Enduring Pain: Vasyl Lomachenko-Jason Sosa Preview
Jason Sosa will need to display all the virtues of an underdog – grit, perseverance and a morbid capacity for enduring pain – in the ring on Saturday night (HBO, 10 p.m. ET/PT) when he faces WBO junior lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko in the first prizefight to grace the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Unnatural effort, however, won’t be enough to upset one of our era’s most sensational talents, whose last few wins have been so lopsided as to be carnivalesque and embarrassing for the opposition. But unlike two of Lomachenko’s last foes – namely, a faded Roman Martinez and a docile Nicholas Walters hampered by inactivity – Sosa has several things going for him. He’s in his prime, relatively active and, having recently won and defended a title belt, supremely confident. Add to the mix the fact that he is a sturdy, athletic and natural 130-pounder with some power in both hands, it’s not unreasonable to suppose Sosa has the ability to make Saturday’s bout more an honest fight than a fiasco.
A standout running back in high school, whose plans to attend a Division-1 football program were derailed after an injury to his ACL, Sosa, 29, found boxing at 20 and, with a paltry three amateur fights to his name, leaped to the professional ranks at 21. Like most fighters – palookas, journeymen, take your pick – who earn a wage from fisticuffs, Sosa’s path in boxing runs counter to those taken by more hallowed participants, those aligned with well-heeled promoters, whom offer five-year plans replete with careful matchmaking and sponsorship opportunities. Yet even without the gilded appurtenances enjoyed by boxing’s one percent, Sosa, Camden, New Jersey, through fights contested in locales as far flung as Monte Carlo, Puerto Rico and Beijing, has carved out a highly credible and workmanlike career for himself since he turned pro in 2009. After all, early on in Sosa’s career, the signs were not exactly auspicious. He suffered a first-round stoppage against unseasoned Tre’Sean Wiggins in a fight he took on 48 hours’ notice. More damningly, the fight took place at the junior welterweight limit, two weight classes above his natural fighting weight. It was an isolated error and remains the only loss of his pro career.
From 2012 to 2015, Sosa pulled off a string of 14 straight wins, 13 of which came by knockout, albeit against mainly club-fare opposition. For a fighter with virtually zero amateur experience, the steady stream of meaningful matches – many of them dutifully mapped out by respected Philadelphia promoter J Russell Peltz – provided Sosa with the opportunity to hone and sharpen a nascent skill set.
Indeed, Sosa, 20-1-4 (15), looks to be improving on the job; his last three fights are instructive. Against Nicholas Walters, Sosa, expected to be taken out in the mid-to-late rounds, instead flashed a granite chin and showed few qualms about staying in the pocket with a world-class puncher – even though, to be sure, he was effectively outgunned in that fight. (Most observers thought it was a clear win for the “Axe Man” but inexplicably the judges scored the fight a draw).
Hightailing it to China for his next bout against Javier Fortuna, a representative of the Cutie School of Boxing, for a piece of the WBA belt, Sosa was once again the heavy underdog. To his credit, he did not play the part of fall guy, showing considerable poise in a come-from-behind win against the flighty Fortuna. Behind on the scorecards, entering the 11th round, Sosa uncorked two left hooks to stop the Dominican southpaw and, in doing so, earned a title – unreal for a someone who, not long ago, was tossing heaps of dough in a pizzeria.
In his most recent outing in the ring, Sosa offered up a resounding defense of his title against limited but tough-as-nails Stephen Smith, a British pressure fighter, whose face would take a career beating. In all, Sosa may not be the craftiest fighter in the ring, but he’s no Philistine banger either: He switches angles as he rattles off combinations, moves his head and throws a sneaky right-hand lead. The question is – and perhaps it’s academic – will these strengths show up against Lomachenko?
Saying Lomachenko, 29, is a unique fighter is to merely restate Twitter consensus, the HBO commentary crew, or a Top Rank Promotions press release. For a while, it seemed like the laureled achievements of Lomachenko’s amateur career – two Olympic gold medals, nearly 400 amateur fights against one loss, etc, etc. – would be the most talked-about aspects of his boxing career but his recent achievements in the 130-pound class give one scary pause. Questions about this power at the weight were stifled when he cut down career 130-pounder Roman Martinez in the fifth round. And if there were doubts about Lomachenko’s ability to face a knockout artist, he crushed them when he spun hard-hitting Nicholas Walters like a dreidel for six rounds, forcing a flummoxed and whimpering Walters to tell referee Tony Weeks that he had no intention to come off his stool for the seventh round bell. It was a masterful drubbing that spoke to the Ukrainian’s otherworldly skill level and a repertoire that includes, apparently, mental sabotage.
In the end, two fighters with drastically different pugilistic upbringings are somehow converging upon the same ring on Saturday night. In Sosa, you have a working model of the overachiever. In Lomachenko, 7-1 (5), you have a generational talent looking to define the era as his own. While Sosa may be too hard-headed, too proud, in the end, too hungry, to ever quit like Walters did, his weaknesses, which include a strong tendency to lunge into his opponents with his hands at his waist, are areas ripe for Lomachenko’s surgical touch. The inclination is to think Sosa’s best chances are to take a page from the roughhouse tactics (sans low blows) of Orlando Salido, who administered Lomachenko’s first and only loss, but even that fight seems like a distant memory, increasingly meaningless and inconsequential. Sosa’s heart may tell him to gut it out for a few more rounds but, once the punches pile up, will his body keep up?
Still, when a fighter and his promoter decide that no sanctioning body trinket and their petty edicts are going to decide their future, you have to admire their thinking. “(The WBA) stripped me of the title, so it was a bittersweet thing for me,” Sosa told ESPN. “It hurt me. I would have loved to unify.” Then, he added, clarifying, “We want to fight the best and we believe Lomachenko is the best.” A little risk, as Sosa well understands, is what separates a crackpot pipe dream from a bona fide opportunity.