Forget, at least for a moment, all those comparisons to Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali. As far as the 2017 boxing awards season is concerned, Vasyl “High-Tech” Lomachenko would rather channel his inner Marlon Brando, George C. Scott and, for those really familiar with United States history, William Tecumseh Sherman.
Widely hailed as a strong candidate for 2017 Fighter of the Year by various boxing entities after his ridiculously easy conquest of the previously undefeated Guillermo Rigondeaux, who did not come out for the seventh- round on Dec. 9 – the fourth straight Loma opponent to quit on his stool, which has to be some kind of record – the Ukrainian southpaw with marvelous skills and machine-like efficiency was asked if he now considered himself the favorite to sweep all the FOY awards. His response must have seemed startling to those familiar with the relentless quest of egocentric athletes and actors to validate themselves with official acknowledgments of their finest performances.
“So what?” said Lomachenko (10-1, 8 KOs) after he retained his WBO super featherweight championship before a sellout crowd at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. “Not three big wins (a reference to his other two make-’em-quit victories in 2017, over Jason Sosa and Miguel Marriaga). “It’s not my weight, not my size. (Rigondeaux was coming up from the 122-pound weight class.) It’s not big for me. Maybe it’s big for people who love boxing, but not for me.”
It was a kind-of disavowal that called to mind Brando and Scott, who claimed they didn’t want Best Actor Oscars but won them anyway, and Gen. Sherman, the Civil War’s torcher of Atlanta, who in 1884, when considered a possible Republican candidate for the presidency, said, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”
Contrast that with the statement from the man widely considered to be Lomachenko’s chief competition for FOY honors, undisputed junior welterweight titlist Terence Crawford, who attended the Loma-Rigo bout and, when asked the same question said, “It’s already won. I won it already. Why wouldn’t I have?”
Like Brando and Scott, who won their Academy Awards despite their protestations, the 29-year-old Lomachenko’s big year – but not one as significant as those he envisions for himself going forward – did not dissuade The Sweet Science electorate, which nonetheless has named him, deservedly so, its Fighter of the Year. But don’t think for a minute that Loma, whose enormous self-confidence is somewhat masked by the lack of an external sheen of bravado and braggadocio, isn’t thinking about his place in ring history. It’s just that, well, he wants more – much more – than recognition in a particular calendar year. He is peering far into the future to a larger, more lasting goal, of a sort that he hopes will eventually move him past such accomplished and boastful practitioners of the pugilistic arts as the forever-sweet Robinson, Ali (the G.O.A.T., for “Greatest of All time”) and Floyd Mayweather Jr. (“TBE,” for “The Best Ever”).
Like Sinatra sang, he wants to be king of the hill, A-No. 1, a master of his craft so accomplished that his claim to be best of the best can hardly be challenged.
“History. If, in 10 years, or 20 or 30 years, you sit down with your friends and talk about boxing, you need to remember my name,” Lomachenko told writer Mark Kriegel. It is a wish destined to become reality, if all the superfights Loma and his promoter, Bob Arum, can be procured and end in the expected manner.
But that is something that must be worked out as the continuation of a grand plan conceived and orchestrated by Lomachenko’s obsessively driven father-trainer, Anatoly, who first put a pair of boxing gloves on his infant son when he was just three days old. Maybe, perhaps even probably, there will be better professional years for Lomachenko than 2017, but it still was a wondrous period to behold. So many fighters speak of how they’d rather die inside the ropes than to lose, and if they do lose they’d want to go out on their shield rather than suffer the ignominy of quitting. Loma has rendered such valorous pledges by a succession of outclassed rivals almost irrelevant.
Rigondeaux, for instance, said he surrendered because of the pain in his left (power) hand in the second round, which eventually obliged him to call it a night. But X-rays revealed that the Cuban’s hand had not been broken but merely bruised, discrediting, at least in part, his excuse to stop fighting on. Now consider this: Lomachenko retained his WBO featherweight title on a 12-round unanimous decision over Thailand’s Suriya Tataljim on Nov. 23, 2014, in Macao, China, while fighting from the third round on with a broken (confirmed) hand.
True excellence, in any field, is almost always the result of two components – natural talent and a preternatural work ethic. It is diminishment of the latter that often drives the highly accomplished into retirement or another line of work; tennis legend Bjorn Borg, for instance, laid down his racket at 26 because of burnout. To date, that has not been a problem for Loma, whose intense workouts call to mind such energizer bunnies as football greats Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, and whose development was shaped in no small part by unconventional means. For four-time heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, the wild card was ballet instruction; for Loma it was training in Ukrainian folk dance, which has been instrumental in his attainment of the kind of footwork that Fred Astaire or Michael Jackson no doubt would have appreciated.
So while Loma might not feel that 2017 was that big a deal, TSS respectfully disagrees. He is our Fighter of the Year, and it would be unwise to bet against him adding one or more such notices as fulfills a destiny that is coming together like fitted pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
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