Lopez Hangs on to Win War with Mtagwa

Until Saturday night, 2009 had been a year of appealing matches on paper that failed to live up to the hype in the ring.

In January, Shane Mosley pummeled a plaster-less Antonio Margarito into submission. Then, Manny Pacquiao simply walked through Ricky Hatton in two rounds in May. And last month, Floyd Mayweather Jr. toyed with Juan Manuel Marquez while Vitali Klitschko massacred Cris Arreola in complete mismatches.

This weekend saw a near 180 of that trend when, in what was expected to be an easy defense of his Junior Featherweight WBO title, Juan Manuel Lopez got all he could handle and more from Rogers Mtagwa. After twelve rounds of war, Lopez barely escaped with his belt and his undefeated streak in tact.

Mtagwa, who had lost 12 fights coming into his title opportunity against Lopez, started recklessly, walking into a right hook over the back of the head that made his glove touch the canvas seconds into the fight. Referee Eddie Cotton correctly ruled against a knockdown, and, when the action resumed, Lopez hit Mtagwa with solid right hooks and straight left hands, wobbling the challenger at times.

In round two, Mtagwa began firing wild right hands, and he caught Lopez with several of them, but the champion stayed cool and backed him up with a straight left to the head. Mtagwa then walked into a right hook but answered with a quick right hand to the head of Lopez. Lopez fought back with his right hook, still getting the best of Mtagwa, though Mtagwa did manage to catch his attention with a left hook upstairs that backed the champion into the ropes. Lopez even raised his foot as if he to kick Mtagwa off, but the bell ring to stop them from going any farther – but not before Mtagwa got in another left hook.

Losing on points, Mtagwa had made his statement early that he had come to fight and would not be walked over like so many of Lopez’ other opponents.

In round three, both men tried to impose their will, and a back-and-forth brawl ensued. Fighting mostly in reverse, Lopez snapped Mtagwa’s head aside with a left hand and added a right hook. Mtagwa kept coming and scored with a straight right before eating a straight left in return. They repeated the exchange several times over, each time throwing their punches a little bit harder. Lopez started to put his punches in combination in the final half minute, overwhelming Mtagwa, who still kept throwing and landing bombs of his own. After a right hand from Mtagwa, Lopez began bleeding from a cut over the left eye, but the round ended soon after.

Between rounds, Cotton ruled that Lopez had been cut by an accidental head butt, though it was hard to see. Lopez shook off the blood and fought a much more disciplined round four, using movement to drill Mtagwa with hard combinations, one of which had him wobbly early in the round. The left hands started falling more regularly on the head of Mtagwa, but there was still no sign of retreat in him. Even while being outlanded about three-to-one in the round, it was Mtagwa making Lopez retreat. Then, another clash of heads late in the round had stunned the champion, and Mtagwa managed to catch him with some good shots.

Lopez blasted Mtagwa with a beautiful straight left and right hook to start round five, but they had no effect on the challenger. Instead, Mtagwa rushed in and got hit with a right hook over the back of the head, which forced his glove to the canvas as it had to begin the fight. This time, for whatever reason, Cotton decided to call it a knockdown, putting Lopez even farther ahead on the cards. Undeterred by his unfortunate luck, Mtagwa convinced Lopez to trade shots with him for the remainder of the round. Mtagwa scored, but Lopez did more damage, including one right hook that made the challenger lean sideways.

The champion showed the disparity in talent between the two when he spent most of round six hitting and running. It wasn’t until just before the bell that Mtagwa caught up to Lopez, landing a low blow and a right hand to the head. But the round again belonged to Lopez, who now had a comfortable seven-point lead with only six rounds to go.

And that is precisely when the fight took a drastic turn.

Tired of being hit with straight lefts, Mtagwa drilled Lopez with two hard rights to the head against the ropes. A left hook landed, and Lopez had no choice but to clinch. From that point on, Mtagwa started finding a home for his right hand and was backing Lopez around the ring with it. Lopez answered with a straight left but ate another hard right from Mtagwa that jolted his head back. Lopez scored with another left, but Mtagwa again slammed the champion’s head back with a counter right. Another right got in before the bell, and Mtagwa even took another swing after it before Cotton broke them up.

Rather than go back to boxing after losing round seven, Lopez met Mtagwa head-on in the center of the ring and stood him up with a right hook to the chin. They stood and traded bombs a minute into the round, and Mtagwa was the first to flinch as he stumbled back from one combination. A straight left and a right hook finally made Mtagwa clinch. The same combination later sent him retreating across the ring. Mtagwa came back to knock Lopez’ head back with a right, but Lopez countered with a left hand that knocked Mtagwa’s head straight up into the ropes.

It was a good comeback round for Lopez, but, as Cotton was breaking the fighters at the bell, Mtagwa smashed Lopez with a hard right hand that snapped his head aside – clearly after the bell. Lopez was noticeably affected by the shot and seemed to wobble into Cotton momentarily, but no point was taken for the infraction.

