Probably the best P4P

Ron Borges
04/04/2017 11:05am

This Saturday Ukrainian sensation Vasyl Lomachenko returns to action against Jason Sosa. There’s a case for saying 'Hi-Tech' is the world’s premier boxer. Ron Borges has no hesitation in making it...

From the moment he turned professional, Vasyl Lomachenko seemed to have only one thing firmly in his mind. Like all prize fighters, he hoped to win championships and make money. But that was not his focus. His focus has always been on something different, although if achieved the rest would surely follow.

“A lot of fighters say they want to fight the best in the world,’’ he once said. “The difference is I mean it. I will fight only the best. My goal is to be No. 1 pound for pound.’’

Eight fights and two world championships later, Lomachenko just may have accomplished the latter while still pursuing the former with a laser-like focus that once led him to offer his latest victim, Nicholas Walters, $300,000 from his own purse if Walters beat him just to encourage him to agree to fight.

In November, “The Axe Man’’ finally accepted Lomachenko’s challenge and quickly came to rue the day he made that decision. For seven embarrassingly one-sided rounds at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas. Lomachenko gave him both a boxing lesson and a beating before the previously undefeated former WBA featherweight and super featherweight champion quit on his stool, his fighting spirit broken by Lomachenko’s baffling abilities and fast hands.

Referee Tony Weeks was taken aback by Walters’ decision, boxing having no real provision for tapping out in the way UFC fighters find acceptable.

Since Walters had not been knocked down or badly cut but rather just peppered with punches, Weeks came to his corner to ask him personally if he wanted to continue on.

“No,’’ Walters said, making as definitive a statement as could be made in a single word both about his choice and Lomachenko’s skills

The Ukrainian-born WBO junior lightweight is on pound-for-pound lists after only eight professional fights, after an amateur career in which he went 396-1 and won Olympic gold medals at featherweight in 2008 — when he was also given the Val Barker Award as the tournament’s best fighter — and at lightweight in 2012.

Lomachenko was so dominating in Beijing in 2008 that he defeated his five opponents on the way to the gold medal by a combined score of 58-13. The other way to put it is none of his opponents belonged in the same ring with him.

During those years, Lomachenko also won the world championship in 2009 and 2011 and twice avenged his only amateur defeat to Albert Selimov. Because of both his record and the pile of golden hardware he amassed, many believe he is the greatest amateur in boxing history, an accolade of little interest to him but one he’s not likely to argue about.

When he finally turned pro after the London Games, he signed with promoter Bob Arum under equally unusual circumstances. Rather than insisting on a big signing bonus, as most gold medallists would, the 24-year-old Lomachenko made different demands. He asked that he fight for a world title in his first professional bout.

“If I’m capable of making history, why not make history?’’ Lomachenko said at the time.

A stunned Arum, used to hearing fighters and the people around them seeking protection, not exposure, informed him he’d do his best but added that boxing for a world title in a pro debut was not allowed by any of boxing’s sanctioning organisations. That being the case, his newest fighter said: Make it the second fight. Right then, Arum knew he was promoting someone kind of different.

Lomachenko’s debut was an almost unheard of 10-round fight against an experienced fringe contender named Jose Ramirez instead of a four-rounder against a palooka and, true to his word, his second was a match for the
then-vacant WBO featherweight title against wily veteran Orlando Salido. That title only became vacant on the morning of the weigh-in when Salido failed to make the 126lbs limit.

Undeterred, Lomachenko fought him anyway and survived a 12-round foul-fest in which Salido violated just about every rule of prize fighting, most often by crossing boxing’s demilitarised zone with repeated low blows, to win a split decision.

Here Lomachenko showed his inexperience. Rather than foul Salido back a few times to make him stop, he boxed. And boxed. And boxed. In the end, he didn’t quite box well enough to avoid losing that split decision, but in the final round he had Salido in significant trouble and holding on for his life.

Had Lomachenko had a bit more seasoning that night, it seems likely Salido would have eaten a lot more leather and tasted both defeat and the accepted by-product of his foul ways, which is to say retaliation.

