NEW YORK — On the night of Feb. 3, 2018, in the lobby of a Corpus Christi Holiday Inn, I ran into Teofimo Lopez, then celebrating his eighth professional victory, his delighted and doting parents in tow. He was 20, still slight of build and quite pleased with himself, as well he should’ve been, having just beaten a veteran of 44 fights despite a very-veteran head-butt that left him with a fat protrusion and row of stitches on his otherwise baby face.
He wore a wine-colored tuxedo with a black shawl collar over a black shirt. The effect was peculiarly endearing: part Bar Mitzvah boy, part gangster. He lowered his sunglasses so I could photograph the eventual scar tissue. If Teofimo was eager to be the center of attention, he was even more eager to please: a child star just beginning his ascent in the world of grownups. The day before, in the fighter meetings, Lopez told us his mother no longer had to bartend, that he’d moved his family to a six-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot home in Las Vegas. Yes, the kid had every right to be proud.
But now, on the eve of his 140-pound title fight with Josh Taylor — a big, mean, highly skilled boxer, with victories over just about every kind of fighter there is — Lopez has been saying he wants to kill Taylor in the ring. And I find myself wondering whatever happened to that kid I met in Corpus Christi, Texas.
“He’s here,” Lopez says as we sit in New York just days before his upcoming title shot. “He’s a kid that’s turning into a man.”
But saying you want to kill a guy, is that how a man should act?
“Ain’t nothing wrong with it,” he says. “You’re going to tell me boxing is not a deadly sport?”
We bat this around for nine more minutes, on camera. Lopez rails against what he perceives as the hypocrisy of fans and media types. He asks if there’s any real difference between what he said about wanting to kill Taylor and Taylor’s own infuriated prediction — that the undefeated, former undisputed champion will leave Lopez so physically and psychologically battered that he’ll never fight again. Lopez goes on, attempting to reconcile all his talk about killing with his oft-expressed desire to be a role model and serve God. He doesn’t arrive at a coherent answer, though not for a lack of trying, as the now-25-year-old variously invokes Jesus, Walt Disney and Kobe Bryant. It’s a spirited discussion, but not off the rails.
Then his father walks in, cameras still running. He’s drinking a can of soda, wearing sunglasses and white sweats. You can feel Teofimo’s mood darken.
“I was outside,” the father explains. “My wife was calling me, telling me ‘Go inside and make sure he doesn’t say s—.'”
When we’re ready to resume, Teofimo turns back to me and looks me in the eye.
“You know why I say I’d kill this man?” he asks. “It’s ’cause I want to die, low-key.”
“What does that mean?” I ask, “Dying low-key?”
“I want to die. At least if I die, I die doing what I love.”
“You want to die?”
“Yeah, but only in my ring, you know?”
No, I don’t know.
“I want to die in the ring,” he says again. “But like, that’s a little feeling inside that I do want to have.”
“A fear?” I ask.
“No, not a fear. There’s no fear in me. Nah, the only person I fear –“
“I got to interrupt.” It’s his father. “I gotta.”
“The only person I fear –“
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“You gotta explain yourself,” says his father, also named Teofimo. “That you’re willing to die in the ring. That’s what you’re trying to say.”
I’ve seen this dynamic before, usually at our fighter meetings. The elder Lopez is trying to protect a son he loves dearly. He’s trying to placate his wife. But he’s also pushing his way on stage and becoming the center of attention.
His son turns to me. “It’s cool,” he says curtly. “Just ask me the questions.”
Of course I’ve saved the most difficult one for last. Several weeks ago, Teofimo told Punsh Drunk Boxing, “If they want the Black fighters, they can keep them.”
He was referring to several rising young stars with whom he now shares the spotlight in Top Rank’s promotional stable. Less clear was his intent. Jealousy? Narcissism? Racism? I asked him to be specific.
“It’s just a bias, part of what I’m seeing in our field,” the son of Honduran immigrants says. “Because it just seems like there’s certain ones favoritizing others … I believe the commentators that are on the stand of ESPN are a bit biased to certain fighters.”
