Teofimo Lopez bounced off the ropes, thrusting his entire body into each side of the ring, before stopping in the center and doing a backflip. Then he lay down on the mat and added a few snow angels for good measure.
Lopez had plenty to be exuberant about on that October evening in Las Vegas. Not only did he pull off the upset to dethrone pound-for-pound stalwart Vasiliy Lomachenko; he won the fight in impressive fashion.
At that moment, the undisputed lightweight champion — the WBO, WBA, IBF lightweight titleholder and WBC franchise champion — looked forward to a transformative and busy 2021. But that wave of joy quickly turned to frustration.
When boxers hold multiple titles, there’s a rotation system utilized to decide which sanctioning body’s No. 1 contender receives his championship crack, and when. First up for Lopez (16-0, 12 KOs) was a fight with Australia’s George Kambosos Jr., the IBF’s mandatory challenger. If the 24-year-old were to take care of the sizable underdog, Lopez would be able to move on, perhaps, to a fight with WBC titleholder Devin Haney, rising star Gervonta Davis or maybe even social media sensation Ryan Garcia.
But this is boxing, a sport that laughs in the face of the best-laid plans. The matchup with Kambosos (19-0, 10 KOs) was first slated for May 29, more than seven months after Lopez bested Lomachenko. Four hundred days have now passed since Lopez stepped into the ring. But on Saturday, after eight different date changes, the pair will finally square off at New York’s Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET, DAZN).
“It goes to show how strong I am, that’s what I learned from all this,” Lopez, ESPN’s No. 1 lightweight, said of the long wait. “The timing of the man above is always perfect.”
The road to Lopez-Kambosos has involved everything one might expect from a sweet science soap opera: in-fighting between boxer and promoter, accusations of wrongdoing from all involved parties, and of course, plenty of lawyers.
The promoter of the fight has changed from Triller to Matchroom Boxing, the streaming service that will broadcast it is different, and the long hiatus has only served to raise the stakes.
“I’ve been in boxing for 31 years and I’ve never seen a fight with this kind of roller coaster,” said Kambosos’ promoter Lou DiBella, who programmed HBO Boxing from 1989 to 2000. “This has been a strange one. It certainly has increased the pitch of contentiousness between the fighters and their camps. It’s much more heated than it was at the beginning.”
As we get ready to (hopefully) reach a conclusion of this saga on Saturday, ESPN takes you inside the winding, drama-filled path to Lopez-Kambosos.
Bob Arum’s Top Rank Boxing has promoted Lopez since he made his pro debut in 2016, fresh off a run at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. He didn’t medal while representing his father’s home country of Honduras, but the talent he displayed in the lead-up was apparent.
Under the guidance of matchmakers Bruce Trampler and Brad Goodman, Lopez was fast-tracked to a title shot. He accomplished the feat in just his 15th fight, a second-round TKO of Richard Commey in December 2019.
That breakthrough performance was televised by ESPN following the Heisman Trophy presentation, prime real estate on the network’s schedule.
The placement made plenty of sense. After all, Lopez was built into a rising star on the platform, and the exposure culminated in healthy viewership for ESPN’s telecast of his decision win over Lomachenko.
So it was seemingly a fait accompli that Lopez’s routine title defense vs. Kambosos would land on ESPN as well. Lopez’s deal with Top Rank extends several years and the promoter has an exclusive partnership with the network that lasts until 2025. All Top Rank-promoted cards are broadcast on one of ESPN’s platforms.
The roadblock was a financial disagreement between Lopez and Top Rank. Lopez earned $1.35 million for the Lomachenko bout, a career-high purse. He expected to make far more after the win, but according to sources, was instead offered $1.25 million for the Kambosos fight. Lopez’s manager, David McWater, countered Top Rank with a request for more than double that for the Kambosos fight, according to sources. Top Rank declined and held firm with its offer.
A stalemate between Lopez and Top Rank ensued. Relief was available in the form of a purse bid, where the open market would determine the value of Lopez vs. Kambosos. Usually, fights head to public auction when two different promoters can’t agree on a deal. But a fighter and his own promoter? This was atypical.
“We evaluate how much a fight is worth … and try to close the deal,” Arum said before February’s purse bid. “If a fight is just a fight, and the asking [price] is appreciably more than what we’re able to pay, we just pass and let someone else do it. That’s the only way you keep from going out of business. You can’t keep chasing.