That he did not win didn’t seem to faze Lomachenko, who accepted the loss as a cost of doing business and moved on, winning that vacant title on 21 June 2014, in his third fight, a one-sided whipping of American Olympian Gary Russell Jr. Lomachenko took Russell to school despite Russell’s superior professional experience (he was 24-0 at the time).

Russell struggled all night to find a proper distance, often missing and being countered to the head or blistered to the body. Despite Lomachenko’s dominance one judge, Lisa Giampa, called the fight a draw.

The other two saw Lomachenko winning 116-112 and many veteran ringside observers had it even more one-sided for Lomachenko, who slapped Russell around all night on his way to tying a 39-year-old record set by Saensak Muangsurin, of Thailand, for fewest fights before winning a world title. (Muangsurin won a form of the junior welterweight title in 1975 in his third professional fight and now here was Lomachenko having done the same.)

Still, the spectre of the loss to Salido allowed some to remain sceptical of him until he dismantled Roman “Rocky’’ Martinez two years later to win the WBO junior lightweight title that he now holds. Martinez had just beaten Salido (dropping him twice) and then fought a debatable draw with him in a rematch and was entering his 34th professional fight to Lomachenko’s seventh, so it was understandable why some continued to take a wait-and-see attitude toward Lomachenko until he knocked Martinez cold last 11 June with a left uppercut-right hook combination that landed with textbook accuracy and concussive force.

Martinez went down and referee Danny Schiavone found no need to count to 10 before waving him out at 1:09 of the fifth round, making Lomachenko the fastest fighter to two world titles in boxing history. That victory broke the record of eight fights to a second title set by Japan’s Naoya Inoue, who won a junior flyweight title in his sixth fight in April 2014, defended it once and then jumped two weight classes to win a super flyweight title eight months later. Not surprisingly, Lomachenko almost immediately declared he wanted to become the fastest to a third as well, but only if his next opponent was among the best in the world.

While too many champions spend their time ducking and dodging outside the ring, Lomachenko only does his inside, making himself a Rubik’s Cube to solve and a lethal one to work with. His combination of technical skill, Pythagoras-like command of the geometry of the boxing ring and his quick hands and punching accuracy have quickly made him arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

While some might still argue for Andre Ward despite his recent struggle with Sergey Kovalev, Lomachenko is superior in his willingness to take on all challengers regardless of money while being at least his equal in boxing skill. Add to the fact no one has ever hit him as often or as forcefully as Kovalev did Ward and the argument for Lomachenko’s pound-for-pound superiority grows.

Long-time trainer and ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas was an early advocate for Lomachenko. Having commentated on all his Olympic fights for NBC, Atlas became aware of Lomachenko’s vast storehouse of skills long before most others were exposed to them. He is now among those who feel Lomachenko is the best fighter in boxing, an opinion Atlas does not give lightly.

“He has a great understanding of where he wants you to be and where he needs to be in the ring and how to get there,’’ Atlas explained. “He’s very versatile. He can box and move, and he prefers to box, but he can walk to you if he has to, like he did with Walters.

“But the biggest thing is this kid is like Tiger Woods. He believes he was born to be a fighter. Not just a fighter, a winner. He was born to win. He carries that belief with him into the ring. The reason he’s willing to take on anybody, which is a rare thing today, is he is supremely confident in himself.

“He puts his money where his mouth is, and in boxing that’s an uncommon thing. There are a lot of guys who talk about who they’re willing to fight — this guy or that guy — but then they don’t fight them. Lomachenko is the opposite. He’s not one of these guys who claims to be the best and then gives 50 reasons why he isn’t fighting the guy he needs to fight to prove it. Lomachenko is happy to prove it. He looks forward to it. He looks forward to that because he believes he will always win and most of the time he’s been right about that.’’

Lomachenko moved up from featherweight not because he was having trouble making weight but because he was having trouble finding worthy opponents willing to face him. Rather than languish there and pile up wins without meaning, he stepped up to 130lbs to face Martinez and blasted him out before doing the same to Walters — but in different fashion — five months later.