His explanations are all over the place: part opinion, part rationalization, part fantasy. Some are downright libelous, but taken in their entirety, profoundly disappointing. Just two years ago, Lopez was considered the great, gleaming hope of a decrepit sport, its most dynamic young boxer, the consensus fighter of the year after his 2020 upset of Vasiliy Lomachenko (a fight that only happened, in truth, because his overbearing father pushed so relentlessly for it).
Now, the more outlandish Teofimo becomes, the more his father tries to rein him in. “Off the record!” he yells. “That’s off the record!”
“Keep this on record,” Teofimo insists.
In a matter of moments, the shoot has gone off the rails.
“Off the record!” screams his father.
“No,” the son insists, “it’s not off the record … Keep this on the record.”
It goes on. And on.
“They’re going to destroy us!” says the father.
“Then let it be,” says his son. “What are you scared of?”
“We talked about it before we came here.”
“Stop being a b—- about it,” says the son. “And handle it like a man.”
I have real affection for the Lopezes, and a deep respect for Teofimo, though he’s made it infinitely more difficult with what he’s said about his fellow fighters, the prospect of a death in the ring and our Hall of Fame analysts. Any reporter or writer is indebted, to some extent, to his sources. And the truth is, no one has been more open with me, or more candid, than this family.
They’ve told me of their demons and their struggles, their triumphs and the dysfunction that engulfs three generations. Likely every family, at some level, is dysfunctional, but it’s the dysfunction itself that tends to produce prizefighters. The Lopezes — father and son, mostly — have put their dynamic on full display. I’ve watched through a lens both personal and professional as Teofimo became a champion, then a four-belt champion. He got married. He had a son. Now he’s getting divorced, and by his own account, facing a custody battle. He talked openly about dying by suicide. Along the way, he didn’t merely lose his titles but risked his life in the process, fighting despite an acute condition called pneumomediastinum with air present in his chest and thoracic cavity.
“You almost died,” I reminded him last summer.
“Good,” he said. “Good. I needed that … to realize how dark and bad people really are.”
Now a year later, after our interview has devolved into a shouting match between father and son, and after the father finally leaves the room, Teofimo turns to me again.
“That right there, I’ve been dealing with for a while,” he says. “My family is in fear of everything I speak out. You know how frustrating that is?”
“I think I understand …”
“No, not a clue,” he says. His voice is ice, but you can feel his heat. “You have not a clue. You have not a clue of what I’ve seen, what I’ve gone through, and what I’m continuing to walk through. None of y’all.”
“He’s on a razor’s edge,” someone in the room says after he leaves. Sure. But so is everyone in his orbit. Teofimo Lopez isn’t merely willing to die on his shield; part of him apparently wants to. And you’re always left to wonder: was it fight hype or a peculiarly coded cry for help? One hazards a razor’s edge just in covering him, that invisible line separating the journalist from the voyeur.
Lopez’s last fight, already his eighth at Madison Square Garden, ended with a controversial and disappointing decision over a crafty but light-hitting European contender, Sandor Martin. As Teofimo now explains it, he fought with a broken left hand, which was surgically repaired weeks later. What’s remembered, however, came moments after the decision was announced, when, fully aware that the cameras were rolling, he turned to his father and asked:
“Do I still got it?”
It was a remarkable admission from a fighter. But six months later, and back at the Garden, the question remains unanswered. What’s more, there’s another question: How to define “it”? Does it refer to that mutually exploitive thread tethering Teofimo to his audience? Or was he talking about actual boxing?
His career is like a bullet train. You don’t know if he wants to pull the cord and jump off. Or blow it all up. On paper, Taylor should win. He has deeper experience, more natural size and, despite not having fought in 16 months, more stability in both his personal life and his training regimen.
But that’s mere logic, typically absent from the Lopez narrative. Could I also see Teofimo uncoiling a power shot, a thing of terrible beauty that changes the fight?
Whatever goes down Saturday night, though, pray that neither fighter’s prediction comes to pass. And pray for the kid who so wanted to please, and now lives behind his famous fighter’s mask. Teofimo could still lose by winning, or even win by losing. But the only true victory will have to be earned entirely on his own. By himself. Over himself.
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