“We have a 3½-year contract after the fight with [Kambosos]. If [Matchroom] put him on their platform, he comes right back to our platform and presumably he’s got viewers from their platform and now maybe they’re interested in him.”
The purse bid was set for Feb. 25 at the IBF’s headquarters in Springfield, New Jersey.
Matchroom Boxing chairman Eddie Hearn told ESPN he was surprised that the fight reached a purse bid after Lopez’s career-changing moment against Lomachenko. He was vocal about his desire to bid on the fight and ultimately outbid Top Rank with a commitment of $3.506 million. Top Rank bid $2.315 million. But there was a surprise third bidder, a new entrant to the fight game: Triller.
The TikTok competitor enjoyed great commercial success with the November 2020 exhibition between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. Now, it was venturing into world championship boxing with a shocking bid of $6.018 million.
The direction of Lopez’s career — at least for one fight — was now in the hands of Ryan Kavanaugh, a boxing newbie who made a fortune as a Hollywood producer.
“We want to show we’re taking the sport of boxing seriously and respecting boxing, we’re not trying to make a mockery of it,” Kavanaugh, Triller’s co-owner said afterward. “That’s what this fight does for us.”
Lopez and Kambosos faced off for the first time at a news conference inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on April 16 in Atlanta, hours before Jake Paul and Ben Askren would step on the scale ahead of Triller Fight Club’s second PPV.
It didn’t take long for chaos to ensue. Lopez removed his shirt and threatened to attack Kambosos. The challenger pressed forward, too. The insults flowed freely.
At the Paul-Askren bout the following day, the fighters were separated by security on numerous occasions as they navigated the sprawling stadium floor. The hostility was real between a long-odds underdog with a feisty personality and a young champion looking to crush anything in his path to superstardom.
“I am not trying to kill George Kambosos Jr.; he has a family afterwards, I’m thinking about that,” Lopez said. “But I gotta do what I had to do. I gotta set a tone and let everybody know: Don’t disrespect my family.”
After that encounter, Lopez and Kambosos wouldn’t have to wait long to put hands on one another: The fight was set for June 5 in Miami at the home of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins.
But a seemingly out-of-nowhere decision by a boxing legend forced Triller to adjust those plans. Floyd Mayweather and Logan Paul pushed forward with an exhibition on Showtime PPV on June 6, a rare Sunday boxing event. With two massive personalities scheduled to compete on the same weekend — and in the same city — Triller shifted the fight again.
The new date: June 19.
Kambosos lives in Sydney, Australia, but held training camp at Sweatbox Boxing Gym in Davie, Florida. When fight week rolled around, Kambosos needed only to travel about 25 miles to downtown Brickell, where the festivities would be held ahead of his first title fight.
The hotel was set up with Triller Fight Club signage, and the nearby baseball stadium was ready to go, too. Musical artists Snoop Dogg, Meek Mill and Lunay were among those set to perform at the fight.
Only Lopez never made it to Miami. He wasn’t feeling well when he attended the Shakur Stevenson-Jeremiah Nakathila fight in New Jersey on June 12. The following Tuesday, news broke that Lopez had tested positive for COVID.
Triller immediately announced the fight would be rescheduled for Aug. 14. Lopez remained in Las Vegas, where he lives and trains, while he recovered. It was weeks before he could resume training.
“I did everything I could possibly to not get COVID,” Lopez said. “And I apologized to everybody because it was 12 weeks of my hard work that I had to put in. … But don’t hold me accountable for something that’s happening in this world right now.”
Kavanaugh claimed Triller lost at least $5 million on the postponement when considering the musical acts, numerous flights, hotel arrangements, stadium deposit, etc. In an attempt to recoup that money, Triller sought to stage the fight on Oct. 17 in Sydney.
McWater balked at the fight being pushed to October from Aug. 14, but more so at the bout being moved to Australia, where Kambosos returned after the postponement.
“To ask a guy to fly international and cut weight for 14 days while in quarantine, it’s not right,” McWater said, referring to Australia’s mandate that travelers quarantine in a hotel for two weeks upon arrival. “One guy is at a distinct disadvantage.
