- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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In June 2008, Puerto Rico’s Juan Manuel Lopez got his first title opportunity against then-junior featherweight beltholder Daniel Ponce De Leon of Mexico and turned in an explosive performance.
Lopez drilled Ponce De Leon in the first round in Atlantic City, N.J., to win the title and start a run of nine consecutive victories in world title fights -- winning eight by knockout -- as he claimed world titles at 122 and 126 pounds and shot up the pound-for-pound rankings.
Lopez, 30, however, has not been the same since getting stopped twice by Orlando Salido in their two featherweight title fights in 2011 and 2012. In his last fight, in June, Lopez was crushed in four rounds by Mikey Garcia trying to win a junior lightweight belt.
Ponce De Leon also suffered other defeats since facing Lopez, losing twice by decision in 2011 to Adrien Broner and Yuriorkis Gamboa, although he also beat Jhonny Gonzalez to win a featherweight belt in 2012 before being stopped in the ninth round of his first defense by Abner Mares last May. Ponce De Leon rebounded for a decision win against Joksan Hernandez in November and now, like Lopez, faces the crossroads.
Their careers as contenders are at stake when Lopez (33-3, 30 KOs) and Ponce De Leon (45-5, 35 KOs), both southpaws, meet in a 10-round junior lightweight rematch on Saturday night (Showtime Extreme, 7 p.m. ET/PT) at the Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, on the undercard of the Showtime card topped by junior welterweight champion Danny Garcia’s defense against Mauricio Herrera.
"This is the biggest fight of my career," Lopez said. “We both need to win this fight. This is the last lap of my career. If I lose, that could be the end of my career, even though I don't want my career to end in defeat. I win this fight, I can go on to bigger and better things.”
Said Ponce De Leon, “It's been five years [since our last fight], and I know that Juanma is going to come in strong. He's a great fighter, but I'm coming in fully prepared for this fight."
Lopez looked particularly bad against Garcia -- so bad that career-long promoter Top Rank released him, believing if he continued to fight he would be seriously hurt.
"This is going to be a great fight. He's going to try to get a knockout, I'm going to do my job as well, and definitely the one that is better prepared will come out victorious, and that will be me. I came here to show Puerto Rico and the rest of the world that Juanma Lopez has still some game to show.
“It was not mere coincidence that I won the first fight against Ponce De Leon. I won because I'm a better fighter. On Saturday, Ponce better be ready, because I'm ready and I'm not about losing."
Ponce De Leon said he has put the debacle of the first fight well in his rearview mirror and is aiming for a different outcome this time around.
"I was too overconfident heading into the fight, and he caught me cold in the first round,” Ponce De Leon, 33, said. “But that fight is in the past. I had a different team, manager and trainer, then later on I made some changes. I was different then. I never thought in the ring. Before, I used to always jump on top of my opponents, but now I have transformed into a different fighter. For this fight, I feel good and am 100 percent ready.
"I see Lopez the same way everyone else sees him. He hasn't been the same. He has gone down and is a different fighter. I asked for the rematch a long time ago, and this is the perfect time to be fighting him. Now I look forward to going into the fight in top shape, very well prepared. I want to win this fight. I have everything stacked against me fighting him in Puerto Rico. I don't want to leave it in the hands of the judges. The knockout is important -- it's a must."