'The only person that beat me was myself': Will Teofimo Lopez learn from his mistakes?

RINGOES, N.J. -- The last time Teofimo Lopez fought it was with a condition later diagnosed as pneumomediastinum, a balloon-like intrusion of air in his thoracic cavity, the likely result of a tiny tear in his esophagus that developed as he rehydrated after the weigh-in. "How he breathed, I can't even explain," said one specialist who examined him. "Like his neck and chest were in a vise." Bottom line: He could have died that night.

"Every doctor who sees my report," Lopez says, "they look at me like, 'How the hell did you survive that? Either you're a beast or a God.'"

Beast or God? Seems a bit grandiose for a fighter coming off his first loss, a massive upset to the hitherto little-known -- at least in the States -- George Kambosos Jr. But grandiosity (publicly uttered or privately held) and a commensurate ego are requirements for any fighter with the ambition and the ability of Lopez. Recall the great Vasiliy Lomachenko and his own inability to accept a clear-cut defeat at the hands of Lopez. Now it is Lopez who continues to insist he beat Kambosos.

Is he in denial? Of course. And if you want to feign outrage, be my guest.

The point is, Lopez is the most dynamic young fighter in the game. He has a chance to be great. Not Instagram or YouTube great, but the real thing. Or, he can flame out in full public view. But don't lie to yourself: That's part of it, at the nub, the very dynamism of the attraction, what Lopez refers to as his "It Factor."

But now -- at the grand old age of 25 -- he finds himself embarking on a comeback (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN+), against a steadfast Sonoran named Pedro Campa. The former undisputed lightweight champion of the world will be making his 140-pound debut, but the relevant questions begin with what, if anything, he's learned from defeat?

Fighters lie to the world. It's part of the job. But a great fighter can't lie to himself. The great ones learn to navigate that very private space between self-belief and denial. The great fighter may feel like a God or a beast -- indeed he or she should -- but just the same, knows he is neither. The great ones can parse the difference between bravery and bravado.

Lopez had both, in abundance. But self-knowledge? That's only acquired the hard way, through failure.

The next year or so will reveal a lot about Lopez, not just what kind of fighter he will be, but also what kind of man. Part of me can't help but root for him. It's not the "It Factor" that's compromised what might be left of my journalistic integrity, but the sensitive, searching kid who hides under that violent braggart's façade. Truth is, since beating Lomachenko, his life and career -- complicated in the best of times -- have become, well, messy. In late 2019, when we first sat down together at the Old Dog Boxing Club, where he trains deep in the heart of New Jersey, Lopez was a newlywed about to win his first title. Now he's split from his wife, a single father trying to win back his titles.

"Who said I'm a single father?" he shoots back at me.


"My personal life has nothing to do with this."

We're that only true. His personal life -- the bloodline itself and the inevitable family conflicts writ large -- were always part of this voyeuristic thrill ride. It began with his trainer-father's impossibly impudent vow, back in 2018, that his boy would dismantle Lomachenko, then clearly be regarded as the greatest fighter in the world.

Quite suddenly, Lopez went from being that kid with the obnoxious dad to Fighter of the Year, Son of Nostradamus. Then, the not-so-slow burn, fueled by bad luck and hubris. Kambosos -- an IBF mandatory challenger -- looked like a great score, big bucks for little risk. But by fight night, last Nov. 27, there had been eight dates, six prospective venues, two streaming services, one preposterous purse bid, and in keeping with the grandest of boxing's traditions, untold billable hours for the lawyers. By then, Team Lopez had dismissed its nutritionists, citing the costs of an on-again, off-again training camp.

I mean, why would a pugilistic prodigy worry about rehydration when he's fighting George Kambosos? Or so it was thought.

Then again, Lopez had other things on his mind. His son, Liam, was born just weeks before the fight. He had already split with his wife, Cynthia, whose mere presence had always been a point of contention between the fighter and his family. He had spoken quite openly about having suicidal thoughts.

A fighter's preparation -- emotional, physical, spiritual -- is part of the fight. So I take nothing from Kambosos here. Lopez apparently feels otherwise: "By the seventh round, I looked up at the lights and I just said to God, 'I need your help here because I'm about to do something that you know I'm not built to do, and that's quit.' Three rounds later, I put that little b---- on his knees."

He's referring, of course, to Kambosos, whom he knocked down in the 10th, on a night that, all things considered, divine and temporal, he was lucky to have survived.

"Was it a mistake to fight?" I ask.

"No," he says. "It was the greatest choice I ever decided to do in my life."

"You almost died."

"Good. Good. I needed that."

"You needed to almost die?"

"To realize how ... how dark and bad people really are. Because I won that fight."

"You think you won that fight?" I ask.

"The referee knew so. He raised my hand before they called out Kambosos."

"Who beat you then?"

"The only person that beat me was myself, and that's it."

Finally. The truth.