Facing the Matrix: Lomachenko vs Campbell scene setter

Ron Borges
28/08/2019 7:54pm

Photos: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Luke Campbell can fight but, Ron Borges says, on Saturday he will be meeting a boxer in Vasiliy Lomachenko with out-of-this-world skills...

Luke Campbell’s second chance arrived like a slap in the face. This being boxing, perhaps that was to be expected. What was not was the presence of Vasiliy Lomachenko’s long shadow looming over that opportunity.

When Campbell first learned he would be fighting for the WBC lightweight title left vacant by Mikey Garcia’s decision to move up to challenge welterweight champion Errol Spence earlier this year, it was not unexpected. After Campbell easily outpointed Yvan Mendy he knew he had won a title eliminator that put him in the WBC’s mandatory position, so when Garcia vacated, it was clear what was coming. What was not so clear was who was coming.

That has turned out to be the man universally regarded as the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet, the much-decorated and widely feared Lomachenko.

On a logical level, this makes sense. But how often does logic and good sense come into the equation when such decisions are made in boxing?

Because Lomachenko already holds the WBA and WBO lightweight belts, he was unranked by the WBC as a matter of policy. While on the face of it that is absurd, this is boxing, so absurdities are often the norm when it comes to the sanctioning bodies’ policies. To say many of their “policies” are also fungible is to be kind. Neither Campbell nor his promoter, Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn, expected to be facing Lomachenko on 31 August at London’s O2 Arena, however, nor are they overjoyed about the fact that is now their reality. But both accept that when opportunity knocks in boxing, it often is accompanied by some hard knocks. Lomachenko is certainly that.

in a quicker time than any fighter in history. He won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012 and was 396-1 as an amateur before finally turning professional in 2013, insisting he immediately get a title shot. Prevented from doing so until his second fight, Lomachenko lost a disputed split decision for the WBO featherweight title to Orlando Salido, a fight in which you may recall Salido failed to make weight and was warned repeatedly for low blows but never incurred a well-deserved point deduction that would have given Lomachenko the title.

This mattered little because Lomachenko outboxed undefeated Gary Russell Jr in his next fight to win that vacated championship. Four fights later, he stopped Roman Martinez to claim the 130lbs title and after four successful defences, which included making fellow two-time Olympic gold medallist Guillermo Rigondeaux become the fourth consecutive boxer to retire on his stool against Lomachenko, he stepped up again and knocked out WBA lightweight champion Jorge Linares to win his third world title in just 12 fights, a record unlikely ever to be broken.

That latter victory is particularly interesting now because when Campbell got his first title shot it was against Linares and he came up just short, losing a razor-thin split decision in which the difference was Linares dropping him in the second round. When one looks at the two results it does not bode well for Campbell on the surface, but to be fair it was learned after that fight that Campbell had lost his father only two weeks earlier and kept it a sad secret.

How much that affected him is impossible to know but he will have no such handicap this time. The handicap, quite frankly, is the quality of his opponent and Campbell has been quick to note it without conceding that the task — and the man in front of him — might be too much to bear.

“It’s definitely a harder path [than he expected] to a world title but I’m not mad or bitter,” Campbell says. “I want to prove I’m the best so I have to fight the best. It will be the biggest challenge of my career. You don’t get ranked like he is for nothing. He can do everything.”

The truth of that statement has been on display since Lomachenko first began to dismantle professional prize fighters in the same surgical way he had done amateurs. He is that rarest of fistic commodities — someone who can beat you any way you want to fight and numerous ways most opponents can’t fight. You want to box, he’ll outbox you. You want to stand toe to toe, he makes you miss and then backs you up with his own well-placed punches. He is, in the opinion of Hall of Fame trainer and boxing analyst Teddy Atlas, the most complicated of problems because his defence protects him even as he is dismantling you with his aggressive offense.

“He’s the kind of fighter the old-timers would say is walking in the rain without getting wet,” Atlas said of Lomachenko. “The way he moves his head, uses his legs to get in and out, uses angles, he imposes his physicality on you in an aggressive manner while he remains elusive. He’s hitting you but you can’t find openings to hit him back. That’s very troubling for anyone in with him.

“There haven’t been many fighters like that. There have been a few. Manny [Pacquiao] was like that when he was younger. Roberto Duran did it. Duran was a great aggressive boxer but he was also great defensively, blocking while breaking down an opponent with his aggression at the same time. It’s a rare thing, but Lomachenko does it.”

He has done it against all styles, too. Even when facing another southpaw, as he will when he squares off against Campbell, would not seem to hint at a problem because Lomachenko has already been in that situation twice and defeated both Russell and Rigondeaux. Solving the unique problems of angles that came with facing a mirror of his left- handed stance caused Lomachenko not a moment of distress. So there is little reason to assume being in with another left-hander in Campbell will cause him major concerns.

