Teófimo López: ‘I don’t get nervous. I’ve learned to flow like water’

Just hours after he became a father, Teófimo López, the most charismatic fighter on the planet and one of the best pound-for-pound boxers at work today, leans back in his car in Las Vegas and talks about joy and adversity, babies and tattoos, depression and love. The roof of his car is rolled open and sunshine lights up his face despite the shadows of the past.

Early on 17 November 2021, and describing the birth of baby Teófimo the night before, the world lightweight champion brims with happiness. His family history is traumatic but his son, Teófimo López V, does more than continue a tangled lineage stretching from Spain to Honduras to the US. The arrival of the youngest López gives the new father a fresh start after a year in which he contemplated ending his life. This low was a worrying echo of the acrimony, volatility and tragedy linking one López generation to another.

But on Saturday night in New York, the 24-year-old returns to the ring for the first time since he dominated Vasiliy Lomachenko and shocked boxing last October. The Ukrainian was considered by many to be boxing’s pound-for-pound best fighter – but López won a comprehensive victory on all three scorecards as he fulfilled his Ali-esque predictions and became the undisputed world lightweight champion.

Life since then has been complicated. His mandatory defence against George Kambosos, from Australia, has been postponed three times over the past nine months – but, finally, the simmering bitterness between them will be settled at Madison Square Garden. López might be weary after a night of little sleep but he sounds content when I ask what he has learned during this tumultuous year.

Teófimo López trains in Las Vegas in October. He will defend his lightweight belts against the mandatory challenger George Kambosos on Saturday.
Teófimo López trains in Las Vegas in October. He will defend his lightweight belts against the mandatory challenger George Kambosos on Saturday. Photograph: Lewis Ward/Matchroom

“Patience is a blessing,” he says with unusual tenderness. “It’s a virtue. Time always keeps flowing so we need patience. The dark times are testing. Some days are really heavy but those are character-building days. You have to find ways to look within yourself and face the problems.

“I’ve learned how to take a step back and not try to make everyone else happy. That never works. Just work on how do I become the best version of me? How do I become the greatest version of my father to my son? This year has been difficult from me having Covid [just before one of his scheduled bouts against Kambosos in June] to my fight being sabotaged twice and pushed back constantly. But it gave me a better outlook – no, in-look, of my purpose.”

López compares this new serenity to his composure against Lomachenko. “I don’t get nervous any more,” he says with another crinkled smile. “Before that fight I was calm, cool, collected. I was so determined, thinking: ‘Now is the time to back up everything I’ve said.’ After the win it was such a relief. I deal with pressure all the time but I’ve learned to flow like water.”

He lifts his right arm so I can see the skin usually hidden from the sun on our Zoom call. “Be water, my friend,” is tattooed on his inner arm. I recognise the old Bruce Lee quote. “Of course,” López exclaims. “After Lomachenko I was able to flow, like water. I was able to breathe. Beating Loma definitely changed my life. It was negative at one point [amid all the postponements and wrangles with the new promotional company Triller which had made an outlandish bid for the Kambosos fight but soon hit trouble] but I turned it into a great positive.”

I met López in person earlier this month. Eddie Hearn was in Las Vegas as he had won the purse bid for this fight against Kambosos. The bout will be screened on Dazn, the giant streaming network with which Hearn works so closely, and a media afternoon had been set up for López in a gym off the Strip.

When I walked in there was noise and clamour but, strikingly, it was all being made by one man, Teófimo López III, the riot of a father to the boxer we had come to see.

Teófimo López
Teófimo López trains in Las Vegas. “Beating Lomachenko definitely changed my life,” he says. Photograph: Matchroom

López Jr, the world champion, stood quietly as his hands were wrapped. He would soon illuminate the room but, then, he kept his head down and his mouth shut as his father and trainer hollered into one microphone and camera after another. I noticed how often López Sr shouted “we” or even “I” when he celebrated victory over Lomachenko or predicted the destruction of Kambosos or a long line of prospective opponents for his son.

Now, listening to López Jr talk about his dad’s painful past, I temper my judgment. It seems better to pay attention to a riveting but troubled saga which begins with the birth of the fighter’s grandfather, Teófimo López II, in Spain in 1916. López II was immensely strong, and could grapple a bull to the ground. But he was restless after the second world war and emigrated to Honduras.

Years later, and settled in Honduras, he met a beautiful 18-year-old. He was 51 when she had their baby in 1968. That baby was Teófimo López III who is now the most vociferous trainer in boxing. Much of that rage stems from the tragedy of his parents and their turbulent lives. While they bickered and fought he shuttled between Brooklyn with his mother and Honduras with his father. They both beat him but he didn’t care as he ran wild.

