom's loyal," Teofimo says. "She'll always ride with him. No matter what. She was a bartender at a strip club. I would help her as a barback. I was 16."

If nocturnal life was part of Teofimo's real-world education, then so were the politics of boxing. In 2016, he became the only American fighter not to make the Olympic team after winning the Olympic trials. That year, America's 132-pound selection was based on one's standing in the World Series of Boxing, an obscure series in which Teofimo was not yet old enough to compete.

Were politics involved? Of course. But politics is about making friends, and Team Lopez, by their own admission, had a talent for alienating people. If the son could be arrogant, his father could be downright bellicose -- especially if he had an inkling (real or imagined) that he was being disrespected. Senior even had an altercation with one of Teofimo's previous backers, former heavyweight champ Shannon Briggs.

"One thing I respect about my dad," Teofimo says, "he don't back down. And he don't kiss ass. For nobody."

As it happened, Teofimo went to the Rio Olympics for Honduras. From the Associated Press: "Lopez was sharp in the ring but lost 30-27 on all three cards to a fighter with a much deeper pedigree." Sofiane Oumiha, the eventual silver medalist from France, was three years older with almost a decade of international experience. Still, when it was over, Teofimo gave the judges his trademark backflip.

"You won!" screamed his father. "They're not going to give it to you. I told you from the beginning."

"Dad, it's over."


IN LITTLE MORE than a year, Teofimo was wearing a knockoff Rolex Presidential and had moved his entire family to a six-bedroom home with a pool in Las Vegas: his father, whom he now employed as a trainer; his mother, whom he happily retired from the bar business and who now served as his "nutritionist"; sisters Adriana and Jasmine; Adriana's 8-year-old daughter, Dreana, and Teofimo's bulldog puppy, Leo.

He had a modest six-figure bonus from Top Rank (among the promotional company's prospects, he was considered a distant third behind silver medalist Shakur Stevenson and two-time Irish Olympian Mick Conlan), and a monthly stipend from his manager, David McWater, a professional poker player who became wealthy running bars and restaurants in New York.

McWater had signed Teofimo based on a series of metrics he developed with a team of math majors from NYU. There must've been something to it, as on May 12, 2018, he scored his eighth knockout in nine fights -- a 64-second annihilation of 14-1 Vitor Jones at the Garden.

Still just 20, Teofimo was feeling cocky when he boarded the return flight to Vegas.

Of course he was a boxer, he told the flight attendant as he tried stuffing his gloves into the overhead compartment.

"Well, did you lose?" she asked.

That stopped him for a moment. The flight attendant had long brown hair, like his mother, and a birthmark over her lip. "Do I look like I lost?" he said.

Oh God, thought the flight attendant, who smiled politely and quickly returned to the galley.

But even after the conclusion of beverage service, Teofimo kept walking to the back of the plane.

"I'm thirsty," he said.

"Yeah, you look thirsty," she said.

Then he had to go to the bathroom. (In fact, he went to check himself out in the mirror, make sure he looked OK.)

Then, "How old are you?"

Cynthia Ortez looked up from the book she'd been trying to read, a romance titled The Color of Heaven.

"How old do you think I am?

"Twenty-two."

"No."

"Oh."

"How old are you?" she asked.

"Twenty."

Oh, God.


CYNTHIA WAS 25. She grew up in Las Vegas, no relationship with her father, but a mother who worked two jobs. Cynthia had a plan. She wanted to see the world. She wanted a cat. And a condo in New Jersey.

And now she had given her Instagram to this baby boxer. "What am I gonna do?" she asked her mother. "Get him apple juice?"

Eventually, they met up at Dave & Buster's in Vegas. Cynthia explained that she would not consider dating him until he'd turned 21.

He agreed. And kept sending flowers.

"At first he was so conceited, all about him, the boxer," Cynthia says. "But little by little, I got to know him. I would talk to him when I was down. If I had a bad day, he would listen. He could bring me up. He could make me laugh."


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0:33

Lopez not comparing himself to anyone

Teofimo Lopez has heard comparisons from Mike Tyson to Floyd Mayweather, but would prefer to stand on his own. Tune in on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET to watch Lopez take on Richard Commey on ESPN.

ON A SATURDAY night in early July, Senior and Jenny were drinking by the pool with an old friend. Teofimo went to bed early, as he was trying to make weight for his first nationally televised appearance against the 25-1 William Silva. Leo stayed with Senior, whom he liked to follow around. But when all the drinking was finally over, they went inside, closed the porch door and forgot about the 11-month-old puppy.

