Time is the essence of Magdaleno L�pez's watch-repair business. Inside his cramped storefront cubicle on a backstreet in Mexico City, minutes are measured in a cacophony of ticks. "My father has had this shop forever," says Magdaleno's son Ricardo. "One needs patience to last so long." Right eye framed by a loupe, Magdaleno carefully lowers a pair of tweezers into the movement of an ancient Mido wristwatch. Delicately, he places a tiny screw into a tiny hole. The 31-year-old Ricardo looks on with the wide-eyed wonder of a six-year-old. "When I was little, my father let me hang out here," he says. "I didn't fix watches, I destroyed them."
Ricardo is still little, at 5'5" and 105 pounds, and still destructive. Only now he demolishes prizefighters in boxing's lightest divisions. The undisputed strawweight champ is unbeaten in 48 pro fights, 36 of which he has won by knockout. He has successfully defended his WBC title 22 times, a record surpassed only by a 200-pounder named Joe Louis, who successfully defended his heavyweight title 25 times. "I am so happy Ricardo is not my weight," says six-time world champ Julio Cesar Chavez, whose lowest weight class was bantamweight (118 pounds). "I could never have beaten him."
On May 15 L�pez will balloon to 108 pounds and take on WBC junior flyweight champ Saman Sorjaturong, a Thai fighter who lasted two rounds at strawweight against him in 1993. "For the boxing purist, to see a Ricardo L�pez fight is like savoring el pastel de tres leches" says countryman Jos� Sulaim�n, the WBC's longtime president. He's referring to the delectable three-milk dessert that's a specialty of Mexican cuisine.
For a guy roughly the same weight as George Foreman's last room-service order, L�pez is a deadly puncher who launches his blows from long distance, thereby staying clear of punishment. "Ricardo has perfect range," says Joe Goossen, who has trained three world champions. (L�pez is trained by Ignacio Berisdian.) "He's tall for his weight and never lets you get too close unless he wants you to. He has a variety of punches and throws them nonstop from a variety of angles. Roy Jones Jr. is the best pound-for-pound athlete in boxing, but Ricardo is the best pound-for-pound boxer."
Like his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, L�pez has a lithe grace, a bashful smile and a broad brow. He doesn't drink or smoke, but he loves to talk. He's serious but never dull. "I love fighting in New York City," he says solemnly. "But when I drink the water, I get diarrhea. In Mexico we call it Washington's revenge." L�pez wears the same sober expression whether he's telling a joke or saying a prayer. Of the two, saying a prayer is more likely, since he celebrates each victory by praying to the Madonnas at four Mexico City churches.
"Before each round Ricardo looks up at the heavens, then goes out to kill, kill, kill," Sulaim�n says. "It's like he's asking permission from God to annihilate the other guy."
L�pez is modest of mien even in prefight press conferences, in which combatants typically provoke one another, as much to hype the fight as to gain the upper hand psychologically. "How can I hurt my opponent with my mouth?" says L�pez, who usually behaves himself at such events. "My education and my feelings cannot allow me to do that. I will hurt him in the ring with my hands."
Any challenger who carries the fight to L�pez does so at his peril. Backed to the ropes, L�pez plants body blows as precisely as his old man resets a mainspring. "Ricardo has the surgical expertise to dichotomize and disassemble a man," says Don King, the Professor Irwin Corey of boxing, who promotes L�pez's fights. "He dissects an opponent's bilateral angles methodically and calculatedly, wreaking devastation with a fury that is incredible. Starting with the abdomen, he inoculates his foe with power injections to the kidney, liver and solar plexus before moving up the chest to the cardiovascular system and other interminable organs. When he reaches the cranium, the opponent responds with little grunts and moans, which tell Ricardo that the message is going home. In Mexico he's called Dr. Finito. In English that's Dr. Finish, bro. God may have your soul, but Ricardo has your ass."
Ricardo was delivered by cesarean section—possibly the only time he didn't go the distance. He was a heavy baby, almost nine pounds. "The problem is that I stayed that weight for the rest of my life," he says. Ricardo's upbringing was decidedly middle-class, and he attended military school for six years. Perhaps because schoolmates called him Frijolito (Little Bean), he spent his childhood raising lumps on them. "I used to get into two or three fights a week," he says. "I was never expelled, but nobody went out of his way to welcome me back each year, either."
Young L�pez modeled himself after the incomparable Robinson. "I heard that as a teenager Sugar Ray made money selling milk," he says. "I told myself, If he started out selling milk, I can, too." And he did, working part time as a delivery boy for a dairy. L�pez also screened videos of Robinson's fights and aped his footwork. One thing he didn't copy was the size of Robinson's entourage. Team L�pez is limited to Magdaleno, two family friends and Ricardo's older brother, Sergio.