Beholden to the throne: Vasiliy Lomachenko moves up to lightweight
It’s been awhile since Vasiliy Lomachenko has experienced a competitive fight in the ring, and you’d even have to go back nearly four years to find the last time he lost a round convincingly. This Saturday night, the Ukrainian will embark on a journey necessary for him to find a challenge by moving up in weight but even though many believe this match-up to be his toughest fight to date, Lomachenko’s mindset hasn’t changed.
“I’m still the same. I have the same preparation. I never change,” Lomachenko told a scrum of reporters before a media workout.
It was two-and-a-half weeks away from May 12, where, in the big room of the Madison Square Garden in New York City, Lomachenko takes on the WBA lightweight titleholder Jorge Linares, in the main event of a Top Rank card televised on ESPN (8:00 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT). The mood at the Boxing Laboratory in Oxnard, California, was just like any other media day held for Lomachenko in the past. Alongside manager Egis Klimas, who would help translate when necessary, Lomachenko’s composed demeanor didn’t change, other than his improved English, and, when describing this fight, his reluctance to even call this his toughest fight was shrouded in his confidence.
“I don’t know. We will see. I can explain and I can answer after this fight,” Lomachenko responded to that question. “(Linares) has a lot of challenge: Boxing IQ, speed and power. He’s a top fighter. For me, it’s very interesting…I think he will have a little advantage in the size but I still have a lot of keys on how to get there. So I don’t think it’s going to be any problem.”
Lomachenko, 10-1 (8), has plenty of reason to be confident heading into Saturday. After quickly earning a featherweight title in his third pro fight, the two-time Olympic gold medalist entered 130 pounds seeking a challenge, two years ago, starting the campaign off with a sensational knockout of Roman Martinez. A remarkable streak of four straight technical knockouts followed, in which his opponents have capitulated between rounds for various reasons. Nicholas Walters unabashedly tapped out after seven; Jason Sosa’s corner had enough after nine, as did Miguel Marriaga’s after seven, and, after Guillermo Rigondeaux pulled himself out after six, citing a mootable hand injury, Lomachenko dubbed himself “No-Mas-Chenko” in the post-fight interview, last December. For as impressive as his streak has been, some pesky details don’t help its face value. Aside from the Walters fight, which had a result no one really saw coming, Sosa was a mere fringe contender. Marriaga was the one moving up in weight after a loss and Rigondeaux jumped up two weight classes to take on his rival in an overdue match with more historical precedence than substance. Lomachenko’s reign at 130 wasn’t exactly a clearing out of the division but, even then, there was no real debate as to whom was the best at junior lightweight and he convinced many by fighting very few of them.
“I (have only fought) my 11th fight and I am walking into my third weight class. Anybody else do that in the history of boxing? I don’t think so. My career is going very well,” Lomachenko pointed out. “I always want a challenge. Always. In 130, we can’t organize a top fight. We can’t organize a fight with champions. Then my promoter asked me if I want to move to 135, if it was a fight with Jorge Linares. I answer after two seconds: Of course. Of course I want. I can and I’m ready.”
Lomachenko, 30, has been so dominant as of late, the excelling southpaw has seemed 10 steps ahead of the competition but he’d only admit to being about three or four. How he operates in and outside of the ring separates himself from the rest. Under the bright lights, the advanced quality of his technique is noticeable even to the untrained eye and his dizzying method of near-perfect offense and defense makes him one of the most unique boxers in the sport. You can’t really compare him to anyone from the past either, other than growing out his hair and becoming the second coming of Jesus Christ. Lomachenko’s disciplined, off-the-wall training methods separate himself from the rest as well, and he’s arguably the best athlete in boxing. He’s even implementing exercises to strengthen a big part of the fight game: The mind. This isn’t always seen in boxing. You don’t have to go far to see some of the mental exercises he does after training…
…and other fighters in combat sports are taking notice. One disciple was there – UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw – and he spoke with UCNLive.com about his past experiences in the Lomachenko camp.
