- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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Fair or not, until featherweight titleholders Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa meet, they will be compared to each other endlessly.
A showdown between the fighters looms as the biggest fight in the 126-pound weight class, and it's one that their promoter, Top Rank's Bob Arum, says he wants to make. However, Arum has steadfastly refused to match the exciting titlists until the fight grows bigger commercially.
Gamboa was in action last month, blowing away interim junior lightweight titlist Jorge Solis, who dropped down in weight, in four dominant rounds.
With such an explosive performance, Gamboa certainly did his part to whet the appetite of boxing fans for a Lopez fight, dropping Solis five times in the destruction.
Now it's Lopez's turn to see what he can do. He will make his third defense, against former beltholder Orlando Salido of Mexico, on Saturday night (Showtime, 10:30 ET/PT) in Lopez's native Puerto Rico at the Ruben Rodriguez Coliseo in Bayamon.
It won't be just a matter of whether Lopez (30-0, 27 KOs) can win; he is fighting at home and is a heavy favorite. What many boxing fans will be looking at is exactly how he handles the business at hand. Can Lopez perform better against Salido than Gamboa did?
Gamboa (20-0, 16 KOs) and Salido met in September and although Gamboa won a unanimous decision, it was no walk in the park. Salido (34-11-2, 22 KOs), who yielded his version of the title for having put on more than the maximum 10 pounds at the mandated weight check on the morning of the fight, dropped Gamboa in the eighth round and had his moments.
Lopez said he doesn't view the Salido fight as a way to compare himself to Gamboa -- even if everyone else does.
"I don't think about it that way," the 27-year-old Lopez said. "Every opponent is tough, every opponent is different. We're all different fighters. To me, it's just what I can do. I certainly want to look good and I want to do as well as I can, but I don't want to compare myself to what he did and what I'm going to do."
In the televised opener, Puerto Rican lightweight Luis Cruz (17-0, 14 KOs) will face late substitute Martin Honorio (29-5-1, 15 KOs), a former featherweight title challenger from Mexico. Cruz was slated to be the comeback opponent for Puerto Rico's Roman "Rocky" Martinez, the former junior lightweight titlist who was scheduled for his first bout since losing his belt to Ricky Burns in September. However, Martinez withdrew because of a back injury and Honorio stepped in on two weeks' notice.
This won't be the first time that Lopez and Gamboa will be compared against a common opponent.
In October 2009, Lopez made his final junior featherweight title defense against Rogers Mtagwa. It was a tooth-and-nail battle in which Lopez was a whisker away from being knocked out. Lopez somehow survived the entire 12th round, practically out on his feet, to escape with a close unanimous decision.
When Lopez moved up to featherweight in his next fight and stopped Steven Luevano in the seventh round to claim his title in January 2010, Gamboa was on the undercard -- the second time in a row Top Rank featured them on the same bill. Who did Gamboa face? Mtagwa, of course, and he crushed him in the second round. Perhaps Mtagwa had something taken out of him in the rough fight with Lopez, but the comparisons between Gamboa and Lopez were inevitable, the same way they will be after Saturday's fight.
"People can say or think what they want about those fights [against Mtagwa], and they're going to do the same with what I do against Salido and what he did against Salido," Lopez said. "It's not that important. I think what's important is, once we get in the ring we'll see how we do against each other."
Lopez said that if and when the fight with Gamboa happens, it might have to be in the 130-pound junior lightweight division, where Gamboa began his professional career before moving down in weight.
"I don't think I have a lot of time here at 126," Lopez said. "I think if the fight comes along this year, it will be at 126. If it doesn't, I think it will be at 130 next year.
"I really feel strong at 126. I'm eating well. I'm doing my diet the proper way. I definitely feel better than I did at 122 and I'm much stronger. But I may be moving up after the end of the year."
After Gamboa beat Solis, he said in his postfight remarks that he thought Top Rank would continue to keep him and Lopez apart because Lopez, who generates far more money than Gamboa because of his loyal Puerto Rican fans, was being protected.
Lopez said that is not the case.
"We're just fighters. I don't think we're afraid of each other," Lopez said. "I'm not afraid of fighting Gamboa anytime he's there. We never said we wouldn't fight him. Bob Arum, he's our promoter. He's the best. He'll tell us when the fight is ready."
Lopez, however, is fighting Salido, not Gamboa, and said he is focused on the business at hand.
"He's one of those fighters that comes forward," said Lopez, who stopped Mexico's Rafael Marquez, the well-respected former junior featherweight and bantamweight champion, in the eighth round of a barnburner in November. "He won't stop when you put on the pressure.
"He'll be there all night. I have to be intelligent. I have to know that he's going to be coming at me at all times. I just have to be very smart and be careful and do my job -- win every round and win round by round."
Salido, 30, said he is happy to have another opportunity to win a belt following his loss to Gamboa, even if he has to go to enemy turf to get it.
"I have everything to gain and nothing to lose; all the pressure is on him," Salido said. "He is the champion. He's fighting at home and everyone expects him to win. Let's see if he can deliver. I did not come all this way to lay down for him.
"This is an opportunity for me to become a world champion again and I look forward to this fight. I expect it to be hard, but with my great preparation, I feel that I can win. I am not intimidated to come to his home country for this fight. I know what I am capable of doing and I will be ready for war on Saturday. I do believe that he is the best featherweight in the world and a great champion, but he also likes to fight and that will be to my advantage. We both have power and will test each other all night."
Although Salido has not yet fought Lopez, he, like everyone else, has an opinion on the Lopez-Gamboa comparisons.
"From fighting Gamboa and from what I have seen of Lopez, I believe that Lopez is the more well-rounded boxer," Salido said. "Gamboa still fights like an amateur at times and he is very fast, but 'JuanMa' looks like he has more power. I guess I'll find out more on Saturday night."
Whatever happens, it will give everyone more ammunition to compare and contrast Lopez and Gamboa on the road to their inevitable collision.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.
Boxing fans can't help but compare Juan Manuel Lopez and Yuriorkis Gamboa, mostly because they want to see the featherweight titleholders in the ring together. Lopez's fight against Orlando Salido on Saturday will only give them more ammunition.