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Potential superstar Juan Manuel Lopez set for biggest challenge

Charismatic Lopez looks for major win over Rafael Marquez at MGM Grand Garden

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Steve Marcus

Juan Manuel Lopez looks on during a press conference on November 4, 2010 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Lopez/Marquez press conference

Juan Manuel Lopez (left) and Rafael Marquez pose during a press conference on November 4, 2010 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Launch slideshow »

The sport of boxing always is in need of fighters with superstar potential to carry it into the future.

One of those might emerge in Las Vegas this weekend.

Puerto Rican featherweight Juan Manuel Lopez (29-0, 26 KO) will look to pass the toughest test of his career Saturday when he meets Rafael Marquez (39-5, 35 KO) in a WBO title fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

Lopez, 27, has caught eyes of many in boxing with his explosive style and unwavering charisma.

Should he knock off Marquez, a future hall of famer, Lopez could take the next step in capturing the casual fan's attention.

"It is truly a dream that's coming true this weekend," said Lopez, who has fought in Las Vegas only twice before. "Obviously, it's a big opportunity for me. I'm well-known in Puerto Rico, but to come to Las Vegas and be a main event is what every fighter wants."

Lopez began his professional career in 2005 under the Top Rank banner and has been on a fast track to stardom since.

According to Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, who has overseen Lopez's entire career, the powerful southpaw always has carried a confidence rarely seen in a fighter so young.

"We were doing a press conference and Lopez was on the undercard for his first fight," Arum said. "He says to me, 'When are you going to get me a title fight?' That was his professional debut.

"From the first minute, you could tell that there was something special about this kid."

Now the WBO featherweight champion, Lopez was at it again during Thursday's press conference to promote his defense against Marquez.

With a potential mega-fight looming against IBF champion Yuriorkis Gamboa, Lopez turned to Marquez's promoter, Gary Shaw, and casually stated he'd defeat both of them within the next eight months.

"One time, Gary Shaw told me, 'If you're so good, why don't you fight Gamboa?'" Lopez said. "So, I'm going to beat Rafael on Saturday and in June, Gamboa."

Should Lopez do that, it's likely he would take the reins as one of the sport's next biggest stars. In anticipation for the role, Arum says, Lopez has expressed a genuine interest in learning English — a task he'll likely take on soon.

Although Lopez has a strong following among Puerto Rican fans — Arum believes he'll eventually surpass the popularity of even Miguel Cotto in that respect — he certainly has the potential for crossover appeal.

"Great confidence, great charisma, a wonderful smile and he loves the fans," Arum said. "He's really like Manny Pacquiao in a lot of ways."

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at LVSunFighting

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