“Do I still got it?”
What was your answer? When Teofimo Lopez, wearing a wry smile and as many belts as his junior-welterweight frame could support, asked the soldout crowd in The Theater at Madison Square Garden, asked anyone who understood the reference, asked you that question—what was your answer?
The most straightforward answer came from Josh Taylor, the now former junior-welterweight kingpin who suffered his first defeat Saturday, losing a unanimous decision to Lopez. Despite favorable odds and judging, Taylor confirmed Lopez’s class in his complimentary post-fight interview and—more important, even more sincerely—in his failed bid to stave off similar questions. Since he upset Vasiliy Lomachenko, Lopez has been laid comfortably on the leather sofa, with armchair behaviorists, phrenologists, and psychotherapists querying him, scratching down analyses of his words and deeds. But Taylor too, has looked every bit the mess. Fighting just once since unifying the division against Jose Ramirez in 2021, Taylor barely escaped Jack Catterall before running into a variable of Lopez that went unaccounted for in the calculations by makers of odds and matches.
Taylor does not still have it. It here is aptly indistinct: for what set Taylor apart was not some easily discernible talent or attribute (for example, speed or power, intelligence, or stamina); no, Taylor’s elevating aspect was a belligerent and unbridled malice that augmented his more traditional arsenal. In writing of Taylor’s gritty win over Regis Prograis, Hannibal Boxing suggested that “there is something to whatever it is that allows a fighter to give more of himself in courting the impossible, and whatever that thing is—willpower, mental toughness, guts—it is not distributed evenly among fighters.” Taylor once had this nebulous but crucial quality in abundance too. The toughness remains, but what else does? A move to welterweight might proffer an answer, but only the staunchest “Tartan Tornado” supporters should expect an encouraging one.
Of course, everything can change with a win. Lopez is proof of that. He is today, in the afterglow of another successful regicide, more the fighter who forced Lomachenko to download with dial-up than the fighter who gave Geroge Kambosos his fifteen minutes of fame or escaped a crafty but unheralded Sandor Martin. It may be best to temper expectations when forecasting the future of the erratic Lopez. However, there was ample evidence Saturday that he can summon his best against the best to brilliant effect.
Despite a strong start from Taylor, one punctuated by left hands to the body, a reach advantage ominously exploited, and the sort of insightful counsel (“Go out there and figure him out”) that distinguishes Lopez’s trainer and father, Teofimo Sr., Lopez gained control of the fight early and never relinquished it. Perhaps some unspoken code is embedded in that seemingly useless utterance. Because Lopez figured Taylor out soon after—and when he did, both fighters fought as though they knew it.
One adjustment Lopez made was to stop fighting beyond Taylor’s range. At that distance, Lopez was safe but his counters, however well-timed and chosen, fell short. Instead, he started stepping inside Taylor’s punches to slip them, putting himself in a position to land. And Lopez threw those counters with murderous intent. While Taylor took these punches well, buckled and bowed occasionally—and even eager for the canvas by fight’s end?—Lopez hit Taylor cleanly and crisply enough to discourage him, a remarkable achievement against a fighter fueled by spite. Lopez also stopped backing up in a straight line, a tactical error that saw him eat a handful of crosses in the early going. Employing a crafty and unpredictable lateral movement, Lopez became more elusive and created angles to attack.
Even overmatched, Taylor managed to land at times. But these flashes of success only confirmed Lopez’s superiority and, for those who questioned it, his mental toughness. If you wondered how Lopez would fare against an eager fouler, you got your answer Saturday. Taylor did his best dirty work: once hitting Lopez while he was sitting on the ropes, once holding Lopez down with his forearm and punching him with the other, artfully swinging low at opportune times—Lopez rarely protested and seemed even to appreciate these forays into the unsavory as proof of Taylor’s desperation.
There were other telling moments, like Taylor’s cracking left in the seventh, a punch that elicited a smile, step forward, and rejoinder from Lopez. Or that barking headbutt in the eleventh, the type that makes a fighter back away and implore the referee to intervene. Ask Shane Mosley or Ricardo Torres how a skull can precipitate knuckles. Hurt, Lopez nevertheless took ownership of his recovery, pinned his right glove to his temple, and moved swiftly to safety. These are not the actions of a mentally fragile fighter; they might, however, be the actions of a man who is his most comfortable fighting.
When the bell to start the final round rang, that same man had reason to believe the fight was his. He would have been wrong to think so and unjustly penalized for fighting according to his assumption. But Lopez, who had found the opportunity to showboat earlier, remained focused, reducing the bully to harmlessness. Never has Taylor looked so beaten, bereft of answers, resigned to defeat as he did when Lopez pasted him for those final thirty seconds.
Can you simply drift off to sleep? Or do you need the cool distraction of the backlit screen, a quiet dialogue to hush the voices in your head? Is it the vascular meandering of a nightcap that separates you from the anxieties of the day? Lopez might very well need such help. There are ample distractions in his life, perhaps none more imposing or bitter than his impending custody battle. But there is more to him than his troubles. And you know it—because you know how you answered his question.