Some of boxing’s most compelling matchups wither on the vine before they’re finally made and others take place before they’ve ripened. One could argue that Saturday’s fight at Madison Square Garden between Josh Taylor and Teófimo López falls partway into each column.
Like the soupy haze that has enveloped Manhattan for most of the week, the outlook ahead of the scheduled 12-round showdown for Taylor’s WBO junior welterweight title is thick with uncertainty. Both men are former unified champions in different weight classes whose once-clear paths to mainstream stardom have been diverted not by outright disaster, but lengthy spells of inactivity and performances short of their heightened standards. Yet each is heartened by the reality that a restoration of luster is one big result away. Crossroads fights like these seldom take place so close to the summit.
The palpable ill will that has defined the promotion reached a boiling point on Friday afternoon when Taylor and López exchanged venom after making weight, separated on the stage by three meters and half-ton of security detail after the traditional staredown was scrapped. And after a rancorous build-up that has come in below even boxing’s lenient standards for poor taste, the opening bell can’t come soon enough.
López, who made the wrong kind of headlines last month for stating that he aspires to kill an opponent in the boxing ring, has doubled down on the abhorrent claim in recent days, threatening during Thursday’s final press conference to take Taylor’s life on Saturday night. The champion, for his part, has labored to keep the discourse above board and within the bounds of sportsmanship, but not backed down from López’s cruel intentions.
“I think it’s genuine,” the 32-year-old Edinburgh native said of his opponent’s invective. “He means what he says. I mean what I say as well. There’s a genuine dislike here. He’s been disrespectful. All the words he said, I’m going to make him pay for them on Saturday.”
Had it been made two years ago, when both Taylor and López were fresh off signature wins that launched them in boxing’s pound-for-pound conversation, then Saturday’s fight might be taking place in the Garden’s big room instead of the smaller theater next door: a 5,600-seat venue that no doubt will motivate both fighters as they plot a return to the sport’s biggest stages.
Taylor (19-0, 13 KOs), a stylish, aggressive southpaw who first shot to fame with a series of wins over current or former world champions Regis Prograis, Ivan Baranchyk and Viktor Postol, earned the biggest win of his career when he outpointed José Ramírez in a May 2021 unification bout, scoring a pair of knockdowns along the way. That made him the first British fighter, and only the fifth man in boxing’s four-belt era, to become an undisputed champion at any weight.
But the Tartan Tornado was fortunate to escape with a split-decision win in a mandatory defense against the unheralded Jack Catterall eight months later. He’s since vacated three of his four title belts in pursuit of a rematch that failed to materialize after Taylor tore his plantar fascia in March. While the Scot remains the alpha dog of boxing’s refractured junior welterweight division, it’s been more than 15 months since he’s made to show it inside the ropes.
López (18-1, 13 KOs), the heavy-handed 25-year-old nicknamed the Takeover, a nod to his disruptive career ambitions, has weathered even more dramatic swings of fortune. Having captured the IBF lightweight title in only his 15th paying fight by knocking out the durable Richard Commey, the cocksure left-hander from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park delivered on his enormous promise in October 2020 with a unanimous-decision win over Vasiliy Lomachenko, the three-weight champion from Ukraine who for years had been considered the sport’s best fighter regardless of weight.
But after more than 13 months passed before López made his first defense, a thrice-postponed date with mandatory challenger George Kambosos, the American suffered a shock defeat by split decision that cost him the IBF, WBA and WBO belts. Already straining to make 135lbs, López made the climb to junior welterweight, where he’s since acclimated with a pair of unspectacular wins over fringe contenders.
“I prepared crap for the last fight, so I performed crap,” Taylor said matter-of-factly of his lone ring appearance in the past 25 months. “I believe [López] was the same. He took his eye off the ball and he performed crap as well. Teófimo, he’s up against the king of the division. I know he’s a good fighter. The version who beat Lomachenko: that’s the version that I’m preparing for. It’s all about your preparation and this time I’ve prepared diligently and to the best of my ability and you’ll see the best of me on Saturday night.”
For all his trademark bluster and bravado, the weight of the moment has not been lost on López, who will go off as the underdog on Saturday for only the second time in his professional career.
“It means everything,” López said. “What is the Takeover if he doesn’t take over the guys who are the kingpin of the division. When it comes to Josh Taylor at junior welterweight, he is the guy. That’s the guy that you’ve got to beat to be the greatest. This is what we aim for all the time.”
There is an unspoken danger at hand any time a fighter climbs through the ropes into the squared circle, the only venue in society, with the exception of war, where a person can be killed but not legally murdered. While trash talk is an element hardly uncommon to this particular station of the big-fight buildup, López’s explicit threats have crossed beyond provocative salesmanship, prompting both condemnation and quieter concerns over his mental fitness.
But as Saturday’s fight draws nearer, Taylor has appeared less bothered by his opponent’s invective and more animated by the opportunity to get his career back on the fast track at one of the sport’s most hallowed grounds.
“Starting out as a professional or even as a young kid, you always dream of coming over stateside and fighting in venues like this,” he said. “This is the mecca of boxing, Madison Square Garden. For me this is a dream come true: fighting in a place like this, topping the bill, bringing the traveling fans over.
“I can’t wait to get in there on Saturday when the dream becomes a reality. This clown here in my way on Saturday is just another piece of cannon fodder. That’s all he is.”