- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Junior middleweight titlist Saul "Canelo" Alvarez was sitting ringside at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on June 23 watching former welterweight titleholder Victor Ortiz fight Josesito Lopez and, like most everyone, was shocked by what he saw.
Alvarez expected Ortiz, the heavy favorite, to beat Lopez, a junior welterweight who had moved up in weight to take the place of Andre Berto after he was bounced from the fight because of a positive steroid test. With a win in the tuneup fight, Ortiz would have moved on to challenge Alvarez for his title. Through eight rounds, the plan looked good. Ortiz was winning a tough, tough fight.
But it all changed when the ninth round ended. Ortiz, who had suffered a broken jaw in two places and whose mouth was filling with blood, retired on his stool.
While Lopez celebrated the stunning TKO, which he referred to as his "Rocky moment," the look on Alvarez's face at ringside told the story of deep disappointment as yet another opponent he was supposed to face had fallen by the wayside.
Ortiz became the third opponent Alvarez was supposed to fight to fall out. He originally was supposed to fight Paul Williams, but days after agreeing to the bout, Williams was paralyzed from the waist down after a serious motorcycle accident. Next, James Kirkland, whose injured shoulder wasn't yet healed, accepted the fight, then pulled out in a money dispute the next day. Then came Ortiz.
Alvarez and his handlers at Golden Boy extended the opportunity of a lifetime to opponent No. 4 -- Lopez, who agreed to move up yet another weight class.
"I was surprised, yes, but I think we were all surprised because we all expected Victor Ortiz to win," Alvarez said through a translator Tuesday during a meeting with a handful of boxing reporters in a VIP lounge at the MGM Grand. "Josesito did what he had to do to win. It was a little bit of a surprise, but it's boxing. He earned the right to fight me. He earned it by his actions by winning that fight."
Lopez will be a huge underdog again when he challenges Alvarez for his world title Saturday night (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in the main event of a stacked quadrupleheader on Mexican Independence Day weekend.
How big of an underdog is Lopez? You can tell just by the purses. Alvarez is due to earn a minimum of $2 million, while Lopez's official purse is $212,500 -- although his camp said he will receive an additional payment from adviser Al Haymon.
Oscar De La Hoya, president of Golden Boy and Alvarez's promoter, was also ringside for Lopez-Ortiz and came away quite impressed.
"Josesito Lopez is one person that we all could admire, a fighter who we should all respect," De La Hoya said. "He truly is the American dream. He truly is a fighter who a lot of people -- I have to admit, including myself -- didn't believe he could beat Victor Ortiz, and he did it in spectacular fashion. And that's why he's here now, because he feels and he thinks that he can do it once again in spectacular fashion.
"Just like Rocky went up against Apollo Creed or just like Rocky went up against fighters like Drago, Josesito Lopez is one person who believes in himself, one fighter who never gives up and he's going to fight to the end."
Lopez, 28, of Riverside, Calif., has fought 26 of his 34 fights lighter than 140 pounds, and will challenge Alvarez at 154 pounds. He's a heavy underdog for good reason, but just as he did against Ortiz, Lopez has embraced the role.
He had a smile when he talked about it shortly after Alvarez had left the lounge.
"I can't say I don't like it," Lopez said. "I'm used to it. It's nothing new to me. I think it adds a little bit more of a rush of excitement to the fight and makes me want to pull it off that much more."
Sitting there, Lopez looks about the same size as Alvarez and he sounds very confident. One thing seems clear -- if Lopez (30-4, 18 KOs) does lose, he isn't going down without a serious fight.
"I think it's gonna be very important to get his attention early, but we're gonna be there until the end," Lopez said. "We've got 12 rounds, and I'm ready for those 12 rounds. But it is very important to be smart from the very beginning of the first round and let him know that he is in there for a fight.
"Ever since I was little, I got my name Josesito -- 'Little Jose' -- because I was always the little guy, always fighting bigger guys. I was always the smaller guy. As far as size, it doesn't intimidate me. Someone looks more muscular? That means nothing to me. That gives me the extra push. The fact that my older brother beat me up when I was little, I think that helped."
Alvarez (40-0-1, 29 KOs), the Mexican star who will be making his fifth title defense, has dreams of someday facing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Miguel Cotto in mega-events. But Alvarez, 22, said he is still able to focus on Lopez even though virtually everyone expects Alvarez to win handily.
"I am in no way, shape or form underestimating him," Alvarez said. "He has nothing to lose. He has everything to gain and win. But I'm gonna continue with my victories and move on."
"This is a very important fight against a very durable and determined opponent," said Chepo Reynoso, Alvarez's trainer. "People don't believe in Lopez, but they didn't believe in him before he fought Victor Ortiz, either. There are no weak opponents. We know that Josesito is capable of causing damage. That's why we have had 10 weeks of preparation for this fight. We don't want the same thing to happen to Canelo that happened to Ortiz."
Lopez said he isn't offended by the perception that he is a good fighter who simply won't be able to deal with Alvarez's size and power advantages.
"I don't really get mad at what people think," he said. "But I've prepared. I had plenty of time to prepare, twice as much time as I did for Ortiz, and I think that's a big difference. We're ready."
Said Alex Camponovo of Thompson Boxing Promotions, Lopez's co-promoter with Dan Goossen: "I've heard that Josesito is too small to face Canelo Alvarez. 'Josesito doesn't have the same skills as Canelo Alvarez. Josesito will not be able to hang in the ring with a guy like Canelo Alvarez,' who, according to what I'm reading, is just a monster. I've heard all that stuff. Josesito's heard all that stuff.
"Yes, Canelo's a bigger man. He's an undefeated world champion. But he's just a man, just like Jose. He's been waiting his whole life for this opportunity. A lot of people will ask, can lightning strike twice? And my answer is yes. He's ready for this fight. He's been waiting his entire life, his whole career, to defeat a guy like Canelo Alvarez."
If Lopez can pull off a second consecutive upset in a major fight, he would be one of the rare fighters to do it. But it has happened.
In 2004, light heavyweight champion Glen Johnson rode back-to-back upsets of Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver to unexpected fighter of the year honors. If Lopez can pull the double, he'd be in a similar position this year.
"I don't really think about that," he said. "I have another important fight, the biggest fight of my life, coming up. Just concentrating on beating the guy in front of me. That's all I'm worried about."
To hear Lopez talk about winning makes you believe he can do it.
"I've had a rough road here. I've had some losses," Lopez said. "I'm very thankful for getting the opportunity to be here. It's an opportunity that most fighters like me with a few L's on their record don't really get. I'm gonna make the most of it.
"This is an opportunity that we're taking against one of the best fighters out there, but a fighter that we feel that we can beat. I know I have to fight the fight of my life, but I'm prepared to fight the fight of my life."
Josesito Lopez may be fighting at junior middleweight and headlining a Las Vegas blockbuster for the first time Saturday, but playing the underdog against 154-pound champ Canelo Alvarez puts him in the middle of his comfort zone.