The one thing that may, however, is Campbell’s edge in size. He is a true lightweight, not one moving up from a lower weight class as Rigondeaux tried to do. Perhaps more significantly, he holds close to a six-inch reach advantage (71ins to 65½), an asset he must use wisely to hold off the constant pressure Lomachenko puts on his opponents.

No one understands that better than Lomachenko’s last victim, Manchester’s Anthony Crolla, who he knocked out on 12 April almost as soon as Crolla came out of a defensive shell and tried to win. Crolla had no such edge in reach and after several cautious rounds tried to open up in the third round and paid dearly for it.

Lomachenko is like a Euclidean master of ring geometry. No one today better understands angles and distance and how to use both against their opponent. That is what he did to Crolla, making him miss and then making him pay dearly for it by trapping him on the ropes late in the third round then stopping him 58 seconds into the fourth while seeming to know what was coming back.

Crolla has been brutally honest about his experience with Lomachenko, saying “he was just levels above me” before admitting his decision to actually hit the unified lightweight champion proved unwise.

“I remember landing one decent shot and it was the worst thing I could have done because he went through the gears a little bit then,” Crolla has said. “When Lomachenko went through the gears [a euphemistic expression for using all his varying forms of weaponry], it was a horrible feeling.”

Lomachenko’s combination of speed, balance, movement and pinpoint punching accuracy makes what Campbell will have to face a daunting task, but if he can keep the fight at a distance with his reach to buy himself some time to try and adjust to Lomachenko’s speed, he could at least drag things out for a while and then see what develops. This is the safe road, the boxer’s road. The only problem with that is Campbell comes to the ring to fight more than box. Generally, that is a good trait in a fighter, but against Lomachenko it can be a suicide mission.

Campbell (20-2, 16 KOs) has legitimate punching power but if he tries to deliver it too early, he could find himself in serious trouble, as Crolla learned. But if he can make this fight a chess match for long enough by staying behind his jab and keeping Lomachenko from closing the distance, as he has done so often, who knows?

The oddsmakers think they do, which is why Lomachenko will be a heavy favourite when he gets into the ring in London for the first time since the 2012 Olympics, when both he and Campbell won gold, the latter as a bantamweight. Since turning professional six years ago, Lomachenko has fought primarily in the US, his one foray outside the States being a win early in his career in Macao, but no one thinks that will be a particular problem. Where he fights is not the issue. How he fights is, and Campbell understands that. What he doesn’t totally understand is why he is being asked to face the best fighter in the world for a vacant WBC title.

Such things are not without precedent, to be fair, but it is more than a bit unusual. Not to mention, in this case, dangerous.
“He wasn’t ranked anywhere in the WBC,” Campbell noted when he first learned who he would be facing. “They put him in from nowhere.”

Indeed they did. The bad news in that decision is obvious. The good news is that this will be one of the biggest fights of the year in Britain, a unification fight against one of the sport’s biggest names after which the winner will leave with three of the four major championship belts. It is a difficult match-up for Campbell, to be sure, but it is also a career-defining one if things go well.

If he can find some way to do what Linares did to Lomachenko, which was knock him down, while avoiding what Lomachenko did to Linares and nearly all his previous opponents — which is to say being stopped by a crushing left hand to the liver four rounds later — Campbell would become a national hero and an international presence.

Boxing is the sport of exchanging great risk for great reward. Nowhere is that more apparent than in this fight for there is no greater risk than squaring off with Vasiliy Lomachenko. After he made Rigondeaux the fourth fighter in a row either to retire on his stool or have his corner do it for him, Lomachenko even joked: “I guess I should change my name now to NoMaschenko.”

Unfortunately for Campbell, Lomachenko had a point. Whether he can hold Lomachenko at bay long enough to figure out a way to avoid that fate, and counter the confounding defence-to-offense mastery that has caused many to call Lomachenko ‘The Matrix’, remains to be seen. But boxing is the ultimate reality show. One never knows until the night what will happen, as Anthony Joshua found out not too long ago. That is the sport’s great mystery and its great attraction. But one thing is already clear to Campbell. He is not Vasiliy Lomachenko.

“Lomachenko is a trickster,” he admits. “I’m not a trickster. What I do is hit you hard. I believe I’m the best, but he can do everything.”

At the end of the day, that’s the problem, isn’t it? It is a statement of hard truth about a hard man to beat. Very hard, indeed. Like Lomachenko’s last 12 opponents, Campbell will find trying to solve ‘The Matrix’ a dangerous mission, because the minute you attack the problem, you are faced with 100 counter problems.

In the end, Vasiliy Lomachenko will again remind the world why he is the pound-for-pound best by stopping a game but outgunned Campbell in six or seven rounds.