For Vasiliy Lomachenko, a dose of vulnerability is just what he needed
NEW YORK — Sitting up on the dais backstage at Madison Square Garden, his face bruised more than usual, nursing a shoulder that had been hurting from the second round on, Vasyl Lomachenko looked vulnerable. Human, even. It’d be foolish to expect anything else after nearly 30 minutes of mutually agreed-upon combat with Jorge Linares, among the fastest draws in all of the sport. But the bar had been set so high by the hype which inevitably builds if left unchecked by shortcoming.
Call what transpired in Round 6 a glitch in The Matrix, if you will. Lomachenko dismissed it as a “fast flash.” In boxing terms, Linares parried Lomachenko’s right jab and stuffed a counter right into his chin, dropping him for the first time as a professional. Either way, Lomachenko picked himself up, took the count in a neutral corner and got his own revenge later in the 10th on a slicing left body shot, which put Linares down and ended the fight.
If there was an upside to the downside, it’s that Lomachenko seems like a less risky proposition than he was before, especially in a new weight class with larger opponents.
“That’s what I told to (Top Rank) vice president Carl Moretti right after, in the ring,” said Lomachenko, now the holder of the RING and WBA lightweight titles. “Right now it’s going to be much easier to get opponents for me because they will see I’m also human being.
“I just made easier job for my promoter.”
Lomachenko had been the guy promoters had threatened to match their champions against to keep their egos in check (see Floyd Mayweather to Gervonta Davis). It makes for good copy, but isn’t as fun to read for a guy worried about being frozen out of meaningful fights.
The knockdown created drama, which fight fans love. It was an entertaining fight where two judges had either man ahead by two points while the third had it even heading toward the championship rounds.
Fans also love conflict and debate, and immediately the battle lines were drawn over who would win between Lomachenko and Mikey Garcia, the undefeated WBC lightweight titleholder who is nearest in esteem to the Ukrainian.
Former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, who sat toward the back of press row in Madison Square Garden, says knockdowns are just a part of the sport, and that people should give credit to Linares, not the weight, for putting Lomachenko on the floor. He sees just one name in that weight range that has a chance of beating Lomachenko.
“Mikey Garcia. Because he’s just so technically sound with his ring IQ. As the fight goes on, he’s only getting smarter and realizing what he can do. But it still would be a very good fight. It’d be one of the ones that can go either way,” said Pavlik.
Trainer John Scully, who also camped out with reporters at The Garden, also feels Lomachenko-Garcia is “the fight,” and was impressed with how Lomachenko reacted after hitting the canvas.
“Guys always tell me, ‘I would get up and I would do this.’ I say, ‘You don’t know what you would do.’ Nobody knows what they would do,” said Scully. “Lomachenko could have fallen apart for all we know. He got up, shook it off … he responded the way you would have wanted to.”
Another interested observer in attendance was Devin Haney, the unbeaten lightweight prospect who just the night before had played matador to the bull Mason Menard in Philadelphia.
“I think that would be a good fight. Mikey’s a big puncher, Lomachenko’s a good boxer. Mikey has good timing. Either man can win that fight,” said Haney.
Asked who in the lightweight division would be the hardest fight for Lomachenko, the ultra-confident 19-year-old responded, “Me.”
“One day,” that is.
It’s hard to affix the “superstar” tag to any fighter with just 12 pro fights to his credit, but somehow Lomachenko has justified it. He’s now 11-1 (9 knockouts) with world title wins in three weight classes to go along with the two Olympic gold medals he won in London and Beijing. The Lomachenko-Linares fight headlined in the big room of Madison Square Garden, and though the crowd wasn’t as large as Miguel Cotto used to attract in his prime, the loud “Loma! Loma!” chants rivaled the decibels once generated by Manny Pacquiao fans at the MGM Grand.
Like Pacquiao, Lomachenko’s first language isn’t English (he’s Ukrainian and speaks Russian), though like Pacquiao, his unique talents bridge the language gap and keep people tuned in.
One advantage he does have over the previous generation of fighters is that his biggest fights will now be shown on ESPN thanks to Top Rank’s deal with the biggest worldwide network in sports. According to a graphic shared by THE RING’s Michael Woods, the fight generated a 1.0 metered market average rating, meaning it averaged a solid million viewers throughout the fight, making it the highest-rated boxing match on cable this year.
Lomachenko’s promoter, Bob Arum, admitted to this writer before the fight that Lomachenko’s own star can only rise as high as the rivals he has around him. The biggest fight to build toward would be Garcia, though Arum more or less said that talks to make that fight would be hell on Earth, comparing it to the Mayweather-Pacquiao negotiations which drew out for years, and somehow less dauntingly, Donald Trump and his upcoming summit with North Korea.
The fact that Garcia sued Top Rank to get out of his contract is no doubt a hindrance to any deal. But in situations like that, embittered sides only become more congenial once the money on the table is too big to ignore.
Otherwise there is Gervonta Davis, the talented yet inconsistently focused WBA junior featherweight titleholder whose Twitter snipes are as vicious as his bodypunching.
Scully isn’t convinced that Davis wants that fight any time soon.
“When I saw the interview with Gervonta a couple of months ago, he clearly looked to me like a guy that didn’t want to fight Lomachenko,” said Scully. “It’s very clear, and then lately he’s changed his tune. And I know that’s because they told him to, not because he wanted to. When a guy exhibits that much apprehension and he tries to find reasons not to fight, I think it’s way too early, personally.”
Lomachenko’s next time in the ring will be on August 25 at The Forum in Inglewood, California, which means he’s staying active and not settling into the one- or two-fights-a-year schedule that had been the norm in the premium cable era of boxing.
In lieu of Garcia and Davis, a fight with aging legend Manny Pacquiao would bring the name value. Yet with Pacquiao already scheduled to fight Lucas Matthysse in Malaysia on July 14, a unification with Top Rank-promoted WBO lightweight titleholder Raymundo Beltran is far more realistic next.
There’s a lot more prestige and money being a star who bleeds and attracts big-name challenges than there is in being a boogeyman. And at age 30, Lomachenko doesn’t have much time to waste toiling away in anyone’s nightmares.
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at [email protected].