The TakeOver has a plan

LAS VEGAS — Still just 21, Teofimo “The TakeOver” Lopez has a three-fight plan to end his run at 135 pounds as the undisputed champion of the world.

First, Lopez (13-0, 11 KOs) will face Masayoshi Nakatani (18-0, 12 KOs) in an IBF lightweight title eliminator bout Friday (ESPN+, 10 p.m ET). If Lopez wins that fight, Richard Commey, the IBF lightweight belt holder, is up next in November. If Lopez beats Commey, it’s likely he’ll reach his goal — a showdown with unified lightweight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko.

The plan sounds great, in theory, but the battle to make weight has become the biggest obstacle in the way of Lopez’s dream of conquering the lightweight division at age 22.

In the wake of his last outing against Edis Tatli on April 20, questions remain as to whether the 2018 ESPN prospect of the year can make it down to 135 pounds again. While he didn’t have many issues stopping Tatli in five rounds once he stepped into the ring, the week leading up to the fight was a disaster.

The challenge of making weight nearly derailed the bout. Lopez revealed that he almost pulled out of the fight four times, due to personal stress and the toll of cutting weight. Also, three days after the fight, Lopez was married.

Shortly after the Tatli fight, Lopez, his father and Bob Arum met at the Top Rank offices in Las Vegas to discuss the boxer’s future. Everyone involved had a simple goal: plot out the right plan to keep Lopez on the fast track to stardom.

While it would be too harsh to call the meeting an intervention, everyone involved agreed that Lopez’s approach to his diet had to change. Arum suggested the services of Perfecting Athletes, a company with a history of helping combat athletes with nutrition and dietary plans.

“They’ve been working with Terence Crawford for years, Jamel Herring, Shakur Stevenson and Mikaela Mayer, and some fighters with [manager] Peter Khan out there in Florida,” Arum said. “We have great trust in them.”

Top Rank paid for the company’s services — and Lopez’s diet went into lockdown. The opportunities over the next year are too lucrative for Lopez and Top Rank to risk him not making the 135-pound limit.

The next problem to solve would be to determine where Lopez would train for the Nakatani fight. While Top Rank suggested Lopez go to the mountains of Big Bear, California, Lopez resisted. He had an attachment to Las Vegas, where his father was already living with his wife, two daughters and young granddaughter. Staying there would also mean Teofimo Sr. could continue to oversee his son’s boxing training and his strength and conditioning.

“When it comes to the boxing scene, I don’t let nobody touch my son,” the older Lopez said.

The two sides compromised, with Arum renting out a large two-story house about 15 minutes from the Las Vegas strip. By moving from Brooklyn to Las Vegas, there would be a reduced strain on how much the boxer had to travel — allowing him every opportunity to commit himself to the task at hand.

Despite having fewer than 15 professional bouts under his belt and a pro career that’s less than three years old, Lopez is precocious and ambitious. He and his father have designs on taking on the mantle of the next great pay-per-view franchise in boxing as one of the sport’s biggest stars — and the sooner, the better.

They have insisted to Top Rank that Lopez be put on the fast track to Lomachenko, and for the past year the Lopez clan has targeted the standout Ukrainian fighter, currently the WBA and WBO 135-pound champion. Lomachenko has his own goals of unifying the division, as he’ll likely face Luke Campbell on Aug. 31 for the WBC title.

Lomachenko sits No. 1 in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings, and a Lopez victory over Lomachenko would, in the opinion of the Lopez family, put Teofimo on top of the boxing world.

But Lopez still has a long way to go before stepping into the ring with Lomachenko. First, he needs to make the weight.

The extent of control over Lopez’s diet was clear the night Lopez attended the Tyson Fury-Tom Schwarz weigh-in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in mid-June. Michelle Ingles, one of the co-founders of Perfecting Athletes, shadowed Lopez throughout the day, giving clearance on everything he would ingest. On that night, it was water.

