Lopez taking first step down new path

With a new outlook, Juan Manuel Lopez says he "can't wait to get in the ring" for Saturday's return. AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico -- Juan Manuel Lopez admits to being a bit tentative about turning the page to what he views as the next chapter of his life. But after all of the problems that led up to his only career defeats and the loss of his featherweight title -- problems he says he has left behind -- the Puerto Rican star is certainly ready.

"I feel great," said Lopez, who is set to come off an 11-month layoff from ring activities on Saturday. "I can't deny that there's a little bit of anxiety about how the audience will react, how many people will show up and how they are going to react when I get into the ring. But personally, technically and tactically, we're confident."

The hard-punching lefty will return to action in Bayamon following his suspension for accusing veteran referee Roberto Ramirez of gambling on fights in the aftermath of his loss in a rematch with Orlando Salido. The Boxing Commission of Puerto Rico penalized him for his comments, for which he quickly apologized, and Lopez has had plenty of time to assimilate those experiences.

"Personally, I feel normal; maybe it's because of the experience," he said. "[Next Friday] will be my 20th anniversary as a fighter. Definitely, we're calm and happy, and I can't wait to get in the ring."

Even though he claims not to have been affected by his long inactivity, Lopez (31-2, 28 KOs) said that even though he has trained hard for Saturday's return, against Brazil's Aldimar Silva Santos (18-3, 9 KOs), he doesn't know whether he has lost some of the faculties that made him one of the top fighters at his weight a few years ago.

"With all the work we've done, the rust has pretty much gone away," Lopez said. "But training is definitely not fighting.

"We have to see how we react in front of so many people, even though I am a very experienced fighter. It's just a matter of doing my job and being calm."

Still, Lopez assured that he is in great condition.

"We are up to 95, 96, 97 percent," he said. "The remaining 3 percent is just making weight during this week. We've already done the work, which was 165 rounds of sparring -- the most I've done for a training camp. We've been training for six months."

Lopez indicated that he doesn't yet know whether he will continue campaigning at 126 pounds. He believes this fight against Silva Santos will be a good barometer to define his future steps.

"On [Friday], when I step on the scales, right there I will determine which weight I will be making in the future," he said.

Lopez, 29, claims to now have a mindset that is very different from when he fell to Salido in March 2012, when he was in the midst of a difficult divorce.

"The JuanMa that lost against Salido was a JuanMa that was not mentally there," Lopez said. "He had a lot of personal issues. He was away from Puerto Rico more often than he was in Puerto Rico, avoiding the unwanted contact with certain people that he found unacceptable at that time."

Additionally, Lopez said he was physically off for the Salido rematch -- among several problems, the fighter said he was "a little bit low on sugar" -- although he didn't want to use that as an excuse for the defeat.

And now?

Lopez is emphatic when he says he is "more focused, more adult and well-rested, above all, because I had never taken a vacation, which turned out to be something really good for my body, my hands and my head. Honestly, all exams have come out fine. We're better in our health and in our physique."

Yet he is still, in some respects, mending his reputation. Lopez seems more concerned about receiving a healthy fan reaction Saturday than his own condition.

"There are times when you take so many punches that everything becomes blurry, which is what happened on this occasion," Lopez said, recalling the Ramirez incident. "My team is more aware of keeping me from saying inappropriate things, because I said things when I was still under the effect of the punches, and I am still regretting and apologizing for that.

"This fight is very big, and it will determine a new beginning of my career. It's like a debut in my career. I have something to prove to the audience, but especially I have to showcase my work and become victorious in order to get all those important fights in the future, which is the next thing for me."

Lopez's new beginning also led to several changes in his team, including a new personal trainer and the addition of veteran coach Freddie Trinidad to his corner.

The next step down this new path will be in the ring, and although Lopez says his concentration is on Silva Santos, he can't help but ponder what else lies ahead.

"He is a fighter that I have to work with, and I have to look good in this fight in order to show the audience that I am here to stay," said Lopez, who mentions that HBO representatives will sit ringside Saturday, suggesting that he could be headed toward bigger challenges if successful against Silva Santos.

Lopez goes so far as to mention fellow featherweight Wilfredo Vazquez and 130-pounder Diego Magdaleno as potential targets for the future.

"It's a matter of seeing what I will do after [Friday]," Lopez said, again referring to the results at the weigh-in. "And then after the fight, I will officially inform the sanctioning bodies to be ranked and achieve my goal of becoming the best world champ out there."