“I am at a level only to fight the best fighters in the world,” Lomachenko said during a press conference before the Martinez fight in New York. He continues to hold firm to that conviction. For someone like Arum, who has been promoting for 50 years, Lomachenko’s insistence on fighting only the toughest opponents is a refreshing problem to deal with.

“Look, this guy, wants to be great,’’ Arum said recently. “A lot of guys say they want to be great but there’s a cost to it. He doesn’t care about the risk.

“Money is important to him because that’s how he pays the bills. He knows that. His manager [Egis Klimas] understands that. But Vasyl isn’t driven by money. He wants to be the best fighter in the world. He wants to win another title before his 10th fight and make history again. That’s what drives him.’’

Even Lomachenko’s only defeat was something he was able to take in his stride because he felt it was not about Salido’s superiority, which was debatable, but his own inexperience with the vagaries of the game’s rules and Salido’s tactics.

“I tried my best, but it didn't work out,” Lomachenko said after that fight. “I don’t want to say anything about the judges. I am a fighter. That’s my job. I thought I won. I’m a straight fighter. I’m clean. I would never fight dirty and throw punches below the belt. I have no excuses.”

When it was over, Salido admitted he was in trouble in the final round from several body shots and a nearly three-minute assault by Lomachenko, who was trying to close the show on what he sensed was a close fight.

While he may have broken every rule of boxing, Salido at least didn’t try to deny the obvious.

“I was hurt very badly in the 12th round,” Salido said. “He caught me with a very bad body shot. It was a matter of survival.’’
Walters echoed those same words two years later. It seems survival is something often on the minds of Lomachenko’s opponents at some point, turning competitive matches into a quest just to get through the night in one piece.

“It wasn't about quitting,” Walters said after he quit on his stool. “If you look at the last round, he caught me with some pretty good shots, and I was holding on just to survive the round. It would be stupid to come out after that last round.

“He was more active. So if you watch the fight, you see he’s been scoring more than I do. My good shots, they are not connecting. He’s connecting more clearly than I am touching him. In the last round, he started catching me more and more. He’s a good fighter.”

The question is: How good? Can one even begin to tell after only eight professional fights and two world championships won? Arum believes so, often making the case in his trademark bombastic fashion.

“Vasyl Lomachenko is technically the best fighter I’ve seen since the early Muhammad Ali,’’ he claims. “I’ve been his biggest cheerleader from the start. Maybe obnoxiously so sometimes, but I know what I see.

“All he wants are challenges, so that’s what I’m trying to give him. He knows his abilities a lot more than I do. He has a huge upside. Two world titles in seven fights? That’s never happened before. He’s going to do a lot of things that have never happened before in boxing.’’

What Lomachenko would like to do next is either box a rematch with Salido or become the fastest in boxing history to unify a world title by challenging for the WBC super featherweight title. [After this article was written, Lomachenko signed to face Jason Sosa, ranked number four at super feather by Boxing Monthly].

Arum favours a rematch with Salido, which Lomachenko would be fine with, or perhaps a trip to England to face Terry Flanagan, assuming Flanagan retains his WBO lightweight title against Petr Petrov. The latter would allow Lomachenko to set another record for fastest to three world titles. But in the end, the real goal seems to be a possible breakthrough match with Manny Pacquiao later this year at perhaps 138 to 140lbs.

There is certainly no guarantee Lomachenko would defeat Pacquiao, who looked good in his last two fights against Timothy Bradley and Jessie Vargas and at 38 seems to show few signs of wanting to retire, even though he talks about it from time to time.

Lomachenko, of course, says he’d welcome the challenge.

Just before his pro debut with Ramirez, Lomachenko made clear his career path when he said: “I want to make boxing history, and to do that there’s only one way — go fast and show everybody what I can do. I don’t want to be like other fighters, fighting four- and six-round fights. That’s nonsense. I don’t need to be built.”

Vasyl Lomachenko has needed only eight fights to prove that point. He has many more things he’d like to prove and he’s clearly willing to face anyone, anywhere, at any time, to do it. If he gets the chances he seeks, by the end of 2017 it seems likely he will have got what he wanted: The debate over who is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world will start — and maybe end — with him.