Friday March 9th, 2012

The rise to superstar status can be bumpy, the cliffs steep. Last April, Juan Manuel Lopez was on the cusp of elite status. Fast, good looking with a powerful left hook, Lopez was a rare lighter-weight fighter with potential wide-ranging appeal. He was the unquestioned money man in the 126-pound division; his promoter, Bob Arum, envisioned him fighting fellow prospect Yuri Gamboa in front of a thick crowd at MetLife Stadium.

On his way up, however, Lopez tripped. Facing Mexican bruiser Orlando Salido, Lopez unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a war. He ate a perfectly placed right hand in the fifth round that put him down; in the eighth, with Salido winging punches at him in the corner, the referee stepped in and stopped the fight.

"It was a big shock to me," Lopez said in a telephone interview. "I really didn't think he could beat me. It shook me up."

Lopez says there were reasons he lost to Salido. At the time, Lopez was immersed in a messy divorce with his wife, Barbara, that fractured his focus. He says he was working with a different nutritionist and that he went into the ring feeling heavier, slower than he had felt in any of his previous fights.

Boxing's Pound-For-Pound Top 15 | Gallery

"Everything going into that fight was just wrong," Lopez said. "My mind, my body, everything. I wasn't mentally focused, I wasn't concentrating. And I felt very slow in there. I couldn't make the moves that I should have."

Lopez said he didn't dwell much on the loss ("My family really picked me up," he said), instead becoming determined to avenge it. Last October, Lopez returned to the ring and destroyed Mike Oliver in two rounds. On Saturday night Lopez (31-1) will get his rematch when he challenges Salido (37-11-2) for the WBO featherweight title in San Juan, Puerto Rico (10 p.m. ET, Showtime). It's a fight Lopez didn't necessarily need to get his career back on track, but one he badly wanted.

It's a delicious matchup for fight fans: Lopez and Salido rank 14th and 15th, respectively, in SI.com's pound-for-pound ratings.

"I want my title back, I want to prove that I can beat him," Lopez said. "That loss set me back. It made me start all over again. That's why I needed to do this."

Lopez expects Salido to come in confident, and he is.

"Entering the first fight, I had some doubts but now that I have beaten Juanma and I know I can beat him again," Salido said. "I am 1,000 percent sure I can win. Even though I won last year, I still have something to prove. In the ring, we have a score to settle."

Lopez, 28, believes beating Salido will put him right back on track. He says his relationship with Barbara is amicable now and that his body is in prime shape. He says he wants one or two more fights at featherweight before moving up, where bigger fights await him. He wants one of those fights to be against Gamboa, his longtime rival who has charted a parallel career course.

"A victory on Saturday puts me right back where I want to be," Lopez said. "This is the biggest fight of my career. I have to win. I want big fights, I want Gamboa. That's the fight I want. The money is there. No more waiting, let's do it."

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