Joe Rein Writings


Mario Lopez: Wild Card Fighter

New Year's Eve, when you watch the time-honored tradition on TV of the glass ball dropping at the stroke of midnight in Times Square in New York, the eternally youthful Dick Clark, the host, will be joined this year by actor Mario Lopez...or is it Clark Kent?

Lopez makes the transition to his alter ego not in a phone booth, but at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles. Lopez, formerly best known as the jock, A.C. Slater, on the sitcom "Saved by the Bell," and more recently the co-host of "The Other Half" on network TV, is not nearly so genial when he steps into a boxing ring.

This is not one more puff piece about an actor dabbling with boxing, enhancing his street creds or salving some private side of his psyche. Let me be clear: Lopez can fight. He's no dilettante. These are not movie punches he's dodging, or special effects; these are the brain-numbing kind in a hardcore gym. Don't let his pretty-boy image fool you. He knocks people out in regularly scheduled bouts in the gym, and has had to be warned on several occasions by Freddie Roach for unnecessary roughness. So, Lopez walks the walk, but never talks the talk.

When Raul Marquez, the former Jr. middleweight contender, asked Lopez on a recent HBO Latino fight show when he was turning pro, Marquez wasn't asking tongue in cheek. Lopez didn't dig his toe in the ground and say, "Ah, Shucks". He downplayed it altogether and went on with the interview. Can you imagine any actor letting the opportunity go by of pounding his chest about being a boxer in front of a Latino TV audience?

At Wild Card, Lopez doesn't pose in front of the mirror in gear laid out by a stylist, or method-act as fighter, or just practice choreographed moves on the heavy and light bags, skip rope, shadow box and do floor exercises, he spars for real, and takes his lumps with other fighters, who have no idea who he is and would gladly knock his head off, and with James Toney and Shane Mosley, who don't appreciably take any of the mustard off their shots.

Lopez is not a celebrity that flounders around in the ring; and as Tennessee Williams put it: "depends on the kindness of strangers." He dukes it out with Toney and Mosley, and even stung by Mosley, or hit with a Toney body shot that has him wincing, he fires back. It can't be taught, and either you have it or you don't: a fighter's heart.

And, he has real fighters' tools, and is an incredibly quick study. With little more than a year's training, Lopez has made quantum leaps. He's come from a raw amateur to a poised (well, he's working on that) fighter.

He's no longer the over-eager Chula Vista High School wrestler lunging for a leg drive at the first bell. Even though he barely represses his energy, he's reduced his bull rushes almost entirely; and his powerful right hand that used to come from deep in the outfield, now, thanks to regular work with Toney and Mosley and other top pros, is much shorter and straighter. All his punches are crisper. He throws lead right hands, jabs to the body, doubles-up with tight left hooks, and moves more in the pocket, à la Mosley, and shoulders opponents in clinches and throws right hands over the top, thanks to Toney.

At this stage of his boxing development, Lopez would make a very credible showing at any top-level amateur tournament. Unlike the actors we've all heard about who were lionized as great pro prospects after having worked on a fight film, Lopez is really boxing, and damn well.

I caught up with Lopez after a workout at Wild Card, just before he headed back to New York for his New Year's Eve show with Dick Clark.

Q:     What made you take up boxing seriously?

ML: I grew up as a high school wrestler. My uncles and my cousins wrestled as well, and I've always enjoyed individual sports. In individual sports, you have nobody to blame but yourself if you lose. You get all the glory if you win.

Fighters in particular are the most noble of athletes. The guys that I've met from this gym, or just around it, are very humble, modest guys. I don't think the average Joe realizes how much dedication it takes and how tough mentally and physically it really is. I take my hat off to them, because maybe three percent make any serious money.

There's just so many characters. Everything boxing has to offer, I just appreciate.

Q:     How did you come to Wild Card?

