Belfast's SSE Arena will be raucous on Saturday as local hero Michael Conlan attempts to tear the IBF featherweight title away from Luis Alberto Lopez of Mexico. Will he succeed?
Belfast native Michael Conlan (18-1, 9KOs) returns to familiar surroundings on Saturday, May 27. For the third consecutive fight, Conlan will glove up at the SSE Arena in his home city. It will be the first time Conlan has had home advantage in a world title bout.
Conlan's previous attempt at winning a world title ended in a 12th round knockout at the hands of Leigh Wood in Nottingham, England, last year.
It was a pulsating fight, one of the best of 2022, which provided a dramatic conclusion as Michael Conlan, leading on the scorecards at the time, was knocked out of the ring by a heavy right hand from Wood at 1:25 of the final session.
Conlan's dream of world title glory that night ended at that moment. On Saturday he has a second chance to fasten a world title strap around his waist.
In order to achieve that, the 31-year-old Irish boxer has to get the better of the defending champion, Luis Alberto Lopez (27-2, 15KOs), of Mexico.
Boxing away from home won't bother Lopez at all. This will be his third trip to this side of the Atlantic. The previous two ended in victory, but more on that later. Lopez also holds impressive wins over Americans Andy Vences and Gabriel Flores Jr – both were beaten on home soil by the Mexican who is quietly becoming something of a road warrior.
Michael Conlan's Road Back To World Title Contender
Conlan didn't spend too much time away from boxing following his March 2022 loss to Wood. The nature of the knockout was severe, but the Irishman was back in the ring in Belfast in early August.
Miguel Marriaga provided the opposition and was handily beaten over ten rounds at Saturday's venue. Conlan had Marriaga down three times in the bout, and won nine of the ten sessions on the three official scorecards.
Not wanting to stand back and admire that effort for too long, Conlan returned to the SSE Arena ring in December. Karim Guerfi of France was his opponent. The Frenchman was overwhelmed in the first round, going down under a barrage of punches from Conlan. Referee Steve Gray waved the fight off after Guerfi rose but then stumbled and staggered forward.
It was an aggressive showing from Conlan that night, boxing out of the southpaw stance. Will we see something similar on Saturday against Lopez?
Having been under the world title lights once before, Michael Conlan knows what will be required on Saturday. When this fight was announced in March, Conlan stated his intentions confidently.
“This is a massive opportunity, fighting for the world title in Belfast is something I've always dreamed of and will be taking this opportunity with both hands,” the Irish boxer said via the official fight announcement press release.
“The SSE Arena will be buzzing, and I will do everything I can to bring a world title home. Credit to Lopez for coming to Belfast, but I am taking his title. He is not prepared for what is coming his way on May 27.”
Lopez WILL Be Well Prepared Against Michael Conlan
It feels like 29-year-old Lopez may be entering his peak years in boxing. As mentioned, he is comfortable entering the lion's den of a frenzied arena where the majority in attendance want to see him beaten. With the mental side of things not in question, his physical talents seem to be aligning as he has gradually worked his way down in weight, settling in the 126-pound division he now holds a world title in.
Wins at super featherweight over Andy Vences and Gabriel Flores Jr. – the latter an upset special – really got the boxing world talking about the Mexican fighter who is known as “El Venado” – The Deer.
Shortly after beating Flores Jr., Lopez was in London for an IBF featherweight title final eliminator in December 2021.
He handed Isaac Lowe his first career defeat at York Hall. Lowe was outclassed and outgunned by Lopez as he went down three times; to a left hook upstairs in round one, a chopping right hand to the side of the head in the second, and to a round seven body shot which closed the show.
After two stay busy bouts in America, Lopez was back in England exactly one year later to fight for the title against holder Josh Warrington. Warrington's home city of Leeds played host.
A fire-fight took place, with both men fighting aggressively, giving and receiving punishment. The action took place at close quarters and the gruelling contest went the distance. Lopez claimed Warrington's title after being awarded a majority decision on the judges' scorecards.
From the hostile environment of Leeds, Lopez will make the first defence of his crown versus Michael Conlan in a similar atmosphere when he finds himself across the ring from Conlan in Belfast.
To his credit, Lopez seems to relish challenges like this.
“I am a road warrior. Travelling to my opponent's home country doesn't faze me,” Lopez said, according to a promotional press release.
“I won my world title in Leeds, and now it's time to defend it in Belfast. The louder they cheer for Michael Conlan, the harder I will fight. The IBF title will remain in Mexico. May 27 will be a special night for me, and Michael's fans will go home disappointed.”
Tactics, Observations & Prediction
With both boxers confident, we could be in for a memorable fight on Saturday. An intriguing clash of styles may be on the cards.
With the Wood fight fresh in his memory, will Michael Conlan look to not get drawn into too many toe-to-toe exchanges with Lopez. This style suited Lopez against Warrington, so Conlan's coach, the talented tactician Adam Booth, may be advising against indulging in this against Lopez.
I know tiredness played a part at the end of the Wood bout, but if Conlan had been able to move instead of standing and trying to fire back off the ropes, he may have been declared the winner that night in Nottingham.
As a talented mover and switch-hitter, I'm expecting Conlan to employ that style as his primary strategy in this fight. Of course, he will mix it up from time to time and stay in the pocket, especially when Lopez leaves himself exposed as he is prone to do.
Lopez is an aggressive fighter who moves forward in a hopping motion – perhaps that's where his deer nickname comes from. Sticking with the deer theme, his willingness to engage puts one in mind of a stag, rutting his antlers into an opponent over and over again until the opponent has had enough.
Lopez, an orthodox fighter, uses his jab to hurt and to set up his right, which he throws from wide and low angles. He seems to favour a right uppercut to head and body – something Conlan will need to be wary of.
Lopez also throws dangerous left hooks to both target areas, again these come from very wide angles. Conlan may have opportunities to counter if he is sharp enough to capitalise on the moments when Lopez completely abandons protecting himself.
Michael Conlan holds the height and reach advantage so I expect to see Lopez constantly using his hopping motion to close that gap. If the champion can do that successfully he could take his title back to Mexico. If Conlan can use his speed to counter and stop the attacks of Lopez before they really get started, then it could be a famous night in Belfast.
With plenty on the line I see this fight going the distance.
When the final bell sounds it will be Michael Conlan having his arm raised. It wouldn't surprise me if the scorecards are close and possibly debateable. If that is the case, the two men could meet again in Belfast towards the end of the year.
Luis Alberto Lopez vs. Michael Conlan from Belfast on Saturday May 27 will be shown on ESPN+ in America and BT Sport in the UK and Ireland.