Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Lopez Grinds Out Decision Over Claggett To Retain WBO Jr. Welterweight Crown

It seems the recent story surrounding both the 135lb. Lightweight and 140lb. Jr. Welterweight division can be summed up in a single word “Transition." In that both weight classes are seeking their next central figures or dominant champions, who are often viewed as being fighters that will carry the division for a significant period of time. One such fighter, who is likely viewed by at least some as the top Jr. Welterweight for the moment is WBO Jr. Welterweight world champion Teofimo Lopez.

A fighter who once briefly resigned as the Undisputed Lightweight champion of the world, Lopez is in the midst of what should be viewed as chapter two of his professional career following losing the Lightweight crown to George Kambosos in November 2021. The ongoing chapter that saw a relatively quick turnaround that saw him rebuild in the Jr. Welterweight division to become a world champion once again in 2023 and saw him make his first successful title defense in February against Edwin De Los Santos. This setup Lopez’ second defense of the WBO Jr. Welterweight world championship against veteran and top contender Steve Claggett on June 29th at the James L. Knight Center in Miami FL.

Despite not being well known to casual Boxing fans, Claggett came into what was his first world championship bout in a sixteen year professional career and had twenty-six more fights than the champion in his career. Nevertheless, there is always an element of the unknown when a veteran like Claggett, who has fought so long for an opportunity and has done so without the benefit of mainstream exposure, finally gets that chance against a fighter who is considerably more known and has more experience on the world championship level as Lopez. The combination of excitement, anxiety, anticipation, and yes, stress have been known to make fighters freeze when fighting for a world championship for the first time along with the atmosphere of the event. 

Claggett would not freeze and showed immediately that he intended to make the most of his opportunity as he applied pressure on Lopez from the opening bell, backed the champion up against the ropes and tried to stay planted on Lopez’ chest. Thus, the story of the fight quickly emerged. Round after round, the challenger pressed the champion backward like a football player and forced Lopez to fight at a higher pace than is typically his norm. Despite that, Lopez not only withstood the pressure and what Claggett had to dish out, he also showed he was comfortable fighting against the ropes and it was not long before the champion was the fighter getting his punches off first, particularly with left hooks and uppercuts. Although the ebb and flow never changed throughout the fight as Claggett continued coming forward and showing a granite chin in withstanding what Lopez threw at him, which would have dropped many fighters, gradually Lopez was able to gain some separation between himself and the challenger in the latter rounds of the scheduled twelve round world championship bout.

At this stage, Lopez displayed his hand speed in firing combinations to the body and head, which also appeared to stun Claggett periodically, to put the finishing touches on what was a wide and convincing unanimous decision to retain his world championship. Ultimately, this was a workmanlike performance by Lopez in fending off a determined challenger, who gave his best in his first opportunity at a world championship. 

With two successful title defenses of his WBO crown, Lopez immediately suggested after the fight that he was leaning towards moving up to the 147lb. Welterweight division in saying that he feels that he cannot make the 140lb. Jr. Welterweight limit any longer. What makes this interesting is the conundrum of what may be better for the fighter physically versus what may have financial incentives by staying in a weight division that the fighter has indicated he is having trouble making weight. Under most circumstances, I side with the fighter because unless you are a fighter in the Heavyweight division, the struggle of making weight in a given weight division is real, and if a fighter decides to stay in a division that they physically struggle to maintain weight strictly for financial reasons, and/or world championship/unification bouts, eventually it will have negative effects physically on the fighter, which will manifest inside the ring. 

Of course, the issue for all fighters that gradually climb up the weight scale is always will they be as effective at a higher weight as they were at lower weights. One does not have to look too far in the past to remember that as a 135lb. Lightweight, Teofimo Lopez was a devastating puncher, who routinely scored highlight reel knockouts that turned heads. Since becoming Undisputed Lightweight champion with a victory over Vasyl Lomachenko in October 2020, Lopez has primarily shown his skills as a boxer and since moving up to Jr. Welterweight, his power and ability to score knockouts has not been there in the same way it was as a Lightweight. The question that will be asked if indeed he does move up seven pounds to the Welterweight division is whether it will be any different. While some would suggest the answer to that question would be “No,” if a fighter has been struggling to make weight for a significant time, perhaps moving up only one division was more of a detriment than a benefit in allowing the fighter’s body to adjust naturally as they get older. Any move up in weight will come with risks, as will moving down in weight, which fighters have done before as well for various reasons. The only way the question will be answered will be for Lopez to test the waters at Welterweight. 

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”  

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