Posted: Fri February 1, 2013 11:16AM; Updated: Fri February 1, 2013 1:12PM
Chris Mannix
Chris Mannix>INSIDE BOXING

Having served his suspension, Lopez hoping to stage comeback

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Juan Manuel Lopez
Juan Manuel Lopez (right) has lost twice, with both losses coming against Orlando Salido.
AP

Barely two years ago, Juan Manuel Lopez was one of the fastest rising 126-pound stars in boxing.

Then came a knockout loss -- two of them, actually -- to a Mexican journeyman followed by a bizarre accusation that put Lopez on the shelf.

Two years ago Yuri Gamboa was another feared featherweight, a former Olympic gold medalist who blended crushing pro power with polished amateur skills.

A 15-month self-imposed layoff took the shine off of him, and a recent report linking him to a south Florida company allegedly distributing performance enhancing drugs has called into question all that he has accomplished.

A lot can happen in two years, can't it?

In a telephone interview from Puerto Rico, Lopez contemplates the question. He was riding high in 2011, fresh off a knockout win over Mexican star Rafael Marquez, when he stepped into the ring with Orlando Salido for the first time. He was confident, maybe cocky, and in the eighth round he got knocked out. Then, last March, he was back in with Salido. He was more focused this time -- and in the tenth round, he got knocked out again.

"What can I say," Lopez said. "His style was made for mine. Sometimes, that's what matters most."

Of course, Salido had nothing to do with what happened next. In the postfight interview Lopez -- perhaps still groggy from the knockout -- made wild accusations that the referee, Roberto Ramirez Sr., by all accounts a good official and a standup guy, stopped the fight because he had a gambling problem, insinuating, in a not so subtle way, that Ramirez had money on the fight. The Puerto Rican boxing commission acted swiftly, slapping Lopez with a one-year suspension, a harsh -- maybe too harsh -- penalty that stalled Lopez's career.

Lopez has admitted he was wrong to accuse Ramirez of fixing the fight, and apologized, although he disagreed with the severity of the suspension when it was handed down.

In many ways, it was a blessing.

In many ways, he needed a break.

"The first few months [of the suspension], I stayed away from the gym," Lopez said. "I took some time to be with my kids. I picked them up from school every day and spent a lot of quality time with them. I took my family to the beach. I just enjoyed my life. The silver lining in all this was that the break was good for me."

A prolonged break was less satisfying for Gamboa, whose career has been unraveling. Last year, Gamboa was penciled into a showdown with lightweight star Brandon Rios. There was an announcement, a press conference... and no Gamboa, who abruptly backed out of the fight. The decision led to a lawsuit, putting Gamboa on ice. He returned last month, winning an unimpressive unanimous decision over Michael Farenas, and was in the news again this week when the Miami New Times reported that Gamboa, 31, was among the professional athletes that were allegedly provided PED's from a local lab.

Gamboa (22-0) has yet to publicly comment on the report.

For years, Gamboa and Lopez were inextricably linked, two superstars in the making building towards a superfight. Promoter Bob Arum talked about matching Gamboa and Lopez at Met Life Stadium in New York. Networks tripped over themselves to get in line to buy the fight.

They are linked again, this time for reasons nobody hoped. On Saturday, Lopez (31-2) will take the first step towards reclaiming his career when he faces Aldimar Silva Santos (18-3) in Puerto Rico on Feb. 2. Lopez says he had more energy for this training camp than any he could remember. He added trainer Freddie Trinidad, a relative of legendary Puerto Rican star Felix Trinidad, to his corner and says he will be more under control in the ring.

"We talked a lot about being calm in the ring, about not trying to finish the fight in two or three rounds," Lopez said. "If the fight goes the distance, it goes the distance. Once you get in the ring, sometimes you forget your training and try to finish a guy off. You can't do that with every guy. You have to be smart, you have to be intelligent."

Lopez says he has not ruled out a fight with Gamboa, but that seems a long way off. Even if the PED report is true, Gamboa likely won't face any blowback. He has never failed a drug test as a professional. But the damage to his reputation could be permanent, and Lopez said if they did fight he would insist on comprehensive drug testing.

"If [the report] is true," Lopez said, "the credibility of his whole career is in question."

Two fighters, two careers gone sideways. The days of Lopez and Gamboa ruling the lighter weight divisions seem like a distant memory. Two years is longer than it seems.

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