After nine rounds of his fight with Victor Ortiz on Saturday, Josesito Lopez stood motionless in his corner. His bruised face was expressionless in disbelief as he watched referee Jack Reiss signal the end of the contest. Lopez would soon come to the realization that fortune favors the brave.
It’s November 2008 and boxing trainer Henry Ramirez is standing at the foot of a staircase. “Jose!” he shouts. “Come down here.”
Two writers have come to the house in Big Bear, California to interview heavyweight contender Chris Arreola, but Ramirez wants to make sure they also meet his other fighter, Josesito Lopez. “Jose’s probably sleeping,” says Ramirez to the writers. “He loves to sleep.”
A minute later Lopez comes bounding down the stairs. With a wide smile and an unblemished face, he looks much younger than his 24-years. His cheery personality belies that of a prizefighter coming off the third loss of his career and struggling to make an impact in the most unforgiving of professions.
“I don’t worry about it, I just need some luck,” he says. “With hard work and a bit of luck, everything will be come together someday.” With that, he sits down on the couch and picks up a video game controller and turns on the console, ready to step into a world in which it is easier to determine his fate.
Lopez’ luck finally began to turn last month when a sequence of coincidental events led to him standing opposite Ortiz at LA’s Staples Center on the Showtime main event. The cancellation of a proposed fight with Kendall Holt freed up Lopez to fill a void created by Andre Berto’s withdrawal due to a positive steroid test. The catch was that Lopez would have to fight the former world titlist Ortiz at the 147 pound welterweight limit, something that the naturally smaller Riverside, CA native had never done before.
The size discrepancy was obvious as the first bell rang on Saturday and for nine rounds Lopez absorbed heavy blows from a man who was considerably stronger and punched with more power than Lopez had ever felt in his life. Ortiz’ superior talent saw him continually land jarring shots that rocked the normally aggressive Lopez into retreat. Few would have questioned Lopez if he went down from the assaults, but through grim determination he fired back at his foe, willingly taking two punches to land one of his own.
His wild hooks and uppercuts initially appeared to have little impact on Ortiz, but Lopez never became despondent; he’s accustomed to things not going his way. He kept swinging and swinging. At some point in the ninth Lopez landed a left hook that damaged Ortiz’ jaw, convincing the Ventura fighter, who was ahead on all three scorecards, to stay on his stool at the round’s end. The unlikely outcome is the biggest upset of the year and goes a small way to lessening the bad taste left by the Timothy Bradley-Manny Pacquiao scoring controversy earlier this month.
“There's a reason why they call me Josesito,” said Lopez after the fight, both eyes swollen and a welt under his cheek. “I'm 'Little Jose' for a reason. I've always been the skinny guy fighting the bigger guy, or the smallest Jose on the block. I'm used to it.”
Lopez’ hooks carried extra significance as they shattered the plans of Golden Boy Promotions as badly as they did his opponent’s jaw. Two weeks ago the promoters had the temerity to announce that Ortiz would meet Saul Alvarez in a multi-million dollar pay-per-view event on September 15th.
“I found it very disrespectful,” said Lopez, 27. “They couldn't wait to announce the fight after our fight was over? It was arrogant and disrespectful, to me and the sport.”
Lopez’ involvement in professional fighting goes back to his 18th birthday when he looked for a way to earn some money. He admits he wasn’t particularly talented at anything, including boxing. But the sentencing of his father to prison for drug trafficking soon after gave Lopez the impetus to make a career from the sport. Things didn’t get any easier when Lopez’ long-time trainer died a year later, resulting in Ramirez moving up from his assistant role.
In all, Lopez has now amassed a 30-4 (18) record, with many of his fights staged at remote venues such as the Doubletree Hotel in Ontario, CA and all four losses coming from close decisions, something not helped by his lack of connections to a major powerbroker.
Going into Saturday’s fight Lopez admitted that he has gone for long periods without a car and has taken a second job teaching fitness classes to help support his family. Such thoughts surely played on his mind in the fifth round during the several minutes of recovery time he was afforded when an illegal blow to the back of the head sent him to the canvas, leaving him visibly shaken.
“I was hurt,” acknowledged Lopez. “But there’s no way I could ever quit. This opportunity was too big for me. This was my Rocky moment and I wasn’t letting it go.”
That defiant attitude also led Lopez to question Ortiz’ withdrawal from the fight, even with a broken jaw.
“I have a big heart; Victor has no heart,” stated Lopez.
Lopez can be forgiven for doubting the fighting spirit of a man with an injury that left his bloody mouth fixed agape. Years of misfortune and toiling on the fringes can harden a fighter’s resolve to the point where it exceeds the normal reaches of human valor. Lopez is unable to put himself in the position of Ortiz; injuries take on greater consequence when one has already achieved so much.
Tellingly, Ortiz said earlier this week regarding criticism of last year’s loss to Floyd Mayweather: “I’m very confident in myself. I’ve done a lot in this sport. I don't need to prove anything to anyone.”
Lopez has never earned $2.5 million for a fight as Ortiz did for his showdown with Mayweather. He doesn’t know what it’s like to have tasted the glory of a world championship. He can’t imagine the sport’s two dominant promoters, Top Rank and Golden Boy, competing for his signature. He has never had a renowned boxing family tear itself apart for the privilege of training him as the Garcias did when Ortiz chose Danny over his brother Roberto and their father Eduardo.
Even after Saturday’s win, Lopez will have learned that recognition is not instant. At the post-fight press conference he was ushered off the dais after a few minutes so that Saul Alvarez could take the stage.
But perhaps Chris Arreola surmised everything that needs to be known about Lopez’ mindset when he said last week: “Don’t be fooled by Jose. He seems like just a kid but I’m telling you, no matter what he’ll never give up. He’s got balls. Big balls.”
Ronan Keenan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org