“If we have to, we’ll give up the title and he [Kambosos] can fight [next-available contender] Isaac Cruz somewhere for $70,000 [for the vacant title]. One of these guys is the undisputed lightweight champion of the world. The other is a mandatory contender. I don’t know when they became equals.”
Kavanaugh was adamant that the fight needed to happen overseas.
“Lopez needs to go to Australia and should be bending over backwards to make this right for Kambosos, for us and for all others who lost out due to their irresponsibility,” he said. “We have set the fight for October in Australia, which will be an even bigger draw. We have the stadium set and the PPV will be Saturday prime time. We truly hope Lopez and his camp do the right thing.”
A battle between Lopez, Kambosos and the IBF ensued. After weeks of email exchanges between lawyers and the sanctioning body, the IBF finally ruled on Aug. 9, five days before the proposed rescheduled date.
IBF president Daryl Peoples mandated that the fight can’t be held in a location that requires quarantine, and an Oct. 17 deadline was set for Triller to stage the fight somewhere else. Additionally, Triller needed to submit signed bout agreements to the IBF by Aug. 24.
Afterward, Kavanaugh threatened to hold the fight in the Middle East before finally settling on New York.
The new date: Tuesday, Oct. 5. Of course, another obstacle was soon presented. The MLB standings at the time set the table for a playoff game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox that would take place that same day.
Triller wished to avoid the conflict, and moved the fight again, this time one day earlier to Oct. 4, a Monday. The contracts were submitted to the IBF, and a rider was added that required both fighters to be vaccinated. Once again, the fight was on.
The saga wasn’t over just yet. Far from it.
Weeks ahead of the new date, Kavanaugh said he wanted to shift the fight to Oct. 16 to avoid competition from the Monday Night Football game between the Las Vegas Raiders and rival Los Angeles Chargers.
A flip of the calendar wouldn’t be so simple this time around. While the new date would land one day before the IBF deadline, the contracts were already filed with both the organization and the New York State Athletic Commission.
The IBF ruled that the fight could move 12 days, but only if both Lopez and Kambosos signed amendments to the contract agreeing to the switch.
“I want the best for my son and I think this is the big stage for him. Fighting Oct. 4 would have f—ing killed us,” said Teofimo Lopez Sr. “Everyone would have been laughing at us. I think this is the right thing to do.
“Money is not everything,” he added. “The money will come. Exposure is more important than everything in the world right now.”
Lopez was on board after a $100,000 advance against his purse was offered. But there was another issue: the venue.
Triller had already paid a six-figure deposit to Madison Square Garden to hold the fight at the approximately 5,600-capacity Hulu Theater, which it forfeited.
The fight would now be held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Lopez’s hometown. The arena gained a fight from its main competition, so Triller also was forced to pay a six-figure settlement fee to avoid a lawsuit from MSG, which had already sold tickets to the bout.
Now, Triller just needed a sign-off from Kambosos, and it didn’t appear, on the surface, to be a major issue. After all, it was Kambosos whom Kavanaugh sided with during an earlier dispute.
But Kambosos balked. He demanded $380,000 to move the fight, per Kavanaugh. He also wanted his purse in escrow. Kambosos didn’t budge. Kavanaugh stood firm, too, offering only the same deal he extended to Lopez, a $100,000 advance.
“I was willing to do whatever it takes to make this fight happen already,” Lopez said. “And the guy just didn’t wanna do it. … You were going to get $2 million as a contender. It’s a mandatory. That is, I think, the highest that a mandatory guy got since who?
“And you’re asking for more? And you’re asking for this and you’re asking for that? Who the f— are you? You don’t hold not one belt to talk that way and demand s—.”
Kambosos refused to board his flight from Australia to New York unless the disagreement was sorted. When it was apparent the stalemate couldn’t be broken, Kambosos’ lawyer, Greg Smith, requested that the IBF find Triller in default of its obligation for breach of contract.
Smith represented Canelo Alvarez in his lawsuit against Golden Boy and DAZN, and once again, his argument won. On Oct. 6, the IBF indeed found Triller in default and awarded the rights to the next-highest bidder, Matchroom Boxing.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that you’ve got to have a good legal team with you, the right people with you, and I do have a very good team around me,” Kambosos told ESPN’s Sam Bruce. “But sometimes things happen that are not in your control, one stuff-up from the champ and the whole thing went sour.”