“I’m trying to figure it out,” Dillashaw said. “There’s a language barrier there, so I can’t really figure out everything but I just kind of watch him and figure it out. I have done some of the mental training. They have some of the graphs up there and some reaction time stuff. When you get done sparring, you’re exhausted and you’re tired. To really run through it has been something to pick up on and I’m going to try and take home to my gym, as well. But there’s even more he does behind the scenes that no one even gets to see.”
Dillashaw sparred with Lomachenko a year ago but didn’t for this training camp. He was in town to do physical training with Lomachenko for a few days but did regularly spar with Fazliddin Gaibnazarov, an Uzbek gold medalist also managed by Klimas, who is fighting on the May 12 undercard. The main sparring partner for Lomachenko in this camp was Michael Perez, and he too spoke with UCNLive.com.
“Yesterday I started doing a few of them,” Perez said. “Some of it is kind of hard. It’s really mind-taxing. It makes you use your mind and it’s something that you use in the ring to focus on different shots, or the shots coming at you.” As for his work with Lomachenko, Perez said, “I do what I do and that’s why they brought me here. They haven’t told me to change my style or do anything special. I heard they see I have a certain aspect that correlates to what Linares does. I have height; I use my jab very well. I’m fast and that’s the main aspects that they need…(Lomachenko)’s very agile, fast, looking strong and in good shape. He’s ready.”
Lomachenko has always been ready: That’s never been in question. Even when blindsided by a grossly overweight and low-throwing Orlando Salido – in his lone defeat – Lomachenko was still ready for it, and almost eked out a win, considering the tough circumstances of his first world title shot in his second pro fight. What drives him to get ready is just another thing, unlike many fighters of the present and past, because there is no real struggle to his upbringing, nor is there any real desire to become a huge celebrity outside of boxing. What Lomachenko does want is his name to be remembered.
“I don’t think about this,” Lomachenko said about being recognized more. “My legacy is to put my name in the history of boxing. If I can stay a superstar, I don’t worry but I need to put my name in the history of boxing.” Twenty-four years ago, the spark for Lomachenko’s drive came when he asked his father about boxing, and prompted his entire upbringing, once it was answered. “When I was six years old, I asked my father what is the best win: Olympic champion medal or world champion? He answered and explained to me, ‘Yes of course, better is the Olympic Games.’ I told him I want to be Olympic champion and after that, I trained for this. I trained for this moment; I trained for my dream and if I tell something, I need to do (it).”
If you ever want to figure out Lomachenko’s plan in boxing, or what stimulates him to keep going, you can find that answer through his relationship with his father.
“He’s a very, very special coach. He’s a very special trainer. He’s a very special man on this planet,” Lomachenko would later say about his dad. Anatoly Lomachenko wasn’t there during the media workout, nor does he care get the recognition as a trainer he very well deserves. He moved his life to Oxnard to fulfill his duties as a father to an aspiring son, and has turned away many offers to train others in order to concentrate on said duties.
“I’m learning through observation,” Dillashaw added about being around Papa Lomachenko. “His dad is really serious during training and seems like a very fun guy at home. I got to go and have some dinner with him. Obviously I didn’t understand what he’s saying but he’s the life of the party. He’s crackin’ jokes and having a good time but when they’re in the gym training, it’s straight-faced, quiet and dead serious.”
While Linares has assured it won’t be an issue come Saturday night, he didn’t have trainer Ismael Salas with him for his training camp for Lomachenko, nor will he be there on fight night. When presented with that idea of his father not being there, Vasiliy responded, “I never felt a feeling – not a single fight.- where my father was not with me. I’ve never had a single training without my father. I cannot tell you right now how I would feel or even if I would be boxing at all if my father wouldn’t be (there). Everything that I do in the ring, it was created by both of us. We both made this and everything I do – that’s my father.”
It’s perhaps the biggest reason Lomachenko feels no need to change anything heading into Saturday night because it’s been a lifetime of work to even get here. In a few ways, Lomachenko has already etched his and his father’s presences in boxing history but for them to take it a step further, great fights must follow. Conceding a size advantage seems like the only way Lomachenko can find a challenge going forward. Should a great fight come out of it on Saturday, Lomachenko may finally have a division to rest in that has plenty of talent, both historically and presently, to map out the career in which he wants the Lomachenko name to be remembered.