Best Amateur Ever? The Loma-Rigo Fight Will Be More Grist for the Mill

Some weeks ago, in anticipation of the historic Dec. 9 matchup of Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux – the only fight ever to pit two-time Olympic gold medalists as professionals, each of whom has much support as the best amateur boxer ever – ran a readers’ poll to determine just who the people’s choice is for that unofficial but coveted designation. I know that’s what the intent of the poll was, because I initiated that particular forum and selected the five individuals whom I thought were most worthy of being finalists.

TSS readers who participated might or might not find the tally to be surprising. No one was able to claim a majority of the votes, but Lomachenko, 29, who procured his golds at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics while representing Ukraine, managed a plurality with 30.74 percent of the total votes cast. The late, great Cuban heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson, one of only three boxers to win three Olympic golds (along with Hungary’s Laszlo Papp and Cuba’s Felix Savon, both of whom were on the ballot) finished second at 26.43 percent while Rigondeaux, golden at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, came in third with 14.2 percent. Rounding out the elite field were Savon at 10.03 percent and the sole United States representative, Mark Breland, at 7.23 percent.

So Saturday night’s ESPN-televised showdown pitting Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs), the WBO super featherweight champion against the 37-year-old Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs), the WBA super bantamweight titlist who is moving up two weight classes, should determine the issue once and for all, right? Well, no. But it should provide more data for debaters on either side to consider.

The most appealing pairings – those involving truly elite fighters in their respective primes, what the boxing cognoscenti like to refer to beforehand as 50-50 bouts – are exceedingly rare. The first showdown of Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns unquestionably fits the description. So might the first clash in the three-act passion play involving Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, although Ali partisans will argue that their pugilistic idol had not fully shaken off the effects of his enforced three-year-plus layoff for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army after being drafted.

More plentiful are passing-of-the-torch fights in which one legendary fighter is at the top or on his way there, against another whose best days are behind him. Think Rocky Marciano-Joe Louis or Larry Holmes-Ali. An argument can be made that the best of Holmes might have been capable of giving a prime Ali all he could handle, but on the night they fought the “Easton Assassin” was the pole-sitter at the Indy 500 while Ali was a once-magnificent but now-rusted Stutz-Bearcat in need of an engine overhaul.

Before the first punch is thrown in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, all signs point to a coronation of sorts for Lomachenko. Not only is he eight years younger, but he is fighting for the fifth time at 130 pounds while fellow southpaw Rigondeaux, jumping up two weight classes, is making his first appearance there. There are many residents of the metropolitan New York area of Eastern European birth or descent, which should give Lomachenko – who will be fighting at the Garden for the third time — significant crowd support. He’s been much more active, too, with four bouts, all for world titles, all victories inside the distance, since he dethroned Roman Martinez on a fifth-round knockout on June 11, 2016. Despite his protests to the contrary, there are legitimate concerns that Rigondeaux might have at least a thin coating of ring rust; he has fought just twice in the last 24½ months, a one-round no-decision and a two-round stoppage.

Little wonder that the oddsmakers have made Lomachenko a 1-to-5 favorite in what many are saying will be a boxing chess match between perhaps the two most technically proficient grandmasters currently at work, with the possible exception of Terence Crawford.

But it’s the sidelights that have made Loma-Rigo a can’t-miss attraction. Stirring the pot is Top Rank founder and chairman Bob Arum, who has the champion and has described him as “the greatest fighter since the early Muhammad Ali.” Yes, that would be the same Arum who once promoted Rigondeaux and pronounced that his defense-oriented style, as is the case with many of Cuba’s better Olympians, was so snooze-inducing that the lot of them “can’t sell out the front row of a dance hall in Miami.”

Given the fact that Rigondeaux doesn’t speak English and Lomachenko only knows a few words of it, Arum, who turns 86 the day before the fight, has taken the lead role in spurring public interest in a bout that really ought to stand on its own considerable merits. Asked for his opinion as to the stylistic differences between the admittedly more entertaining Lomachenko and the more cautious Rigondeaux, Arum lit a match and then sprayed gasoline all over the flame.