Kambosos, ESPN’s No. 9 lightweight, forfeited his original purse in the process. He was set to earn $2,106,300, more than 12 times the 28-year-old’s career-best purse of $166,666.20, which he made for a title eliminator victory over Lee Selby last October.
“I just guess that after so long, someone is going to go, ‘I just don’t believe in it anymore,'” Hearn said. “How many times am I going to be let down before I say enough’s enough? And Kambosos clearly said enough’s enough.”
Triller forfeited its $1.2 million deposit with the IBF, and that was split between the fighters, with 75% to Lopez and 25% to Kambosos. Lopez’s purse was reduced from $3,911,700 to $3.178 million. Kambosos will now earn $1,527,100.
And Hearn landed a rising star on DAZN’s platform, if for only one fight.
“I never expected it to take this long to get here,” Hearn said. “And we were close a few times. But I never really wanted to push it to a point of writing to the IBF.
“There’s going to be more purse bids, full stop, because fighters turn around and say ‘I don’t think I’m getting the right value.’ The only way you can get the true value is in a purse bid. And we will be in every purse bid.”
After eight date switches, six different proposed locations and numerous legal exchanges, Lopez and Kambosos are ready to enter the ring Saturday night.
The ordeal has been a test of patience for Lopez, whom ESPN ranked No. 1 on its top 25 boxers under 25 list. A year filled with activity and maybe one big fight could’ve lifted him to the next level. Instead, he endured a career-long 13-month layoff.
It wasn’t all bad, though.
Along the way, Lopez agreed to an amended deal with Top Rank in June that raised his title defense minimum substantially (previously $250,000, it now sits in the seven-figure range, according to sources) and paved the way for fights on ESPN+ PPV.
“I was in shock because I’m their asset, I’m their fighter, I’m their prized winner,” Lopez said. “You don’t let go of your fighter. But things happened the way they did, there was a disagreement … it’s fine, it’s OK. It’s a partnership [now]. We don’t have bad blood.”
Top Rank is fully on board as well.
“After Teofimo takes care of business Saturday night, we look forward to promoting more of his fights on the ESPN family of networks,” said Top Rank VP Carl Moretti. “He’s the top lightweight in the world, and one of the best fighters in all of boxing. It is indeed a partnership, one that started with his pro debut and will continue for years to come.”
Top Rank was aiming for an Oct. 2 PPV fight, but after all of the date changes and drama, Lopez’s big PPV moment will have to wait until 2022.
“Three fights next year, that’s what we’re shooting for; that’s my contract,” Lopez said. “Devin [Haney], Josh Taylor, Gervonta Davis at 140. He fought at 140, why not?”
One fight Lopez isn’t interested in: a rematch with Lomachenko. “There’s no need. I took everything from him.”
Haney fights Joseph Diaz Jr. one week from Saturday in Las Vegas. The fight against the winner is a natural for Lopez for many reasons, but chief among them is the ongoing title dispute created by the WBC.
Lopez holds the organization’s “franchise” title, which is designated for star fighters who hold multiple belts. Haney also holds a WBC championship. So even though Lopez is considered the undisputed champion by many on account of the four belts he possesses, Haney also owns a legitimate claim.
“If Devin beats JoJo and [Lopez] wins, I think we make that fight straightaway,” Hearn said. “I do feel a little bit sorry for Teofimo. Lomachenko was pound-for-pound No. 1 or 2. And he beat him. He should have gone on to be a massive star, but he hasn’t had the momentum.
“I feel like he should be pushed as the face of boxing, really, after that win. And it’s not like he’s boring. He’s f—ing really exciting and he’s a great personality as well.”
A fight with Taylor would also represent the kind of major bout Lopez seeks. The undisputed 140-pound champion is promoted by Top Rank and will make the first defense of all four belts on Feb. 26 vs. Jack Catterall on ESPN+.
The first step to reaching those big fights comes Saturday. Simply stepping into the ring, at this juncture, is a win in and of itself. But Lopez will also need an actual victory over Kambosos.
“I had to go through all the sabotaging and everything that happened, the delays and the postponements in my fight to make me who I am right now today,” he said. “It goes to show how strong I am, that’s what I learned from all this.
“This fight won’t last more than one round because I want to show them: Don’t f— with me. Let me know if I lost momentum come Nov. 28.”