Back in 2010, Juan Manuel López, from Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, was one of the hottest young guns in boxing. But he has been little more than a spent shell for the last few years, and the beatings he has taken since 2011 have a frightening nightmare quality to them. Seeing López repeatedly pummeled from pillar to post is as depressing as a marathon viewing of The Leftovers. Despite his recent struggles, however, López has somehow managed to qualify for a world title shot in a sport where being a champion is as common as linkbait is on the internet. He faces the Argentino Jesús Marcelo Andrés Cuellar, 24-1-1 with 18 knockouts, at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, on September 11 for something called the “interim WBA featherweight championship.”
Once a thrill-a-second southpaw with a kill-or-be-killed attack, López is now a spill-a-second hazard to himself every time he steps into the ring. In his last fight, on July 12, López was stopped by Francisco Vargas after less than 10 minutes of action. Sent crashing to the canvas by Vargas late in the third round, López drunkenly staggered back to his corner with the aid of one of his cornermen after the bell rang, and the fight was stopped as López listed on his stool. A few months earlier López was on the deck against Daniel Ponce De León before scoring an improbable KO with the help of a desperation right hook launched as he was being battered against the ropes. Mikey Garcia demolished him last year, and Orlando Salido tore him to pieces twice in Puerto Rico.
Not only has JuanMa been knocked out four times in the last three years, but he has also made a public admission that doubles as a Code Red for his comeback: In 2011, during a hearing before the Puerto Rico Boxing Commission in the aftermath of his TKO loss to Orlando Salido, López admitted that he had suffered a blackout. To make matters worse, López, 34-4 with 31 knockouts, added a horrifying follow-up: “This is not the first occasion that I lost track of time after a fight. It happened after the fight with Bernabé Concepción. I don’t remember how I got to the dressing or how I took the drug test.”
Barely two months after being knocked cockeyed in Las Vegas, López is back in Sin City as an underdog—and in a weight class he last fought in 14 months ago. Cuellar, a competent southpaw from Buenos Aires, has all the advantages coming into this matchup, and if López shows the same slipshod defense and inability to take punches as he showed in his last three fights, he will have to be rescued by the referee or ringside doctor once again.
A boxing license is a privilege —not a right— but commissions are hesitant to suspend fighters because of potential legal battles. But in this case, López is not only clearly on the skids, but he has publicly admitted to certain neurological oddities. Only 31 years old, López has to face the fact that, in boxing at least, tomorrow is never a promise. For López, yesterday is already here, and he may be the only one who may not realize it. If you discount the Nevada State Athletic Commission, that is.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine, and Esquina Boxeo.