English bulldogs are known for respiratory problems in the best of conditions. But temperatures remained in excess of 100 degrees through the night.

Around 7 a.m., Teofimo woke to a scream.

His father was tapping Leo with his foot, trying to wake him. Teofimo could see his dad was not yet sober.

Teofimo pushed past him and took the dog in his arms. Leo's tongue was out, his pupils bloodshot and dilated. He had defecated. Teofimo would rush him to the hospital; the vet would declare him DOA. But before all that, another image Teofimo would never forget:

"My whole family is just staring at me. Looking at me for help. Like, 'What do we do now?'"

Days later, on the eve of his fight with Silva, Teofimo and his father attended the ESPN fighter meetings. To that point, the questions were all about knockouts, backflips and the selection of his celebratory dance. But the broadcasters hadn't seen this Teofimo before. This was a mean kid, still just 20, but ready to blow, bent on inflicting pain.

"You don't know how bad I want to hit someone," Teofimo said quietly. "All that anger, all that rage. ... I don't look for the KO, but when I hit that dude I'm gonna knock that m-----f----- out."

The next night he came out and hit Silva so hard he broke his right hand. Teofimo scored knockdowns in the first and fifth rounds, a KO in the sixth.

Two weeks later, his 21st birthday, Teofimo showed up with a cast. Cynthia came with flowers, cake, champagne and a homemade card. "Would you be my boyfriend?"

Soon enough, they moved in together in Brooklyn.

His family wasn't thrilled.

Teofimo knew what they were saying about her. It only made him angrier. He told his manager.

"When you met her," McWater asked, "were you flying coach or first class?"

"Coach."

"She's not a gold digger."

"Yeah? How you know?"

"Believe me," said the manager. "Gold diggers don't mess with guys in coach."


A COUPLE OF nights before the Mason Menard fight at the Garden, Senior ran into the two-time gold medalist, three-division champion, pound-for pound king, Vasiliy Lomachenko.

"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!"

It upset Teofimo when his father told him. He could see Lomachenko, boxing royalty, disrespecting his father without having to say a word. It pissed him off. Then again, his dad pissed him off, too.

"Why would you do that?" Teofimo thought. "Now I got to clean up your mess."

On fight night, feeling the heat from Top Rank for insulting Lomachenko, Senior pulled his son aside before the walkout. "We gotta do something great," he said. "You gotta look spectacular."

Teofimo kissed his father on the cheek. "I got you, Dad. I'm always gonna have your back."

Then he took out Menard in 44 seconds.

"It was like God spoke to me again," Senior says. They watched the main event from a lounge in the Garden. Lomachenko -- still recovering from shoulder surgery -- went the distance to beat Jose Pedraza.

Teofimo turned to his father. "Dad," he said, "You got in his head."


THEY WERE BACK in the Garden last April, the co-main under a Terence Crawford pay-per-view. Again, the fighter meetings were more interesting than the fight.

"Loma's in big trouble. This kid will kill him," Senior said, nodding at his son. "This guy will not last three rounds with my son."

Teofimo didn't disagree, though he did acknowledge, "You don't know how much pressure this man puts on me."

Teofimo got quiet. He knew people in the room were snickering at his father. He'd felt it his entire life. For Teofimo, this wasn't about the pressure of Loma, but the pressure of mortality: "When my father's time is up I want him to know that he made a name for himself. Everybody said that my father was a f---up and never going to amount to anything. They treated him like dirt, going all the way back to Spain. When people chant 'Teofimo,' it's not just for me. It's for him and my grandfather. I want him to be buried in peace."

The broadcasters snuck a puzzled look at each other. What's this kid talking about? They didn't know that Senior had survived a heart attack the previous summer.

It was his granddaughter Dreana's birthday. Senior had been dancing and drinking a little. "I swear to God I didn't do no cocaine," he says.

He smoked a Newport. He thought he had gas. Then he collapsed and called an Uber to take him to the hospital.

Teofimo was off traveling with Cynthia.


ON APRIL 23, four days after knocking out two-time European champion Edis Tatli, Teofimo married Cynthia in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where her family now lived. Teofimo told his family at the last minute. None of the Lopez women attended.

"I never said I didn't like her," Jenny Lopez says. "But everything was too fast. Why she so desperate? What was your rush?"

"I didn't want to be there," says Senior, who begged Teofimo to at least hold off until after the Lomachenko fight. "But I did it for my son."

"He came intoxicated," Teofimo says. "It was tough for him to see me get married at such a young age. But he tried the best he could, and the best he could was to numb the pain."

Other than that, it was a great day.

