NEW YORK -- Juan Manuel Lopez watched countryman Miguel Cotto fill Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade and marveled at how thousands of people gravitated toward the welterweight champion.
The young super bantamweight champ imagines himself in the same role one day.
"I know I'm getting to the level I can headline," said Lopez, who will defend his title against little-known Olivier Lontchi on Saturday night in Atlantic City. "But I do look forward to a year, two years down the line, being the headline on that night.
"That's the dream. That's every Puerto Rican's dream."
Lopez won his title on the boardwalk last year by knocking out Daniel Ponce De Leon in the first round, ending his three-year title reign.
He's been busy ever since.
The hard-hitting Lopez (25-0, 23 KOs) has already defended his title three times, all by knockout, and aced arguably the most difficult test of his burgeoning career in April, when he dismantled Gerry Penalosa on the way to a 10th-round stoppage. It was the 13th straight fight Lopez has ended early.
"At 122 [pounds]," promoter Bob Arum said, "he's beginning to run out of opponents."
That's why Arum intends to build a worthy challenger over course of the next 18 months, or at the very least a worthwhile test. Few believe that Lontchi (18-0-2, 8 KOs) stands much of a chance, so Arum has already requested the theater at Madison Square Garden for Sept. 26, when he hopes Lopez and exciting Cuban knockout artist Yuriorkis Gamboa will be on the same card in separate fights.
Then, down the road, the two would ultimately face each other.
"They don't know who Gamboa is and they don't know who this kid is, but that's my job in the next year, to make that a must-see fight they put on pay-per-view," Arum said. "I don't know if I can do it, but that's what I'm going to try to do."
Arum knows better than anyone that things can change quickly in boxing.
Just look at how the card Saturday night came together.
It was originally headlined by middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik defending against Sergio Mora, but that fight was scrapped months ago. A bout involving Paul Malignaggi and unbeaten Mike Alvarado was scratched when Alvarado was hurt sparring, and a bantamweight title bout between Fernando Montiel and Eric Morel was postponed when Montiel hurt his hand.
Top Rank wound up turning the event into one of its "Latin Fury" cards, which are designed to showcase some of its top fighters from Mexico and Puerto Rico.
The co-main event is a super flyweight fight between Jorge Arce (51-5-1, 39 KOs), who was convincingly stopped by Vic Darchinyan in a February title fight, against Filipino challenger Fernando Lumacad (19-1-2, 7 KOs).
"I will fight again for the title," said Arce, who once held an interim super flyweight title. "Maybe next year, I will fight [Darchinyan] again."
Also on the card, Vanes Martirosyan (24-0, 15 KOs) takes on Andrey Tsurkan (26-4, 17 KOs) in a junior middleweight fight, and Yuri Foreman (27-0, 8 KOs) takes on Cornelius Bundrage (29-4, 17 KOs) in an IBF junior middleweight eliminator.
Foreman may be the most unique story on the card, in that while he's training to be a world champion he's also training to be a rabbi. The 28-year-old Belarussian is about 18 months from earning a degree in rabbinical studies.
"Foreman is a real great story, and it will capture everyone's imagination," Arum said. "If you tell the story and people are following the story, then people will look for the plus side of what he's doing in the ring, the skilled boxer he is.
"He can't punch hard," Arum added. "But he tells me, 'I don't punch hard, I don't hurt anybody, because it'd be wrong for a rabbi to do that.'"