Vasyl Lomachenko and the Lure of History

Boxing fans want to believe that they’re watching greatness. And today’s omnipresent hype machine feeds that desire.

“History isn’t what it used to be,” Patrick Kehoe writes. “Being historically significant is as overrated as you can get these days. Can’t they get it in their agreements [with the television networks]? All they have to say is, ‘This fight is one for the ages.’ How hard can that be?”

Within that milieu, Vasyl Lomachenko is making a sincere effort to pursue greatness. On May 12, as part of his quest, he defeated Jorge Linares at Madison Square Garden to claim the World Boxing Association 135-pound title.

“I want to put my name in the history of boxing,” Lomachenko said three days before the bout. “This one of the steps I have to take. Money and titles, you lose, you die. History is forever. I want to get out of my short boxing career the most I can.”

The 30-year-old Lomachenko is one of the best – if not the best – fighters in the world today. After winning two Olympic gold medals and compiling an other-worldly 396-1 amateur record, he turned pro in 2013 and lost a questionable split-decision to Orlando Salido in his second professional bout. Three months later, he outpointed Gary Russell Jr to claim the WBO featherweight crown.

Lomachenko’s pro record now stands at 11-and-1 with 9 knockouts.

“I’ve done this a long time,” promoter Bob Arum declares. “And he hasn’t had those tomato cans you usually feed to guys as you’re building them. He didn’t get those four- and six-rounders who really don’t have a shot to win the fight. He was fighting real guys from the beginning.”

Lomachenko hasn’t just beaten good fighters. He has broken them physically and mentally. In his four outings immediately preceding the Linares bout, Vasyl watched as Nicholas Walters, Jason Sosa, Miguel Marriaga, and Guillermo Rigondeaux ended matters on their stool rather than come out for more punishment.

Lomachenko is confident but not arrogant. He dresses casually and doesn’t talk trash. He answers questions patiently and without artifice. He has turned his body into a well-honed precision instrument and implements his skill set in a way that’s all his own.

Boxing doesn’t come easily to anyone. Watching Lomachenko in the ring, viewers have to remind themselves how hard it is to do what he does.

“Lomachenko has toyed with world-class opponents as if he were the alley cat and they were the church mouse,” Frank Lotierzo writes. “He’s an intuitive fighter with an uncanny sense of anticipation. He’s an instinctive fighter who grasps how vulnerable an opponent can be rendered if forced to reach and lunge and miss the target. He has a fighting style along with great athleticism and a high boxing IQ that allows him to match up with most styles. He also has the best footwork in boxing and can pivot on a dime while standing in front of his opponents and make them miss, forcing them to punch from their blind side, leaving them open to counters and flurries. And unlike most flashy boxers with great speed, instead of making you have to look for him, he comes to you and presents a target that appears to be right there. Allowing him to fight at his leisure and pick his spots is ring suicide.”

To that, Hamilton Nolan has added, “Lomachenko is what happens when you build an entirely new style on top of the frame of technical mastery. His jab hand is like a snake held by the tail, continually poking and striking up and down while the rest of his body seems to be relaxing on its own. His footwork is matchless. He can be anywhere in a 270-degree radius of your face before you can move to meet him. He’s in front, now he’s on your left side. And he’s hitting you body-head-body-head-head before you can tell what’s happening. Even when he is directly in front of you, he is unhittable, constantly rolling his shoulders from side to side and darting behind his own gloves like a man peeking out from between two moving pistons. He slips punches with the ease of a grown man pretend-boxing with a toddler. You can’t find him, and if you do, you can’t hit him. And the whole time he’s hitting you.”

Linares (44-3, 27 KOs) was a credible opponent, albeit not a great one. Jorge had won WBA belts in two weight classes but has struggled against solid opposition and been stopped short of the distance by Juan Carlos Salgado, Antonio DeMarco, and Sergio Thompson.

Lomachenko opened as a 6-to-1 betting favorite. The odds in some circles ran as high as 10-to-1. Each man weighed in one day before the bout at 134.6 pounds. However, on fight night, Lomachenko weighed 138, while Linares had rehydrated to 152 pounds.

An announced crowd of 10,429 was on hand for the festivities.

It was a fast-paced fight, and the pace grew faster as the bout progressed. There was a lot of movement from each fighter, but the movement was to get into position to punch, not to avoid confrontation.

Lomachenko fights for three minutes of every round. He gives an opponent no time to rest. And he’s willing to trade. When an opponent lands, Vasyl immediately fires back. By round four, it appeared as though he had figured Linares out and knew exactly what he needed to do to win. The area around Jorge’s right eye was swelling and he was starting to take a beating.

Then . . . Two minutes thirty seconds into round six, Lomachenko threw a right jab and his protective left hand drifted a shade too far to the left.

Linares fired a textbook counter right.

Vasyl saw it coming, but he saw it too late.

“It was a great punch,” Lomachenko said afterward. “It happens.”

The blow landed smack in the center of Lomachenko’s face and dropped him to the canvas. It was the first time he’d been knocked down since an amateur bout eleven years ago. Fifteen seconds later, the bell ending the round sounded. But now the fight had a new dimension. Vasyl looked smaller than he had before. And a war was raging.

It was a superb fight. Both men dug deep.

The battle ended in round ten.

Lomachenko buried a brutal straight left in Linares’s liver.

Jorge went down and was able to beat the count. Barely. If the bell had rung, he might have been able to regroup during the one-minute break between rounds and fight on. But there were 52 seconds left in the stanza and, in the moment, he was in no condition to continue. Referee Ricky Gonzalez appropriately stopped the fight.

All of boxing’s greatest fighters have hit the canvas. It’s what happens after a fighter goes down that matters. Lomachenko closed the show the way a great fighter should.

Lomachenko seems sincere in his stated desire to fight the best and earn a place in boxing lore through his ring accomplishments rather than hype.

“I haven’t shown yet what I’m capable of doing,” Vasyl says.

He’s not afraid of losing. If it happens, it happens.

So the question now is, “What comes next?”

Becoming the fourth man to beat Jorge Linares is hardly an accomplishment of historic proportions. Nor is beating Raymundo Beltran, who has been defeated seven times and is penciled in as Vasyl’s most likely next opponent.

The fight that boxing fans most want to see is Lomachenko versus Mikey Garcia. A victory over Garcia at 135 pounds would raise Vasyl to a new level (as it would for Garcia were he to beat Lomachenko). But for now, Mikey seems content to fight less threatening opposition.

Outside of Garcia, and possibly Gervonta Davis, it’s hard to think of a fighter at 135 pounds or less who is likely to give Lomachenko a tough fight. And it would be a mistake for Vasyl to move up too far in weight. Lomachenko himself acknowledged that reality two days before facing Linares when he was asked about fighting Manny Pacquiao and answered, “My real weight to fight is 130 pounds. I don’t know now how I’ll feel at 135. To talk now about a Pacquiao fight at 144 pounds doesn’t make sense.”

One can play mind games and match Lomachenko against great fighters from the past. But it’s impossible to judge a fighter’s place in history based on twelve pro fights. So for now, let’s say that Vasyl Lomachenko is an exceptionally good professional fighter and hope that he has the opportunity to match his skills against today’s best.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.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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