"I just felt at peace," Teofimo says.


FOR HIS NEXT fight -- against 19-0 Masayoshi Nakatani -- Teofimo agreed to his promoter's emphatic suggestion that he replace his mother with Perfecting Athletes, nutritionists who've won raves for their work with combat athletes.

"I didn't agree," Senior says. "They broke my circle."

The camp, held in Vegas, was an unmitigated disaster. Tensions between Cynthia and her in-laws intensified. Teofimo trained intermittently. His father fell back on his worst habits. Forget about Lomachenko. There were those in Top Rank, and within the camp itself, who believed Senior wouldn't make it another six months.

Still, by the time the fighter meetings rolled around, Senior sounded like his old self. "Loma is weak," he said. "I got inside his head."

"Twenty-two years and my dad still doesn't see it," Teofimo said, turning to his father. "I back you the f--- up."

The next night, while he was warming up in the dressing room, Teofimo received word that his sister Adriana was in the house against his express wishes. He had asked her not to come, as she had an especially acrimonious relationship with his wife.

"He was blaming me for Adriana," Senior says.

Either way, both father and son would agree, he wasn't himself that night. More concerned with what was going on outside the ring than in it, Teofimo still managed to win an easy, unanimous decision over the IBF's No. 3 contender. A title shot was next. But without the usual knockout, he suddenly found himself being called out as a fraud.

Greece wasn't far enough away.


IT WAS A panic attack, what happened on the return flight.

And it didn't stop once they got home.

"I was in a deep depression and just crying," Teofimo says. "Just be in a dark room. Pouting. Drinking. ... I was almost turning into my father."

And when he wasn't pouting, he was angry. "Breaking stuff," he says.

A framed photograph, him and Cynthia.

"You need therapy," she kept telling him.

He was a fighter. With a title shot. Therapy?

"You're not alone," she said. "Acknowledge the pain. That's the hard part."

He went, finally. Because he was a mess, and perhaps, because he was courageous.

The doctor's office was near the Garden. They went through everything: his parents, his parents' parents, from Brooklyn all the way back to Spain.

"The doctor told me I'm a hell of a director," he says. "I can make movies in my head, act them out, make them seem real when they're not. My father has a lot to do with that."


"MY SON MEANS everything to me," Senior says. "He represents hope."

But the title, the fixation with Lomachenko, why?

"My father would always tell me, 'You ain't gonna amount to be nothing,' 'cause of my drinking, my hanging out," Senior says. "I wanted to do something before I died. I wanted to show the world I didn't come in vain. That's what kept me alive. My whole life was to show my mother and father they didn't raise a lowlife. You didn't raise no bum."


HE HASN'T SEEN the therapist for a couple of months now, not since he has been out here training at the Old Dog Boxing Club in Flemington, New Jersey. Teofimo wouldn't call himself healed, more like a work in progress. The blood rage is still there. And Richard Commey -- a man he otherwise admires -- will get it next, he says. After that, Lomachenko.

"That fight is going to happen," he says.

His father is now assisted by Joey Gamache. But the veteran trainer and former two-weight world champion is careful not to overstep his bounds. "We needed more structure," Teofimo said.

I want my father to rest in peace. Why did you say that?

"All he ever wanted was to make his family proud," he says. "I think that's why he dedicates himself so much to me."

Are you trying to save him?

"There's days I want to save him, and days I want to let him go. And days I want to slap some sense into him. ... He's a good dad. He raised good kids. We didn't go through what he went through. We have better lives. My grandfather and my grandmother are already proud of him. But he doesn't get that. He don't see the big picture like I do."

The goal, he means.

It looks like this, this house -- what the "reality" genre would demean as a set for "Champs and Their Shrinks." There's a big kitchen looking out on the vegetable garden, split fire logs, past the tarpaulin-covered pool, to the white oaks and Jersey pines.

There are two puppies, a morkie and a Pomeranian. The kid who dances and taunts over the prone bodies of his victims has taken to wearing matching onesies, him and Cynthia, reindeer and snowflakes.

Something about Cynthia made him give up bling. He just bought a North Face jacket. He sees them raising kids in Seattle.

Seattle?

Of course. As far from Brooklyn or Florida as you can get.

When he was breaking picture frames, Cynthia came upon an idea. "I wanted him to write down what he's good at," she says. "So he can be proud of himself."

Teofimo recites:

"I'm a good husband.

"A good brother.

"A good son.

"I can still f--- everybody up in the ring.

"I will be a good father."

In other words, Teofimo Lopez III wasn't raised to be a bum.