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Ringside Seat: Lomachenko and Lopez ready for monumental lightweight unification fight

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The moment has finally arrived. Through years of conflict and antagonization, individual paths to titles and finally a global pandemic, on Saturday, Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez Jr. will step between the ropes to battle for lightweight world titles from all four major sanctioning bodies at the MGM Grand Convention Center in Las Vegas (ESPN and ESPN+, 7:30 p.m. ET).

It’s hard to overstate what this fight could mean, both to the fighters and the sport in general. Lomachenko, the No. 1 pound-for-pound boxer in the world, against one of the fastest-rising fighters in the sport in Lopez, with stakes that couldn’t be any higher.

With all due respect to Devin Haney, the winner of this fight will be seen as the unified lightweight champion of the world.

That doesn’t mean the stakes for each boxer is the same, as each fighter takes this fight at dramatically different points in their respective careers, despite it being the 16th pro fight for both Lomachenko and Lopez.

For Lomachenko, a win would further solidify his claim as the best fighter on the planet. While there are several other boxers who can also rightfully make that claim — Canelo Alvarez, Naoya Inoue and Terence Crawford among them — a win of this magnitude would further set Lomachenko apart. A victory over a gifted young foe who is 10 years his junior would be a significant statement, as he would add another well-known name to his resume at the age of 32.

When it comes to Lopez, a victory would prove that he isn’t just a talented fighter with tremendous upside, but something beyond that — a star. How many other boxers, at just 23 years old, could claim to be the unified champion of division, and accomplish it by toppling an elite boxer in the process?

In an age in which many fighters are guided carefully to world titles and cling to them with second-rate fights for too long, Lopez has taken the road less traveled. If he gets to his destination, the “Takeover,” as he calls it, will be complete.

Can Teofimo Lopez back up his father’s predictions?

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Teofimo Lopez Jr. is one of boxing’s biggest rising stars, but it doesn’t come without an enormous amount of help from his trainer, his father, Teofimo Lopez Sr.

While Lopez and Lomachenko face off in one of the biggest title unification bouts in recent memory, the individual who might be on the spot most might not be either of the boxers stepping into the ring.

That mantle belongs to the man who in many ways spoke this fight into existence as he boldly proclaimed that his son — while he was still just a prospect — would topple someone who is considered the best boxer in the world.

Back when Lopez was just cutting his teeth on Top Rank undercards — some of those shows were headlined by Lomachenko — Teofimo Lopez Sr., in the eyes of many observers, committed the cardinal sin of not only failing to bow down to Lomachenko’s greatness but being downright disdainful.

He had the temerity to tell anyone who would listen that his son would defeat Lomachenko sooner rather than later.

Now, as the day of reckoning approaches, does the father feel any extra apprehension?

“Not at all. I don’t see anything I should be nervous about,” he told ESPN. My son is very prepared for this fight. I’ve never seen him as hungry as he is right now.”

Lopez Sr. has described this fight camp, which was once again held in familiar territory for the Lopez clan — in Flemington, New Jersey — as ”phenomenal.” He has not backed away from his statements in regards to this fight and how it plays out.

“We’re going to make this easier than the [Richard] Commey fight,” he said. “I feel bad for Loma, but a new lion’s gotta come in and take over this division.”

For Lopez Sr. — who actually wears a cap that says “Nostradamus” — this vision began long before his son stopped the normally durable Commey in just two rounds to win the IBF belt back in December. He has been calling out Lomachenko for three years.

“I already predicted the fight’s not going six rounds, and that’s just the way it’s going to go,” the elder Lopez said. “We’ve been right all these times and we’re going to be right on this fight, too. There’s no way a 126-pounder is going to beat my son. It’s just impossible.”

Lopez Sr. is part Danny Garcia, part Freddie Blassie, with a bit of Bundini Brown and George Benton mixed in. But you have to give him credit — he has trained his gifted son from the very beginning — and guided him to a world title in just 15 fights. That’s something he forecast at the beginning of his son’s career in 2016. Then he boldly predicted that his 16th bout would come against Lomachenko.

But you wonder, is his son fully onboard with all this? At just 23, in an era when most boxers are judiciously handled and kept away from such stern challenges, Lopez was put on the very fastest of tracks by the father.

“I told him, ‘Hey listen, I’m all-in — if it comes, it comes,'” said the younger Lopez. “That’s how I look at life — if it comes, it comes. Whatever it is, whatever comes my way, we’re going to make things work out. Now, it’s here.”

The younger Lopez makes it clear, though, that while some observers will look upon Saturday night as a referendum on his father, this is about him and his career.

“I love my father,” Lopez said, “but it isn’t about proving his prophecy. He talks whatever he wants to talk. He made this bigger than it needed to be — I think everyone needs to congratulate him on that part. But really what it is, it’s just that he knows what I’m all about. He talks what he talks; he’s very confident about it because he sees in me what no one else sees in me, yet.”

