NEW YORK -- A showdown between Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa was already on most fight fans' wish lists for 2010.
Those wishes just became demands.
Lopez and Gamboa, two of boxing's most promising up-and-comers, posted a pair of scintillating knockouts in their featherweight doubleheader Saturday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, putting themselves in a position for a serious payday when they fight one another to unify the divison.
Lopez (28-0, 25 KOs), already a champion at super bantamweight, moved up to 126 pounds in a bid for Steven Luevano's WBO featherweight title. Before a near-capacity crowd of 5,142, the 26-year-old Puerto Rican applied steady pressure throughout the first six rounds and broke through with a well timed right uppercut early in the seventh that put the feather-fisted Luevano on the floor and ended the fight.
"I'm still a work in progress," said Lopez through an interpreter. "I'm going to learn a lot. I'm getting better all the time."
Gamboa (17-0, 15 KOs) defended his WBA featherweight title with a dazzling stoppage of hard-headed journeyman Rogers Mtagwa. The 2004 Olympic gold medalist from Cuba floored Mtagwa once in the first with a left hook and twice in the second with a series of vicious combinations before the referee correctly put a stop to it.
Mtagwa, the Tanzania native and Philadelphia transplant who pushed Lopez to the limit but lost a unanimous decision in December, proved helpless against Gamboa's devastating blend of hand speed, power and coordination.
Top Rank promotes both fighters, so a clash between the featherweight titleholders seems like the logical next step. But Top Rank CEO Bob Arum sees bigger things down the road.
"I can please everybody and do the fight right away -- and it's a big fight -- but it's not that big [right now]," Arum said. "I owe it to them to make the biggest possible show which translates to the biggest amount of money that they can make."
Arum said he'd rather Lopez and Gamboa spent the next 12 to 18 months cleaning out the featherweight division before facing off against one another. He hopes they can both fight next in May or June, depending on which dates HBO makes available.
"What I'd like to do this summer is do a split-site -- Lopez fighting in Puerto Rico and Gamboa in Miami -- and have it televised together," Arum said. "Just clean up all the featherweights. And then when everybody is panting about these guys, do a big, big, blowout kind of show."
With Lopez and Gamboa coming into full bloom, the 126-pound division is emerging as one of boxing's deepest weight classes. Arum named Celestino Caballero, Chris John and Bernabe Concepcion among likely opponents for either Lopez or Gamboa over the next year.
Arum wouldn't commit to a date for a potential Lopez-Gamboa showdown, but did float Summer 2011 as one option. He even mentioned the new Meadowlands Stadium, which opens in April 2010, as a potential venue.
After Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones campaigned passionately for the since-collapsed Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather megafight to be held at Cowboys Stadium -- and landed Pacquiao's fight with Josh Clottey as a consolation prize -- Arum said New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch has expressed interest in bringing a top-flight boxing event to the $1.4 billion stadium in East Rutherford.
Arum cited the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York and the high Cuban population in nearby Union City, N.J., as major selling points for a stadium fight in North Jersey.
"Believe me, it will be a huge, huge fight," Arum said. "I got two horses who can wipe out everybody -- and when they finally meet, people will go crazy."