WBA featherweight champion Yuriorkis Gamboa and WBO junior featherweight champion Juan Manuel Lopez will share top billing Jan. 23 for the second straight time on a Madison Square Garden boxing card. But once again, they won't share the MSG ring with each other.
HBO, which will televise another championship doubleheader, has been trying to build interest in a match between Gamboa and Lopez, but it has been a rocky road for Lopez that won't get any easier. It was all Lopez (27-0, 24 KOs) could do to survive the final two rounds of his 12-round decision over Rogers Mtagwa back on Oct. 10.
Now, Lopez is moving up to 126 pounds to face WBO featherweight champion Steven Luevano (37-1-1, 15 KOs), while Mtagwa (26-13-2, 18 KOs) switches over to take on Gamboa (16-0, 14 KOs). It's an intriguing situation considering how well Mtagwa fought the last time when he basically had Lopez out on his feet and holding on during the 12th round.
The suspicion here is that Lopez again will have the tougher task on this card. That's how Gamboa sees it, too. "I think it's a very good fight for myself given the result of [Mtagwa's] last fight with Lopez," Gamboa said recently. "It's going to give a lot of people a measuring stick. It's definitely not going to be the same outcome. It's not going to go to a decision."
Lopez knocked Mtagwa down, but he couldn't take him out. The Tanzanian's strength might be a problem, but he should be coming toward Gamboa, which will make him vulnerable.
Lopez has the opposite problem against Luevano. Mtagwa wanted to engage, but Luevano is a disciplined counterpuncher who wants to box. He has stopped only one of his past 11 opponents, knocking out Nicky Cook in London to win the title more than two years ago.
"He's a great boxer," Lopez said of Luevano. "He's been a world champion because he knows what he's doing. I have a lot of respect for him. I have to adjust to his style. He's taller than I am, so he will have some advantage. He's been at 126 his whole career. We'll see how our power compares."
The only way Lopez can test his power is by taking the fight to Luevano, who discovered in a draw against Mario Santiago two years ago that he's not an effective fighter going forward.
"I'm going to counterpunch," Luevano said. "That's all I'm going to do. I'm not going to go forward. I'm not going to go after him. If I see him hurt, then maybe I'll go forward. But I'm not going to chase him at all.
"He's going to have to come forward unless we're just going to stand there and look at each other all night. My jab is going to be my main priority. The jab, the jab, the jab, and wait until he makes a mistake."
Lopez is going to have to get past that jab and outbox Luevano if he ever hopes to meet Gamboa down the road. It won't be an easy task.