ML: Coming out of high school and not having a place to wrestle, I grappled a little bit and saw some places with jujitsu. This boxing club, which happened to be close to work-so, first off, a geographic convenience; then, it happens to be one of the best boxing gyms in the world.

Q:     Most actors would eat up the opportunity to regale the press with their boxing exploits. You don't. Why not?

ML: I don't share it with too many people. I don't like to come across as a showoff. I've always noticed, the guys that talk about being tough--talk a big game--don't necessarily have the game to back it up. If the opportunity, unfortunately, had to present itself, I would probably know how to take care of myself.

I try to remain humble. I love it as a sport. For me, it's very therapeutic. I release a lot of stress; and after I get out of a gym, I have a very tranquil, calm feeling. I feel focused. After being in the ring, you don't get nervous about much. Not too many things scare you.

It would be frowned upon in my work. I make a living (he grinned) with my face being a big part of it. They're (producers) going to assume you're going to break your nose or get cut or knock out a tooth, what have you. Of course, I train with the headgear with the bar across the front, The Winning Headgear-which a lot of the pros do. You still can get knocked out--get your bell rung.

Q:     What's it like working against Mosley and Toney?

ML: It's like playing basketball with Kobe Bryant. You're never gonna beat'em. It's fun anyway. Just to be in with them is a privilege and an honor. You can learn a lot of stuff.

Q:     What have you learned from them?

ML: With James, it's little sneaky stuff. When we're inside, to sort of push with the shoulder a little bit and come across with a right, so, it's kind of a Bam! Bam! Bam! With a right! left! right! And how to work the body. To be more of an inside fighter, to keep my head moving, to keep my hands up, and to breathe a little bit.

And with Shane, he always tells me to throw my right hand more. He says I have a good, strong right hand. Be patient. Keep composed.

Q:     You don't lunge as much any more?

ML: In the heat of battle, you go to instinct, and I am a wrestler. In my heart, I'll always be a wrestler. You go back to those old habits, which are bad for boxing.

Q:     What's it like to get your bell rung?

ML: It doesn't feel good. I don't know if it's fortunate or an unfortunate thing: I can take a pretty good shot on my chin. The ones that hurt are the ones to the body. When you take a good shot to your kidney or your liver-Whew! Those are the ones that hurt a lot more.

Q:     What's it like to catch a body punch from James Toney?

ML: It's like getting kicked in the stomach and not being prepared for it. It doesn't feel good. And those are harder to recover from. If you get your bell rung, at least you can cover up and dance away and gather yourself. When you take a hard body shot, there's no way to disguise it. You just gotta take a knee, or take a break, cause it's tough.

Q:     What is it you see when you work with James?

ML: James is the most complete fighter I've ever seen, and not just because he's a Wild Card guy. Defensively, he's a wizard, and unbelievable. He doesn't look like he'd be the quickest guy. He's kind of a thick guy. He's very fast and slick. He's a counter puncher. He wants you to be aggressive. He's deadly accurate. And, skill wise, I don't think there would be anybody better. I think with James, it's a question of his conditioning, or his eating habits. Now that he's a heavyweight, he won't be killing himself...

Q:     James is constantly talking. What's he saying to you in the middle of the action?

ML: He's a great guy. We've run together, and I've tried to train with him, cause I like him a lot. He, of course, taunts me, as he does with everybody else. He's always teasing me about my fiancé, cause he tries to get me fueled up to provide more motivation. He's always saying, 'I'm gonna make her my woman. You're not enough of a man for her.' That sort of thing. Of course that's gonna get to you.

Q:     In the up-coming match with McCline, how do you see it playing out?

ML: Skill wise, there's no comparison. You gotta factor in the size difference. After three rounds, McCline's gonna get frustrated with James. And, I think, James is gonna outwork him, and out-hustle him, and might stop him in the later rounds.

So, when you see Lopez laughing and joking on TV, bursting with the exuberance of what the future will bring at the stroke of 12, he's also the guy with enough of a mean streak to have earned the battle patch: Wild Card Fighter.

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