Inside the Longstanding Tension Between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teófimo López

The history between the two fighters is filled with taunting and threats, confrontation and premature coronation, with López's father serving both as his son’s trainer and chief Lomachenko antagonist. But what really happened?
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In the years before The Incident, one of boxing’s top matchmakers watched tension bubble and escalate between two of his company’s top fighters. This being boxing, sport of not kings but chaos, the machinations weren’t unusual—yet. The matchmaker: Brad Goodman of Top Rank. The future combatants in question: Vasiliy Lomachenko, one of the best fighters alive, and Teófimo López, a top prospect then blossoming into boxing’s youngest world champion.

On the surface, the two lightweights held little in common beyond their similarity in size. Lomachenko grew up in Ukraine, trained in traditional dance, won two Olympic gold medals, turned pro later and fought for a title in only his second pro bout. López, born in Brooklyn, compiled a less-decorated amateur pedigree but turned pro sooner and climbed the professional ranks quickly.

Eventually, López began to fight on Lomachenko undercards, and that’s where the tension heightened, and the source of that very heightening most often stemmed from the same place—López's father, his son’s trainer and chief Lomachenko antagonist. (Many refer to the elder Lopez as Junior, since the fighting Teófimo López is thought to be the third generation to share the name; his father isn’t sure.)

“It was sickening how jealous [the dad] got,” Goodman told Sports Illustrated. He cited another episode that predates The Incident, meaning it took place before late 2018. Goodman cannot recall exactly when, but he does remember that López the father saw so many portraits of Lomachenko hanging inside the arena that he commissioned a spray-painted likeness of his son and placed it right in front of the most prominent Lomachenko banner. This was, more or less, boxing’s version of guerrilla marketing.

The Incident occurred soon after, on Dec. 6, 2018, or two days before Lomachenko would headline a show at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The Ukrainian was fighting José Pedraza, an opponent who, at that point, had lost only once. As a top prospect, López would climb into a boxing ring for his fourth bout of the year. His opponent, Mason Menard, appeared to present a step up in terms of competition level.

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Two days before the bout, Top Rank held a typical prefight press conference. The main fighters, like Lomachenko, filed onto the dais. The undercard fighters, like the younger López, sat off to the side. That apparently did not sit well with the older López, Goodman says. “It was later that night,” Goodman continues. “We were sitting by the elevator at [the Stewart Hotel.] I’m watching Lomachenko sign autographs, mind his own business, and then I saw Teo go into the elevator, up to his room.” Goodman also saw the elder López make a U-turn, exit the elevator and beeline toward Lomachenko.

Two witnesses, including Goodman, independently confirmed the rant that happened next. López the father did go straight to Lomachenko. He got right up in the boxer’s chest. He called him "a midget." He made slashing gestures across his throat. He said that his son would be the star that weekend, not one of the top pound-for-pound boxers in the world, that Teo would kick your ass and end your career and even he will kill you.

The elder López doesn’t deny The Incident or any of the details the eyewitnesses provided. But he does say that the press conference did not upset him; rather, Lomachenko did. López the father says that Lomachenko ignored him by that elevator, that the boxer looked away when the father said hello, that “he acted like he didn’t even know me, like I wasn’t even there.”

His take on the confrontation:

“I just turned and around and said, screw this guy.”

“I told him we were going to steal his show. Again.”

“And then, after that, we’re going to come and take your neck off.”

According to all parties, Loma just stared back, silent but not blinking. Goodman had seen a lot of barking between fight camps over the years, but this was more extreme. Eventually, team members heard Lomachenko speak. He said, roughly, “Nobody talks to me like that. I’m not an animal. Don’t treat me like a dog.”

To Marco Contreras, Lomachenko’s assistant trainer, the fighter looked more confused than upset as onlookers stood between him and the elder López. Contreras could only shake his head, asking, like everyone near the elevator, “What just happened?” Goodman called Lomachenko’s manager, Egis Klimas, who was furious. (Klimas could not be reached for comment.) Lawyers got involved. It was decided, quickly, that Dec. 8, 2018, would be the last time the two boxers would fight on the same card. “Everybody just got [wild],” López the father says. “They thought I was going to hit him or something. I just told him those words, and I just left, and they made a big, big thing out of it.”

His take on the dots connecting:

“That’s basically what happened.

“And look where we’re at now.”

Now, almost two years later, Lomachenko will meet the fighting López in the most intriguing main event in boxing since COVID-19 shut down sports—an anticipated match-up set in motion by The Incident. Their fight is scheduled for Oct. 17 in Las Vegas and will be shown on ESPN. It has been billed as the War of Words, a fitting moniker for two opponents who continue lobbing insults back and forth. Goodman wonders whether the elder Lopez went all Anger Mismanagement as a strategy to ruffle Lomachenko, who’s normally clinical, robotic, unflappable; an ice-cold technician. Goodman also believes that Lopez the father is jealous of Lomachenko and his father, Anatoly, who like the elder Lopez is both his son’s trainer and primary influence—only, so far, to significantly more acclaim.

Naturally, the elder López disagrees with those notions. Asked whether he saw the confrontation as threatening or strategic, he says, “I didn’t do it that way.” Meaning threatening. “I did it,” he says, “because I believed in what I was saying.”

The elder López extends his reasoning one step further. He says he started to pay rent in Lomachenko’s head that night, the proof being the wilder approach the Ukrainian boxer took against Pedraza and how he still failed to register a knockout against a bigger boxer who’s closer in walk-around size to the boxing López. “That’s the point where I knew I had him,” López the father says. “The guy is mentally messed up. I know he’s worried about this fight. Because I let him know that a beast, a lion, was coming after him.”

Goodman wouldn’t come right out and say this, but Lomachenko confidants believe he desires to hurt the younger López in part for his father’s diatribe that night and the hundreds, if not thousands, of insults he has spilled since. “[Lomachenko] will punish him in the ring,” Contreras says. Goodman, in a bit of an upset, says he can see either boxer winning, leading the matchmaker to change his mind almost daily. The one theory Goodman does not subscribe to is that Lomachenko will become unglued, that all the talk will get to him. But López is the bigger fighter, and he can and does exhibit explosive power, too.

Either way, where many story lines in boxing seem manufactured, and where most verbal battles seem, at best, like part or all show, the animosity between these camps seems not only real but real pronounced. The elder López says he isn’t worried; in fact, if his son wins, he believes The Incident will have played a role. “Put all your money on my son, man,” he says, almost shouting into the phone. “You’re gonna get rich!”

The night of the confrontation, López the father did finally take the elevator upstairs. He told his son about what happened, about the boasts, threats and promises he had made.

“Don’t worry, dad,” the father says his son responded. “I always go out and prove you right.”