Juan Manuel Lopez finds himself at something of a career crossroads as he enters Saturday's bout with unbeaten featherweight titlist Mikey Garcia (HBO, 10:45 p.m. ET) at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Lopez (33-2, 30 KOs), just 29, is a southpaw with an exciting style and is still regarded as one of the most popular action fighters in the sport. But after a pair of stoppage defeats in his native Puerto Rico against rugged veteran Orlando Salido -- the same fighter against whom Garcia captured his title in January -- much of the luster that once surrounded the vulnerable Lopez has slowly worn off.
He'll have a chance to right the ship against the talented Garcia (31-0, 26 KOs). Lopez enters on a two-fight win streak and has said openly that he wants his title back.
The former two-division titlist took a few moments away from training camp to talk with ESPN.com ahead of Saturday's bout:
What kind of challenge does Garcia bring to the table and what kind of fight do you expect?
He's coming off a big victory [against Salido], beating the guy who beat me twice. So for me, I am very motivated to face him. I know he is a smart guy in the ring and a very tough fighter. For me, I just have to be intelligent and I just have to be in great condition because I know it's going to be a long fight.
What did Garcia do in defeating Salido that you were unable to in your two fights against him?
I think styles make fights and I think that's true for [Garcia-Salido]. I think when Salido and I fight, it's an all-out war. When [Garcia] fought Salido, it was more of a technical [fight], as he was counterpunching him. It's a totally different style in fighting [Garcia], and I think that he also got a Salido that was beat up from fighting against me. He was pretty much beat up after our fight.
You bounced back after the second loss to Salido in 2012 with a pair of knockout victories against lesser competition. How much did those fights do for you mentally and physically to prepare you for a comeback at the highest level?
Those two fights were great because they did big things for me. They not only helped me confidence-wise by winning, but also by working and going back to the gym and getting back on my diet. And, you know, that helps a lot with rhythm and keeping me on my rhythm.
Some have suggested that personal issues outside of the ring prevented you from being in the proper state of mind for the Salido fights. Did that play a factor in either of your defeats?
I was going through some difficult times right before that first fight with Salido. I'm sure that played into the fight, as I wasn't quite as focused as I should have been. But those things are in the past. Everything has been resolved. I feel better about myself in the ring and I know I am more than ready for this fight.
You fight with an exciting style that endears you to fans, but are there times when you need to be more conservative in the ring for your own good?
I know that I am supposed to be more defensively oriented, and we are always trying to work on new things in the gym. But even though we are working on some different things for this next fight, at the end of the day, fans come to see me because of the excitement that I bring in the ring, and I'm never going to shy away from that. If I can give them the excitement, I'm going to give it to them.
The two tough defeats to Salido have led some to question whether you're already on the downside of your career. How do you respond to hearing things like that?
I don't believe that. I think I can still bring a lot to the table in boxing. I'm not done by any means. I know that the nine months that I was suspended [for postfight comments after the second Salido fight] really worked for me to help my body recuperate, and it actually was a good thing that I rested. I feel good and ready to go and I just feel better about myself right now.
So many people were disappointed that a fight between you and Yuriorkis Gamboa wasn't made while you were both undefeated. Is that a fight you still hope to make someday if the two of you can match up in the same weight class?
I know he's been talking a lot about fighting me, even after this fight [against Garcia]. I think that fight is still out there. It's just a question of the promoters and managers getting together. I do believe it's still an exciting fight because of our styles and would make a great fight.
How important to you would a victory be against a fighter as highly regarded as Garcia, and what would it do for your career at this point?
I just want to show everyone what I can still do. Because of [Garcia's] big win over Salido, everyone thinks he's ready to go to the top, but the reality is that's the only victory he has of any meaning. I know it's an important fight for me. I want to get my title back. But I do want to beat the one who everyone is considered to be the best at 126.