OXON HILL, Md. — It’s a tired cliche, but “the more things change, the more they stay the same” was an apt description for the boxing event at the new MGM National Harbor in Maryland on Saturday. Five years ago at the London Olympics three boxers from the Ukrainian team were waving their nation’s flag in celebration after capturing medals. In Maryland on Saturday, three members of that team were again fighting at the same event, and were again celebrating, solidifying their world-class credentials in front of an HBO audience.
Yet while the form of the boxers has remained consistent, much has changed in Ukraine since Vasyl Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk and Oleksandr Gvozdyk claimed Olympic medals in 2012. The yellow and blue national flag that they waved on Saturday now carries an added significance. In 2014 Ukraine was plunged into turmoil, becoming a scene of civil unrest resulting in nearly 10,000 deaths to-date. The country has a long and complicated history, resulting in recent conflict driven by swatches of the population that identify as Russian separatists versus nationalists who view Ukraine as a distinct, pro-European entity.
As such, the words and actions of national stars such as Lomachenko, Usyk and Gvozdyk mean a lot in Ukraine. All three note that they are proud Ukrainians, but in press interviews they have been eager to remain neutral and distance themselves from the political situation.
“I try to stay out of it. Too bad a lot of innocent people are dying,” said Lomachenko, who is now based in California. Notably, Usyk, who previously sported a patriotic Ukrainian Cossack haircut – shaved on the sides, with a long lock on top – now has a more generically trimmed coiffure.
Instead of making political statements, they let their fists to do the talking in an effort to create positive headlines for Ukraine and attain some relief from the recurring news of political and financial instability. On Saturday they did just that, cheered on by a capacity crowd of 2,828 comprised mainly of their countrymen that made the fighters feel right at home.
While the three Ukrainian boxers were heavy favorites to win their bouts, tickets sold out in just two days such was the appetite of the fighters’ fans. The crowd was not disappointed as the trio delivered in compelling fashion, roared on by vociferous chants of “U-kray-ina” throughout.
Arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, Lomachenko, 9-1 (6 KO), was a -2500 (1/25) favorite to successfully defend his WBO version of the world 130-pound title against Jason Sosa, a fighter who only took up boxing at age 20 when Lomachenko had already won his first of two Olympic gold medals. But the Ukrainian fans in attendance didn’t care about the odds, they were here to have a celebration and cheered every deft movement the slick Lomachenko made.
The contest didn’t prove much, with Lomachenko outclassing the game Sosa, 20-2-4 (15 KO) for every minute of the nine rounds it lasted. Even beforehand Lomachenko wasn’t overly enthused by the choice of opponent stating: “I’m getting very disappointed, because I came to unify titles. I couldn’t do that at 126 (pounds). I move to 130, and it looks like 130, the same thing, People are not fighting. So I will have to move forward.”
Lomachenko hardly broke a sweat as he peppered Sosa with punches from various angles and swiftly evaded his opponent’s seemingly crude offense. As the rounds wore on the punches landed with greater regularity and after nine rounds Sosa’s corner sensibly withdrew their fighter to save him further unnecessary punishment. Lomachenko will likely now pursue a rematch with Orlando Salido in an effort to avenge the sole blemish on his professional record.
In the previous bout Gvozdyk, 13-0 (11 KO), made short work of Yunieski Gonzalez, knocking the Cuban out at 2:55 of the third round. After an energetic and competitive opening couple of rounds, Gvozdyk found a rhythm in the third, measuring his opponent and landing a variety of concussive counter shots. After eating a series of uppercuts, hooks, and right hands, Gonzalez, 18-3 (14) was knocked down in the third and soon felled a second and final time before the bout was waved off.
Earlier, Usyk, 12-0 (10 KO), retained his WBO version of the 200-pound cruiserweight world title with a unanimous points victory over former U.S. Olympian Michael Hunter. In a spirited battle, Usyk proved too strong, with a knockdown in the final round punctuating the win and delighting the crowd. However, Hunter, 12-1 (8 KO), was competitive throughout and gave the southpaw Usyk plenty of trouble thanks to a sharp jab. Even after he was badly hurt from a relentless barrage in the twelfth round, Hunter hung tough, gamely swinging back until the final bell. All three judges scored the contest 117-110.
The trio of Ukrainian victories also highlighted the changing landscape in the professional boxing scene. The fact that three Ukrainian fighters were the A-side names in an HBO event on U.S. soil is further evidence of the rising pugilistic power of nations from the former Soviet Union. But for now the professional game remains a nascent entity in Ukraine and the big money remains in the United States.
While the three Ukrainians may ply their trade abroad, their hearts remain at home. And given their profile, that results in extra responsibility during the current climate. But an increased awareness of boxing during troubled times is nothing new. From Joe Louis’s battles with Germany’s Max Schmeling in the 1930s to Barry McGuigan uniting Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland during the 1980s, boxing has long provided nations with a welcome distraction to political strife.
Lomachenko, Usyk and Gvozdyk could be on their way to becoming folk heroes of similar stature among their compatriots. The crowd at the MGM on Saturday, decked out in yellow and blue, may claim that Lomachenko and co. already have. And based on their enthusiasm not many would argue with them.
Photo credit: Mikey Williams / Top Rank
Ronan Keenan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @rokeenan