“They’re on you 24/7, they walk with you when you’re in the media room, they walk with you wherever you go. They’re just there,” said Lopez, who began working with the company in early June. Ingels — and other members of Perfecting Athletes — even stay at the fighter’s home throughout the week.

Lopez eats three meals and two snacks a day. His fridge is filled with stacks of microwaveable plastic containers containing every meal he’ll eat, all of it organic and non-GMO. One of the staples during this camp was a combination of red meat, Japanese yams and broccoli, all portion-controlled. In the mornings, his go-to snack was slices of watermelon.

If Lopez goes out to eat, there are strict rules as well.

“We always get a picture of the menu and give ideas about what you should be eating,” Ingles said.

With this kind of laser-focused diet, a lot of Lopez’s favorite foods have gone by the wayside — luxuries he can no longer afford when every bit counts. “Oreo cookies, any junk food, Burger King — I love that stuff,” Lopez admitted, laughing at the thought. “I used to eat a lot of it. But I can still eat sushi when we’re on schedule with weight.”

Ingles serves as a constant reminder of how Lopez should handle himself as a world-class athlete, equating world-class athletes and professional prizefighters to high-performance sports cars that need premium fuel.

“Why would you put garbage food in them? It makes no sense,” she said.

Water consumption is a major priority for Lopez’s team. Boxes of 1.5-liter alkaline water bottles are stacked in his house, and he drinks three of them daily. Every bottle is marked with the numbers 1, 2 or 3 to remind him of just how far along he is in his daily hydration.

There’s also a strong focus on rest and recovery, one of the most overlooked components of getting into fight shape. Lopez has had no issues on that front; he will often sleep up to 12 hours a night, joking that he doesn’t so much sleep as he hibernates.

Every part of Lopez’s daily schedule is dictated by his team and kept on a whiteboard near his kitchen sink. It lists his workouts and meals to eat at designated times. Also strewn across the kitchen are small plastic bags with various approved pills and supplements with labels like ”pre-workout before 5 pm” or “pre-workout after 5 pm,” preparing Lopez for the rigors of training at any time on any given day.

“I feel like nothing has really changed — just more so the nutrition,” Lopez said. “Training camps have always been the same. We work hard, we still do what we have to do, I feel better, I feel sharper and I’m excited for this fight.”

So what will happen as Lopez begins the last part of his cut to 135 pounds?

By simply taking hot baths along with his daily workouts, water weight can be shed in a relatively easy way. The reality is that while boxers compete at specified weight classes, they are only on that exact weight for about 90 minutes or so, just before they step on the scales. The last thing Lopez’s team wants is for him to actually be at or around 135 pounds a week or so before July 19.

For Lopez, this process isn’t just about the Nakatani fight, but the entire scope of the three-fight journey. If he’s able to navigate his way down to 135 as hoped, he has all the confidence in the world that he can get the job done inside the ring. The results once Lopez steps on the scale later this week will be a clear indicator of how well the plan has worked to this point.

“A lot of people ask me this question,” Lopez said of his weight cut. “I tell them that I’ll answer it after the weigh-in to see if I can really make this weight at 135, easily.”

If he succeeds with the weight cut and wins his next two fights, Lopez will be exactly where he had imagined over the past few years. There’s a reason why Top Rank went through these measures to secure his short-term future at lightweight — it’s protecting its investment, and hoping to set up one of the biggest fights possible among its roster of fighters.

Whether it’ll be a case of “careful what you wish for” or a crowning achievement at an unthinkably young age, there are plenty of questions that linger. Will a young and relatively untested Lopez be ready to face one of the most accomplished fighters in the world at such an early stage in his career? What he lacks in modesty, Lopez more than makes up for in hubris, and while some might consider this gambit bold, others believe its foolhardy.

For Lopez, these sacrifices he’s making with his diet are a small price to pay to realize his dreams, and if it works out the way he and his father hope it can, it could be the final piece of building an early legacy that could define his life and career.

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