López III was just 14 when his Spanish father died suddenly. His mother was bereft and three years later she hanged herself. He was 17 and stricken with guilt and anger. López III began dealing drugs in New York and not even the arrival of his three children could soothe him – with Teófimo, the future world champion, being the youngest when he was born in July 1997.

Teófimo López with his world title belts.
Teófimo López with his world title belts. Photograph: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom

After a brief stint in jail López Sr moved the family to the small town of Davy in Florida when his son was five. Life changed when little Teófimo was taken to the local boxing gym where his prodigious talent became apparent. “Boxing came easy to me,” he says. “My dad put me in different sports from the age of two. Football, soccer, basketball, taekwondo, everything. The one that truly caught me was boxing.

“Hitting the speed bag or doing the drills takes most fighters weeks or months to learn. It took me just days, sometimes hours. So I’ve always had boxing in me and then I got a big cut from a steel hook when I hit the bag and needed 20 stitches. I gave blood to the sport at six years old.”

López Sr knew nothing about boxing but, entranced by his son’s talent, he studied the art of the ring. “I truly believe that,” the fighter says. “Even while I was progressing, and each year I got closer to my goals, my father was able to catch up to the point where we are now equal as fighter and trainer. You can call him Nostradamus because he always predicts things that are going to happen. We call ourselves the Dynamic Duo.”

This week in New York, López Sr was at it again. He became embroiled in a near-brawl with Kambosos’s father and it was typically ugly and profane. Does López Jr mind the mayhem his dad brings to every fight? “Not really. That’s my father. He’s always been very outspoken and I always back him up. I won’t make my father look like a clown.”

As we discuss the family history, and his father’s demons, López bares his chest to show me another tattoo with 1916 inked into his skin in Roman numerals. “When you mark your body it better have meaning because it’s there for ever. My grandfather was born in 1916. I want to carry my family with me and this was a way of stamping it.”

Did their past wound him because, when he was a teenager, López Jr would often rescue his father who had passed out or was high as a kite in a dingy bar? “Of course. But it makes me realise now that, for someone who lost both his parents at a young age, he’s done a great job. I look forward to seeing what I’m going to become as a father because my own dad found the right path for me even though he went through dark times. My son will now have both his grandparents. That’s already an achievement because I never got to meet mine.”

The fighter almost lost his parents and sisters when he fell in love with Cynthia, who is now his wife. In May 2018, after he had won his ninth straight fight as a pro at Madison Square Garden, López flew back to Vegas. “Cynthia was a flight attendant for Delta,” he explains. “Even though I’d just met her we had that connection like we had known each other for ever. I’m in the back of the galley and I’m smooth-talking her and trying to find my way to get her number and a date. It was a five-and-a-half-hour flight and I was the last person getting off that plane just so I could get that girl’s number. But I was 20 and she was 25. She wanted to wait and see if I was serious about her. Look where we are now.”

Teofimo Lopez Jr, right, and Vasiliy Lomachenko
Teófimo López Jr, right, lands a right hand on Vasiliy Lomachenko during his October 2020 victory that unified the IBF, WBA and WBO title belts at 135lbs. Photograph: Top Rank/Getty

López kept sending her flowers and they were married a year later. His mother and two sisters refused to attend the wedding. His dad turned up drunk. López became estranged from his family and, when he and Cynthia returned from their belated honeymoon in Greece three months later, he had a panic attack on the flight.

Cynthia persuaded him he needed therapy. That counselling and her constant support helped – as they did again this year when, feeling overwhelmed, he considered suicide. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” he admits. “I’m still developing and lots of stuff came to me so quickly. It’s all about trying to love yourself more because I had to find a way to get out of those dark times. It made me appreciate life much more. Finding out I was going to be a dad definitely changed my outlook. It humbled me because I’m just 24 and I’ve had so much to process.”

On Saturday night he will process what he does best with a skill and panache that places him alongside Canelo Álvarez, Tyson Fury and Terence Crawford at the forefront of contemporary boxing. “I’m excited,” he says of facing Kambosos.

“It’s been a long time and I can’t wait for that freedom when I’ve got 8oz gloves on and I’m piercing somebody’s face with bad intentions and I’m feeling bad for that guy. Carrying my son for the very first time yesterday makes it even more special. You’re going to see a whole new energy in me.”

How is his relationship with his family now? “Never better,” he insists in the shimmering desert sunshine. “I’m hopeful my son brings us all closer together. That’s the thing about families – they don’t get along but when it comes to kids and babies you’ve got to leave all that drama behind. I’m grateful for all that’s come and the turnaround of everything. It’s definitely been a year for me but I wouldn’t trade it for any other.”

source: theguardian.com