The fight turned nasty in round nine. Lopez had Mtagwa retreating early with combination punching, but Mtagwa ripped him with a right while fighting in reverse. Another right stunned Lopez, who shuffled away on wobbly legs. After eating another right, Lopez tried clinching and ended up pushing Mtagwa’s torso between the ropes to get him away. Then, Lopez resorted to a low blow, which earned a warning from Cotton. Lopez complained about Mtagwa butting him, then proceeded to intentionally butt the challenger. He landed a hard combination to the head but again got hit by a right from Mtagwa after the bell.

Round nine certainly wasn’t a high point in the career of either man but spoke to the time-honored tradition: do whatever it takes to win.

Round ten, on the other hand, raised the stock of both men considerably as they traded huge shots. Lopez jumped on Mtagwa early, but Mtagwa clocked him with a left hook that brought the champion’s hands down. Lopez landed two right hooks and a left hand, then Mtagwa responded with two rights and a left hook. A stunned Lopez tried to push Mtagwa through the ropes, but the challenger escaped, and Lopez’ torso went through instead.

They traded head-snapping shots in the final thirty seconds, and, just when it looked like Mtagwa might fold, he rallied and drilled Lopez with two hard rights that hurt the champion. Lopez’ legs left him, and he wisely clinched. Mtagwa escaped and went for a haymaker but threw the shot so hard that he ended up on the canvas, which gave Lopez a lucky break and allowed him to make it to the bell.

Entering the eleventh round for the first time in his career, Lopez had been losing steam at a rapid pace since the eighth round. Meanwhile, Mtagwa was surging. After they traded hard body shots, Mtagwa knocked Lopez’ head to the side with a left hook. A right hand followed and knocked Lopez backward, stunned again. But Lopez came back in a big way, rocking Mtagwa with a straight left and a right hook that whipped his head around. Then, it was Mtagwa’s turn to wobble back into the ropes before holding onto Lopez – the first time he was truly buzzed all night.

Just when it looked like Lopez had weathered the storm, Mtagwa blasted him with a left hook and a straight right hand. Another right from Mtagwa stood Lopez up, his head wobbling all over the place and his feet no longer supporting him. With Lopez unable to defend himself, Mtagwa rushed in with a right-left combination and another hard right, but the bell rang before he could finish Lopez off. The champion stumbled along the ropes, almost out on his feet, but he had survived another round that he looked sure to be knocked out in with another ten seconds.

Twenty seconds into the twelfth and final round, Mtagwa landed another killer right hand, and Lopez was already in trouble. He answered with a left hand, but that allowed Mtagwa to land another right. Mtagwa then banged in a right-left combination and another right. Again, Mtagwa was denied the knockout when he tripped over Lopez’ foot, staggering forward and nearly falling out of the ring as he went through the ropes.

Trying to clinch for dear life, Lopez absorbed some hard shots to the head against the ropes but was still on his feet. Mtagwa banged in two more right hands that sent Lopez staggering across the ring with half the round still to go. A loopy Lopez somehow had the wherewithal to pin Mtagwa against the ropes after eating two more head shots.

Lopez couldn’t even stand up straight as he ran away from Mtagwa and clinched at all the crucial moments. Along the way, he took an inordinate amount of hard punches to the face and kept going. Mtagwa drilled him with a one-two, then punched in a left hook that sent Lopez staggering along the ropes, looking like he was headed for the canvas, but Lopez incredibly stayed on his feet. A final clinch sealed what will go down as one of the best examples of surviving a disastrous round ever seen.

Cotton pulled the fighters apart, and Lopez looked to the big screen above, realizing he had made it to the final bell, which rang seconds later. Mtagwa absolutely earned a 10-8 round, but he didn’t finish the job, and he needed to.

The early lead Lopez built up made the difference as he took home a unanimous decision by three justifiable scores of 116-111 (incorrectly announced 116-116 at the time of the fight), 115-111 and 114-113.

While Lopez’ performance isn’t going to land him on any pound-for-pound lists, it did show that he had the intelligence and the heart to finish a tough fight – two traits most young champions don’t have to show until later in their careers. He should have been knocked out on several occasions, especially in the twelfth round, but found a way to make it through to the final bell.

There’s no fight that makes more sense for Lopez right now than a rematch with Mtagwa. There’s no excuse to not make that fight as the first one stands a great chance of winning Fight of the Year for 2009. The thinking, though, is that Bob Arum will avoid it while building toward a showdown with Yuriorkis Gamboa, who easily defended his title on the undercard. Mtagwa, after all, was supposed to be a showcase opponent for Lopez, not a life-and-death battle.

But Mtagwa was Lopez’ sixth title defense, so it’s time to take the tough fights, beginning with the rematch with Mtagwa. The right man won, but the fight was wildly competitive and could do good numbers on another pay-per-view. If Arum wants to wait in building toward a fight with Gamboa, putting Lopez in with Mtagwa is one way to do that.

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