The father has an unending confidence in the son. Not only will he tell you that his son will be the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound in the near future, he doesn’t hesitate to follow up by saying that Teofimo will be the greatest of all time. Yeah, as in GOAT. As you listen to him speak those words, you get the sense he’s actually very serious.

But before they start engraving Lopez’s plaque in the Boxing Hall of Fame, he faces a far from simple task on Saturday — he has to beat one of the best boxers of this generation. Even with all of the talking, the elder Lopez doesn’t feel like he has added any pressure or given Lomachenko too much “bulletin-board” material

“No, I really don’t care about that because what I believe, it always happens,” Lopez Sr. said. “I have no doubts. My son has no pressure whatsoever. Once he’s in that ring, he’s a different animal. That’s why I know my son is ready for this fight. There’s nobody else that we have to fight; this is the fight we have to fight to get all the belts, to be recognized as one of the best fighters in the world.

“That’s why I’ve got no doubts about this fight. Come Oct. 17, the whole world is going to know who my son is, if they don’t know already … This guy Lomachenko, he’s going to make us look good, and I can’t wait. I told everybody the better the fighter is, the easier the fight it’s going to be for us.”

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Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez Jr. were each raised very differently by their fathers.

Key stats from ESPN Stats & Information

23 years, 85 days: Teofimo Lopez Jr. would become the second-youngest boxer in history to hold at least three world titles in a division — behind only Mike Tyson (21 years, 37 days)

30: Combined number of professional fights between Lopez and Lomachenko, the fewest ever in a unification bout in the four-belt era (since 1988).

13: Either Lomachenko or Lopez will become just the 13th fighter to hold world titles from all four major sanctioning bodies at the same time since 1988.

Betting odds for Lomachenko-Lopez

As of Wednesday morning, courtesy of Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill.

Money line:

Lomachenko: -420
Lopez: +330

Specific outcomes:

Lomachenko by decision/technical decision: -120
Lomachenko by KO/TKO/DQ: +225
Lopez by decision/technical decision: +800
Lopez by KO/TKO/DQ: +500
Draw: +2000

Over/under:

7.5 rounds: O: -500 / U: +333
8.5 rounds: O: -400 / U: +275
9.5 rounds: O: -275 / U: +200
10.5 rounds: O: -200 / U: +150

Will the fight go the distance? Yes: -163 / No: +120

Prediction

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Take a look back at Teofimo Lopez Jr.’s biggest wins as he fearlessly climbed the ranks and won the IBF lightweight championship.

I’ve been a believer in Lopez from the time he turned pro. It’s not just the skills, but also his highly underrated ring IQ and self-belief. There is this misperception that he’s just a bruising, heavy-handed puncher, but he has the ability to lay traps and counter reflexively. There is no doubting the greatness of Lomachenko, but he is not a natural lightweight, and while he’s still very much an elite fighter, after a long, storied amateur career, there are some signs of slight physical slippage.

Many believe this will be the modern-day version of Joe Calzaghe-Jeff Lacy. But Lopez has many more facets to his game than a typical “underdog” going into a fight against Lomachenko. Lopez will find ways to touch and hurt Lomachenko, and ultimately he’ll stop Lomachenko in the late rounds.

What to watch for on the undercard

⬛ There is a pivotal junior welterweight contest that serves as the co-main event on Saturday inside the Top Rank bubble, as former world title challenger Alex Saucedo (30-1, 19 KOs) faces the undefeated Arnold Barboza Jr. (24-0, 10 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round contest.

It figures to be a fan-friendly battle. Saucedo, who has notched two victories since losing to Maurice Hooker in a fight for the vacant WBO 140-pound title in 2018, is a hard-nosed, aggressive grinder, while Barboza himself isn’t one to back away from a fight himself. Neither man will have to work hard to find one another inside that ring.

Like the memorable war that was waged by Jose Zepeda and Ivan Baranchyk a couple of weeks ago, Saucedo and Barboza are fighting for positioning in the junior welterweight division, which by the spring of 2021 could have a host of vacated belts after Josh Taylor and Jose Ramirez unify the division (and subsequently make an expected move up to welterweight.)

⬛ So far, it’s been 14 up, 14 down in the first round for super middleweight hopeful Edgar Berlanga (14-0, 14 KOs). Top Rank matchmakers have done their best to find foes who will at least get Berlanga into the middle rounds and to get him some valuable experience. This weekend he is paired with veteran Lanell Bellows (20-5-3, 13 KOs), who at the very least is durable. In 28 professional outings, he has never been stopped. With his devastating punching prowess, Berlanga has become must-see TV.

At a certain point, we will see Berlanga fighting in Round 2. Will it be on Saturday night?

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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