The third fight card in as many weeks at Madison Square Garden was contested at The Theater on December 9. The promotional hook was the occasion of two two-time Olympic gold medalists facing off in a professional championship fight for the first time.
Vasyl Lomachenko, age 29, is the reigning WBO 130-pound champion and at or near the top of most pound-for-pound lists. He lost a disputed split-decision to Orlando Salido in his second pro bout (for the WBO 126-pound belt) and has been undefeated in nine fights since then.
By way of comparison, in Floyd Mayweather’s second pro fight, Pretty Boy (as Money was then known) fought an opponent named Reggie Sanders who had a 1-and-1 record and ended his career with a 12-47-4 mark.
Guillermo Rigondeaux entered the ring to face Lomachenko with a 17-0 (11 KOs) professional record and was the reigning WBA 122-pound champion.
Amateur records are subject to question. But Lomachenko is said to have compiled an otherworldly amateur mark of 396 wins against a single loss. Rigondeaux reportedly had a 463-and-12 amateur ledger. What’s not subject to question is that, representing Ukraine, Lomachenko won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. Rigondeaux won gold medals at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics on behalf of Cuba.
Lomachenko is exciting to watch. Rigondeaux has a reputation for being a boring fighter.
Three years ago, Bob Arum was asked whether he thought boxing should go back to fifteen-round championship fights.
“I was against the change to twelve rounds when it happened,” Arum answered. “But I don’t see any reason to go back to fifteen. Fifteen rounds might be less exciting because the fighters would be pacing themselves more. Besides, It’s bad enough watching Guillermo Rigondeaux for twelve rounds. Who wants to watch fifteen?”
More recently – on November 26, 2016, to be precise – Arum was asked about the possibility of matching Lomachenko against Rigondeaux.
“Listen,” Arum responded. “I’m building up Lomachenko because of his unbelievable ability to be a superstar. I’m not going to put him in a fight which he’ll win easy but will be a snoozer. It will be a shit fight. You can’t put him in with Rigondeaux, who will snooze him out. If you want to see an entertaining fight, you don’t want to see that fight.”
All that changed, of course, when Lomachenko-Rigondeaux became a reality.
“Years from now,” Arum proclaimed at the final pre-fight press conference, “when they write about the great matches in boxing history, this will be one of the fights they’re talking about.”
Lomachenko was a 7-to-2 betting favorite. With good reason. Vasyl might not be (as Arum proclaims) “the best fighter since the young Muhammad Ali.” But he’s awfully good.
Dressed at the final pre-fight press conference in jeans and a blue plaid shirt and wearing thick-rimmed glasses, Lomachenko could have left Madison Square Garden and walked unnoticed down Seventh Avenue. There’s nothing remarkable-looking about him. Until he gets in a boxing ring.
Vasyl is honest when talking about boxing. Asked how important the Rigondeaux fight was to him, he answered, “This fight is important to the fans.”
One had the feeling that it was just another fight to him.
Rigondeaux had never fought above 122 pounds before (two weight classes below Lomachenko).
“I went up to 130,” Guillermo acknowledged, “because it was the only way I could get this fight made. I would rather it have been at a lower weight.”
More significantly, Rigondeaux is 37 years old. Lighter-weight fighters tend to age poorly because their speed diminishes more dramatically than with heavier boxers. At age 37, Pernell Whitaker was ending his career on a four-fight winless streak. Moreover, Rigondeaux had fought only three rounds in the 24 months preceding his outing against Lomachenko. And he was rumored to have “lifestyle” issues.
At a media sitdown prior to the final pre-fight press conference, Rigondeaux had the look of a man who was there to pick up a paycheck. Earlier that day, Lomachenko had been asked, “What’s the best thing about being a fighter?”
“The best thing is when you fight for the history and the glory,” Vasyl responded.
Now Guillermo was asked, “What’s the best thing about being a fighter?”
“Nothing,” he answered.
The Theater was sold out with 5,102 fans in attendance.
The first fight of the evening, like too many that followed, was a mismatch. Bryant Jennings (now 21-2, 12 KOs) is Top Rank’s current heavyweight resurrection project. Jennings had one win in the previous forty months, a knockout of West Virginia’s hapless Daniel Martz. Here, he fought Donnie Haynesworth, who had never fought outside North Carolina and had beaten one guy with a winning record (49-year-old Mark Brown). Jennings looked lethargic en route to a third-round knockout triumph.
Later in the evening, in one of four match-ups televised by ESPN, Bryant Cruz (the other “Bryant” on the card) was KO’d by Christopher Diaz.
U.S. Olympian Shakur Stevenson stopped a punching bag named Oscar Mendoza in the second round but was unable to knock him down. Stevenson is a stylish boxer but appears to have Paulie Malignaggi punching power. Whether or not he has Malignaggi’s intangibles remains to be seen.
Also on ESPN, Irish Olympian Michael Conlan won a unanimous decision against a no-hope opponent named Luis Molina. Watching Conlan-Molina was like watching banderilleros stab a bull for eighteen minutes and having the spectacle end without the matador entering the ring for the kill.
The main event was only marginally more competitive. Rigondeaux was an elite fighter. Lomachenko is an elite fighter. There’s a difference. And even at his best, Rigondeaux probably couldn’t have beaten Lomachenko.
Round one was tactically fought. Rigondeaux was slightly more aggressive than Lomachenko, who seemed to be studying Guillermo to find out what he needed to know.
Whatever it was that Vasyl was looking for, he found it. He established his primacy in round two and ran the table from that point on.
Lomachenko is a creative master when it comes to speed and angles. He isn’t a big puncher but he’s a sharp puncher who discourages opponents and, over time, beats them up. Against Rigondeaux, he kept moving and punching from all angles, mixing shots to the head and body with both hands, piling up points and doing damage.
Rigondeaux tried holding, head-butting, elbowing, hitting below the belt, rabbit-punching, hitting on the break, and every other illegal tactic that referee Steve Willis (who eventually deducted a point for the holding) let him get away with. Nothing worked. According to CompuBox, Guillermo didn’t land more than three punches in any round. He quit at the end of round six, claiming an injury to his left hand.
It would be interesting to see an X-ray.
“This is not his weight,” Lomachenko said afterward. “So it’s not a big win for me. It was easy.”
As for what comes next, Top Rank will build Stevenson and Conlan as well as any promoter can. In today’s world, that probably means maneuvering them to title fights. Either way, their future will be tied to Top Rank’s recently-completed deal with ESPN.
The success or failure of Top Rank’s venture with ESPN, as was the case with Premier Boxing Champions, will depend in large measure on advertiser support. However, it’s likely that the biggest Top Rank fights will continue to be on pay-per-view. Early indications are that this could come as early as summer 2018 with ESPN as an active partner.
Meanwhile, Lomachenko is a special talent. Now he needs true inquisitors so boxing fans can learn whether we’re witnessing the emergence of a great fighter or the arrival of a very good one.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.
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