“What you’re looking at here is two different schools of boxing – the Cuban and the Eastern European,” Arum said with as much finality as he could muster. “The Eastern European, let me start with Vasyl Lomachenko. He is very technically proficient and when he is fighting, he is very defensive-minded, looking for an opening, but always with the goal in mind not only to win a points victory, but to hurt and knock out his opponent, or to make him quit. Watch every one of his fights. It’s always very crowd-pleasing because he is looking to destroy his opponent. That’s pretty much the Eastern European style.

“The Cuban style is different. The Cuban style is to pile up points, and then they stink you out to the end of the fight because all they care about is winning on points. This fight, Vasyl will not allow Rigondeaux to pile up points. So Rigondeaux will have to be more aggressive than he wants to be. When you watch Rigondeaux, you will see a fantastic fighter who piles up points and then stinks you out by coasting to victory. That’s the Cuban style.”

It is a fallacy, of course, to paint every member of a certain group with the same brush. Stevenson was a committed Fidelista who never made an attempt to defect in search of pro riches, in contrast to Rigondeaux, who tried six previous times to make his way to America before finally getting here. Oh, one more thing: Stevenson had a right hand that could knock the other guy stiffer than a plank with three coats of freshly applied varnish, and didn’t hesitate to use it. Stylistically, he might be described as the anti-Rigo.

Although Arum and Lomachenko both insist that circumstances will dictate that Rigondeaux slip out of his comfort zone and take chances he normally doesn’t should his preferred strategy prove ineffective, the Cuban – whose animus toward his former promoter is hardly a secret – isn’t showing his cards just yet. Then again, maybe he is another leopard unwilling or unable to change its spots. Remember, everyone predicted that Floyd Mayweather Jr. would dip deeper into his arsenal against Manny Pacquiao, but in the end, he decided his wisest course of action was to again rely on his superior movement and boxing skills instead of trading at close range.

“Let (Lomachenko) think what he wants,” Rigondeaux said of his rival’s prediction of some heavy metal to drown out the Cuban’s familiar chamber music. “We’re going to do what we need to do. We have our game plan.”

Whatever that game plan is, Rigondeaux vows that it will be “a massacre,” and he won’t be the one on the wrong end of the beatdown. “I don’t have to worry,” he continued. “The one that has to worry is Lomachenko. I do my job and I do it well. I got to win convincingly enough that (the judges) can’t rob me.”

No chance of that happening if the end comes on a knockout or a stoppage, which Lomachenko has said is the most likely outcome.

“I’m gonna walk through him like a tank and knock him out,” said the man who is considered by a growing number of observers as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. “I am like every single fighter going into the ring. I have in my mind to finish the bout before the 12th round ends. I’m not promising to knock him out, but I will squash him.”

Given the incendiary rhetoric coming from both sides, perhaps the most unbiased assessment of what will go down comes from longtime ESPN color commentator Teddy Atlas, who will be calling the action and is an admitted fan of both main-event participants.

“I remember thinking (Rigondeaux) was the best amateur fighter I’d ever seen,” Atlas said of the 2000 Olympic version of the Cuban sensation. “Lomachenko came along later and he was damn good, too. But Rigondeaux stood out. He was so calm, so precise, so efficient.

“Both of these guys are fundamentally very good, very smart, excellent counterpunchers. They’re very diverse as far as what they can do in the ring. They see everything and have great ring presence. I think Rigondeaux has more natural physical abilities and he can punch harder. He’s maybe a better pure body puncher. Where Lomachenko has an edge is that he can create his own offense on the front end. Rigondeaux is better on the back end, waiting for your aggression to become his with his counterpunching abilities. He’s a little like Floyd Mayweather that way.

“There’s no knock on this fight. I think it’s terrific. The only thing diminishing it is that it’s maybe coming a little late for Rigondeaux. Not that he can’t win, but I think he was more at his best a few years earlier. Inactivity is a part of it. Maybe age is. But whatever the reason, I see some decline.”

As for that TSS readers’ poll mentioned at the top of this story, make of it what you will. Had every poll been correct, Thomas Dewey would have beaten Harry S. Truman for the presidency in 1948 and we’d now be calling Hillary Clinton Madame President.

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