Too good to be true? Lomachenko vs Rigondeaux preview
Art by Jay Connolly
Will the clash between pound for pound contenders Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux end a dynamite year for boxing with a bang or a whimper? Chris Williamson previews an intriguing clash...
A terrific year for the 'Sweet Science' enters its twelfth and final 'round' with perhaps the purest technical match in modern times, as Ukrainian phenomenon Vasyl Lomachenko defends his WBO super-featherweight title against Cuban legend Guillermo Rigondeaux.
The clash, which takes place at the Theater at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Saturday, has attracted comparatively little mainstream fanfare, which perhaps is fitting; those who know, know. The closest modern parallel I can recall is Pernell Whitaker challenging James “Buddy” McGirt for the WBC welterweight title back in 1993 - of course the latter combatant on that occasion was nowhere near as technically accomplished as the two participants here.
Consider that Saturday represents the first time two double Olympic gold medallists have ever faced each other. Indeed, the statistics from their amateur careers are little short of outlandish: Rigondeaux's unpaid record is said to have finished at 463-12, while Lomachenko notched a virtually unbelievable 396-1 (his sole defeat against Albert Selimov was avenged, twice).
The two artists now sit firmly at the top of their respective professional divisions with Boxing Monthly ranking Lomachenko as the number one super-featherweight in the world while Rigondeaux is rated the premier super bantam. Both men also feature in our online pound for pound top ten, with Lomachenko ranked second and Rigondeaux sixth.
Lomachenko, in particular, dominates his weight class, with the overall quality of his opposition absurdly high for someone with just ten professional fights. Challenging for a ‘world’ title in only his second professional match was fittingly audacious for the Ukrainian.
That he narrowly fell short in a foul-filled vacant WBO title challenge versus an over-weight Orlando Salido at featherweight perhaps adds to his legend. As with Pele’s sublime piece of football skill in the 1970 World Cup semi-final against Uruguay which eventually missed the target, perhaps actually winning might have removed focus from the boldness of the act itself.
Besides, the loss proved educative, with Lomachenko learning important lessons concerning the grit required at the top of the professional game that night - he hasn’t even hinted at losing since.
Indeed the level of 'Hi-Tech's recent domination evokes memories of Mike Tyson’s post-Bruno fight line in 1989, “How dare they challenge me with their somewhat primitive skills?”
Gary Russell Jr and Nicholas Walters represent Lomachenko’s best wins and the way he established his overwhelming superiority before forcing the touted Jamaican to quit after seven one-sided rounds was a standout, stunning moment of 2016.
Rigondeaux’s skills, of course, are anything but primitive and it will be fascinating to watch how effective the Ukranian’s offense proves when matched against the Cuban’s sublime defensive skills.
Since leaving the unpaid code as one of the most decorated amateurs of all time, Rigondeaux’s breakout professional performance was all the way back in April 2013 when dominating fellow ‘pound for pound’ star and HBO darling Nonito Donaire over twelve rounds.
Bitter managerial and promotional difficulties have led to the great Cuban southpaw largely treading water ever since and have probably robbed fans of the Cuban’s prime professional years. His fans will hope he can roll back the years - Rigondeaux is now 37 - and highlight what the sport has missed in these barren recent years.
Sadly, Rigondeaux's recent contests have had an air of farce to them. I was present in Cardiff in the summer of 2016 when the little wizard fought game but overmatched British champion James ‘Jazza’ Dickens, breaking the Scouser’s jaw to effectively end the contest with a thunderous left in the second round. The crack from the punch prompted gasps from what was by no means a sheltered – not to mention largely inebriated – Welsh crowd.
The Cuban’s last contest a year later was over even quicker - he knocked challenger Moises Flores out with a left hook after the the bell rang to end the first. The referee awarded Rigondeaux a knockout win, later overruled to 'no contest' by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Missed in the farce was just how sharp Rigondeaux looked defensively prior to the conclusion of the contest.
Despite his inactivity (just two fights since 2015), this remains a terrific version of ‘El Chacal’, who enters Saturday’s contest with a professional slate of 17-0 (plus the aforementioned no contest).
If there was an asterisk next to McGirt vs Whitaker – the champion fought that night with an injured shoulder, a first $1m payday proving too attractive to withdraw from – the weight disparity in this match can’t be ignored. The truth is Lomachenko has grown into a strong and sturdy super featherweight, while the terrific little Cuban has hovered at or around 122 pounds since turning professional eight years ago.
Great smaller fighters have bested larger rivals before of course - Oscar De La Hoya’s trouncing at the hands of the much lighter Manny Pacquiao almost exactly nine years ago is an obvious case in point - but the advantage in weight seems to have heavily influenced the BM online team who have picked Lomachenko to win by seven votes to one.
A similar poll of Boxing Monthly’s Twitter followers also heavily favoured the Ukrainian, albeit by narrower proportions of four votes to each one for the Cuban (197 votes in total).
Rigondeaux, though, pays little attention to the oddsmakers. “I adapt, no problem,” he told Keith Idec this week. “Like with anyone else, we’re going to resolve this issue [Lomachenko’s skills] and I’m going to just beat the shit out of him.
"I know what I’m bringing. I don’t know what the hell he’s bringing, but I know what I’m bringing. I’m bringing mine. We trained well and we’re 100 per cent. We had a great training camp. We always train hard for every opponent.”
Lomachenko responded by raising a few eyebrows at a media workout, suggesting the fight might end in a similar fashion to the rout of Walters. “I’m not going to be surprised if he’s going to quit,” he said, despite making it clear he respects what the Cuban brings to the ring. “He’s very smart, he’s fast, he has ability and he has a lot of skills. This is the reason this bout was made.”
It’s one of those rare fights where it is hard to envisage either man as a loser. My pick is for Lomachenko to outwork his rival to win a points decision while being frustrated like never before by the Cuban's lightning reflexes and possibly even buzzed a number of times by the respectable punch power of Rigondeaux during a tense and engaging technical battle.