Vasiliy Lomachenko elevates to the next level
It was a critically acclaimed performance this past weekend at the Madison Square Garden from Vasiliy Lomachenko, who overcame an unexpected trip to the canvas to capture the WBA lightweight title from the respected Jorge Linares. For the gifted Ukranian, it’s now his third major title in a dozen fights.
And he’s won nearly each fight in record-breaking fashion.
After winning two Olympic gold medals during a legendary amateur career (perhaps the best ever at the international level, in which he amassed a record of 396-1), Lomachenko insisted to any potential suitors at the pro level that a title shot in his pro debut had to be in the offing. Eventually Bob Arum, the head of Top Rank, attained his services by promising him that he could get a quick title shot but only after he had one professional outing under his belt.
In his second profesional bout, Lomachenko fell short of capturing the vacant WBO featherweight title, as it took him a bit longer to get acclimated to the dirty tactics of the wily Mexican Orlando Salido. In addition to not fully adhering to the Marquess of Queensberry Rules on that night, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, Salido also didn’t make the 126-pound weight limit.
As a result, in his very next fight, Lomachenko was put in position to fight for the same vacant title against the talented Gary Russell Jr., a 2008 Olympian with blinding hand speed and sharp skills. However he was simply no match for the overall talent and boxing acumen of Lomachenko, who easily outpointed him on a summer night in 2014 at the StubHub Center. After three relatively easy title defenses, he moved up and took on WBO junior lightweight titlist Roman “Rocky” Martinez, in New York, and dispatched the rugged Puerto Rican in five in June of 2016. It what just Lomachenko’s seventh professional outing.
In succession, he stopped Nicholas Walters (who has faded completely into Bolivian, after calling it quits after seven), Jason Sosa and Miguel Marriaga, who, by getting pulled out of there early (either by their corners or own volition) helped brand the stylish southpaw as “No-Maschenko.” He didn’t just so much defeat his opponents as he humiliated them into self-submission.
Last December, Guillermo Rigondeaux was the latest foe to throw in his own towel after discovering that, when his skills are matched – and exceeded – size absolutely matters.
But in Linares, Lomachenko would be fighting someone not just of equal size but who was actually bigger and armed with his own deadly arsenal of tools. This match-up. which was consummated by Top Rank and Golden Boy Promotions with the assistance of ESPN (which televised this event), was the rarity – a bout that was anticipated by not only the purist but also the bloodthirsty fan who craves action and mayhem.
It’s rare in boxing that events of this nature actually deliver and go beyond expectations but Lomachenko-Linares did just that. No, it wasn’t an all-time classic or perhaps even the fight of this particular year (personally I still shade Srisaket Sor Rungvisai-Juan Francisco Estrada and Murat Gassiev-Yunier Dorticos, based on pure sustained action) but it was world-class chess played out on the canvas.
Each boxer planned out two or three moves in advance, looking for cracks in the armor that past foes simply could not comprehend. Each maneuver inside that square ring was carefully thought out and executed at a high level but, early on, the deft movement and the ability to hit on the fly gave Lomachenko the advantage. But just as it seemed like he was going to take a commanding lead after controlling most of the sixth frame, he ran into a pinpoint counter right hand from Linares, which sent him to the canvas.
Hey, even Steve Carlton occasionally hung a slider.
From that point on, it became more of a fight and Linares, emboldened by the sudden change in fortune, started winning rounds and we began to see what had not been witnessed before – Lomachenko getting hit with actual combinations, as Linares started flashing his fists. After the ninth inning, it felt as though the momentum had swung and that the tide had shifted. The pre-fight odds, which had Lomachenko a prohibitive favorite, simply didn’t do justice to the classy Linares, who was considered the best 135-pounder coming into this match-up.
It turns out that, going into the championship rounds, the fight was dead even, as each combatant held a 86-84 lead while the third scorecard had it 85-85. What was going to be a classic finish was instead transformed into a sudden and emphatic one by Lomachenko, who put together a striking salvo in the 10th that was punctuated by a left to the liver that collapsed the game Venezuelan to the canvas. While he beat the count of referee Ricky Gonzalez, Linares was unable to continue.
This was professional prizefighting at its best.
For Lomachenko, 11-1 (9), it was his third major world title in a dozen fights (which is unprecedented) and, by far, his most noteworthy. In an era with multiple belts (stacked on top of “regular” and “interim” titles), it’s actually pretty easy to engineer a career with several world titles in different weight classes. It’s not all that hard to Ricky Burns or Adrien Broner your way to this kind of achievement. The difference here is there is a very strong argument that Lomachenko, at 126, 130 and 135, is the top fighter in each of these divisions (although one Mikey Garcia will dispute that claim for lightweight supremacy – and more on him later). The only thing that has really held him back, at this stage of his career, has been the existing political/promotional/network alliances which have kept certain match-ups from ever being seriously discussed.
Coming into this bout with Linares, the combined mark of Lomachenko’s opponents was 308-27-13 (and you can now add Linares’ 44-3 to that ledger) and out of his 12 foes, seven have held some version of a world title, at some point.
However mere numbers do not tell the story in this game (yeah, “analytics” will never really be a part of boxing). After all most fighters in the modern era have had the benefit of favorable matchmaking and been judiciously guided to the top. This much is inarguable: Lomachenko wanted to be fast-tracked as a pro and he’s done his best to get on the Autobahn.
