Lopez shows heart, power

Juan Manuel Lopez hit Rogers Mtagwa hard and often, but couldn't put him in the canvas for good Chris Farina/Top Rank

NEW YORK -- Eventually, it became all about beating the clock -- not Rogers Mtagwa -- for Juan Manuel Lopez.

The junior featherweight titleholder, with all sorts of big plans being plotted for him by Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, almost went crashing down in flames but for a reservoir of will that was stunning.

Badly hurt late in the fight, Lopez showed incredible heart to stay on his feet and make it to the final bell and retain his 122-pound belt via dramatic unanimous decision against Mtagwa in a tremendous action fight in front of a spirited crowd of 3,152 at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

"He was definitely hurting me but I never felt like I was going down," a marked-up Lopez said through a translator. "He was catching me with some good punches. I think the 11th round he really hurt me and I was never really able to recuperate. The 12th round was all heart. A lot of people think I am Superman. I'm not. I get hit like everyone else. But I'm resilient."

Lopez, with the heavily Puerto Rican crowd behind him, was in full control of his fifth title defense through the first half of the fight. He was faster than Mtagwa and landing more punches.

It was hard not to start looking ahead to a planned Jan. 23 HBO doubleheader in Puerto Rico in which Lopez is supposed to defend his title and Yuriorkis Gamboa, the electrifying featherweight titlist who retained his title in Saturday's co-feature, is supposed to defend his.

Arum hopes to match Lopez and Gamboa in a featherweight title bout in June.

But that almost all came apart because Mtagwa (26-13-2, 18 KOs), whose record does not show how tough he is, was undeterred. He displayed the best attributes of toughness and relentlessness of the fighters from the places he calls home: the African nation of Tanzania and Philadelphia, where he has lived since 2000.

Mtagwa made it a street fight, constantly stalking forward while Lopez tried to keep him off.

Eventually, Lopez -- who scored a flash knockdown in the fifth round and appeared to score two others in the first round that referee Eddie Cotton ruled slips -- couldn't anymore.

Mtagwa hurt Lopez with a series of shots late in the 10th round and never stopped swinging.

He sent Lopez staggering into the ropes at the end of the 11th round. Lopez only avoided a knockdown because he grabbed the ropes to keep himself upright and Cotton didn't see it as the bell rang.

Then the real drama started when the bell rang to start the 12th round.

Lopez came out of his corner on unsteady legs and you just knew it would be a race against the clock.

Could Lopez last three minutes?

He did, but just barely.

Mtagwa was all over him. Lopez was desperate to survive. He had no defense and could barely hold on and throw the occasional punch to stay in the fight as the crowd was standing and going wild.

It was like boxing's version of legendary basketball coach Dean Smith's four corners. Lopez was desperate to reach the finish line.

Mtagwa was pounding him, outlanding Lopez 36-9 in the final round, but he just wouldn't go down as the countdown was on for the final bell.

"The last round I was very tired, really tired," Mtagwa offered as a reason he could not finish Lopez off. "He's not a strong puncher but he's a good fighter. In the 12th round I see in his eyes that he is finished."

Once Lopez (27-0, 24 KOs) made it to the end of the fight, there was little question he had won because of the large early lead he had built.

Sure enough, the official scorecards had him ahead 116-111, 115-111 and 114-113. ESPN.com scored it 115-111 for Lopez as well.

"He's a very strong guy," said Lopez, who suffered a cut over his left eye in the third round from an accidental head butt, one of many Mtagwa hit him with, with just one warning from Cotton. "Sometimes it's very difficult to fight guys like this because they have nothing to lose and I have a lot to lose."

Mtagwa made his case for a rematch.

"It was a very close fight, a good fight. Why not a rematch? I don't believe he won the fight," he said.

Don't count on it, though.

Arum intends to go through with the Jan. 23 card with Lopez facing either fellow junior featherweight titlist Celestino Caballero or featherweight titleholders Steven Luevano or Elio Rojas.

"Caballero's people are being very difficult with the amount of money they want for the fight," Arum said. "We've offered him 150,000 and if he doesn't want it, that's fine."

Arum still has designs on Lopez facing Gamboa.

"I thought Lopez fought a stupid fight," Arum said. "He can't fight a stupid fight against Gamboa. I give this [Mtagwa] kid credit, though. He stayed in there and didn't get discouraged and at the end had 'Juanma' reeling, so you have to give him props. 'Juanma' didn't have to make it that difficult."

Gamboa (16-0, 14 KOs), who knocked out Whyber Garcia in the fourth round on the undercard, said he looks forward to facing Lopez.

"I don't think Juan Manuel Lopez is better than me," Gamboa said. "He's not a challenge for me. If we fight, I will show that. [On Jan. 23], I think I should be the one carrying the card with Lopez because I am a better fighter than him. He's not better than me. Look at our records. Look at our amateur records. I was better than him in the amateurs and I am better than him as a professional."

Lopez dismissed Gamboa's words.

"Let's see him knock out Mtagwa," Lopez said. "I'll knock Garcia out like he did. Let's see what he can do with Mtagwa."

As rough a time as Lopez had with Mtagwa, Arum quickly turned the page, looking forward to January and then to their eventual showdown.

"I think it's a really good competitive fight and [Lopez] has to fight a smarter fight than he fought. He let himself become vulnerable. He showed a lot of heart, though."

A lot? As much as anyone.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.