Oftentimes many heavily-hyped amateurs come into the game and find that professional boxing is nothing like the sport in which they competed for medals and trophies for years. But Lomachenko has actually exceeded the hype and, last weekend, the “Baryshnikov of Boxing” showed he was more than just a stylish front-runner who can operate when things are going his way. Arum noted to the ringside press afterward that the world discovered that “Hi-Tech” is also a guy who can fight too, when necessary.
In addition to his newest strap, Lomachenko came out of this fight elevated in stature. He’s not just someone who will be appreciated by the hardcore denizens of the sport but more casual observers. A crowd of over 10,000 came out to the Garden to see him ply his trade, along with solid numbers on ESPN. And it feels like this is just the beginning. The days of Lomachenko playing in mid-size venues are over.
“I think so,” agreed Arum, who said Lomachenko’s next assignment will come on August 25, possibly at the Forum in Inglewood, California. “It’s not for me to determine but it seems like that’s what everybody is saying and we’re going to bring him in. He’ll spend two weeks in Ukraine and then come in, so he can do a lot of appearances before he starts training for the August fight.”
Last week before departing for New York, I had a conversation with longtime observer Larry Merchant, who noted that, for Lomachenko to have the type of crossover impact of a Gennady Golovkin, he needed to do something eye-opening or spectacular. That it wouldn’t be just enough to simply emerge victorious.
So did he do that?
“Yes,” said Merchant, who watched this fight from his home in Southern California. “He fought a real fighter and he went through some storms and he finished with a spectacular knockout. It was two skillful guys and two guys who used their skills to break each other down and finally one guy broke the other guy down.”
Merchant likes to say certain guys have “the right stuff” – and Lomachenko has it.
“There’s no doubt he has the right stuff and that he’s an outstanding fighter. I think everybody saw his skill set – which was dazzling – but I think they got ahead of themselves by wanting to rank him first or higher until he fought some guys, particularly this opponent that showed that it was more than a skill set.”
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
I try and get to the Big Apple at least once a year for a fight and, as soon as Lomachenko-Linares was consummated, I booked a flight out east. For me, it’s important to meet up with people that I usually converse with over the phone and/or social media and there’s nothing quite like the big event atmosphere at the Garden.
It’s always great to see boxing fans and friends that I don’t get to see enough. And of course there is always Jimmy’s Corner, owned by Jimmy Glenn, which has become my go-to post-up spot, when I’m in New York. How they can turn a profit at those prices (and hey, I’m not complaining!) is still a mystery to me.
But yeah, this was a great trip. Had great fun throughout my four days there.
– As I returned to the hotel room after the Lomachenko-Linares fight, my old high school classmate from Montebello High (the “Harvard of East L.A.”) Hugo and I watched the HBO card. While it was overshadowed by the ESPN card, this was an entertaining broadcast.
I’m convinced that “Crazy A” Azat Hovhanissyan will win a world title one day but WBC 122-pound titlist Rey Vargas once again proved he is as tough and tenacious as he is tall. Vargas, 32-0 (22), is one of the toughest match-ups in all of boxing right now and he overcame the spirited challenge of the Armenian by winning a hard-fought 12-round decision.
– Remember when Jaime Munguia was panned, as he was brought up as a potential foe for unified middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, on May 5, and was rejected by the Nevada Athletic Commission in the infinite wis-dumb of Bob Bennett? To be fair, they probably did the young man a favor, as he ended up facing WBO 154-pound champion Sadam Ali, as a late replacement for Liam Smith.
Munguia blew out Ali in four rounds, battering him from the opening stages of the bout till its merciful end. After hitting the deck twice in the first, Ali hit the canvas in each subsequent round. Ali’s trainer Andre Rozier is one of my personal favorites but it was very questionable to let his charge out for those last two rounds, as his guy was getting beaten from pillar-to-post by the heavy-handed Mexican. Ali was game but was simply outgunned and ended up on the canvas more than the Casa de Mexico and Tecate logos on this night.
Yeah, I’m driving this Munguia bandwagon. I believe this 21-year-old has a huge upside and is only scratching the surface of his ability under the guidance of trainer Robert Alcazar.
But the reality is this win – or at least its nature – is a bit of a mirage because Ali isn’t really a natural junior middleweight. When he unexpectedly ruined Miguel Cotto’s going-away party at the Garden, last December, he also captured the WBO belt. One might wonder if his team was better off vacating that title and dropping back down in weight. In the past, Ali had been buzzed while coming up as a prospect and was stopped by Jessie Vargas two years ago, as a welterweight.
Being a chinny 147-pounder, facing a guy who will one day be a middleweight (and can punch), was a recipe for disaster.
Regardless viva Munguia!
The WBO has stated that Smith will be the mandatory contender versus Munguia. If Zanfer Promotions (which handles Munguia) can get a voluntary defense, look for him to headline a card in Tijuana in July…Carlos Adames has some tools but a ton of rough edges that need to be smoothed out…So if Lomachenko faces WBO titlist Ray Beltran in late-summer and WBC beltholder Garcia unifies with IBF titlist Robert Easter Jr., what is the real possibility of the winners squaring off at the end of the year?…Will have more on this later: Saul Alvarez announced via Twitter than he has enrolled for year-round testing with VADA…”Barry” was excellent on HBO. Was funny and stayed dark till the very end…”Billions” right now, for my money, is the best show on television…Can Brad Stevens coach ’em up or what?…I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and I tweet (a lot) at twitter.com/steveucnlive. I also share photos of stuff at instagram.com/steveucnlive and can also be found at tsu.co/steveucnlive.