Why I Was Slow to Join the Chorus Trumpeting Lomachenko’s Greatness

Yes, I certainly grasped how uniquely gifted Vasyl Lomachenko was while watching him in his pro debut versus Jose Ramirez. And in a close but losing effort to Orlando Salido in his next bout, I saw him become an experienced pro during the last four rounds after Salido used every old school and borderline trick in the book against him. And from his third bout against Gary Russell through to his 11th versus Guillermo Rigondeaux, Lomachenko looked like the phenom he is. But the fact is that in spite of beating some outstanding fighters minus the typical set-ups and easy wins fed to Olympians early in their careers, I was slow to acknowledge that he was great.

There were two things that I took into consideration that some of those who quickly acclaimed him the best fighter in boxing didn’t think were much of a factor: (1) With nearly 400 amateur fights and two gold medals, Lomachenko probably spent more time training and sparring with pros than Gary Russell or any of his other early opponents. A two-time Olympic gold medalist is virtually an eight round pro when he makes his debut; and (2) Lomachenko’s style enabled him to jump into the deep end of the pool early. Because he’s so fast and elusive, he’s nearly impossible to out-box and score against. Therefore, he never has to fight strength on strength and his athleticism and speed level out the competition when confronting bigger fighters.

I have no doubt we’ll be seeing other fighters in the not too distant future win world titles in multiple weight classes within 15 or so fights.  There are fewer pro fighters today and with so many getting title shots within their first 20 fights, the mean of the fighters holding the most titles isn’t what it was during the 60s, 70s and 80s when the champions had more than 20-30 fights.

In his last bout against former three division titlist Jorge Linares, Lomachenko officially won me over and convinced me he’s the genuine article and if anyone has him as the number-one pound-for-pound fighter in boxing, I’m okay with that. In Linares (40-3 going in) he faced a legitimate title holder who held a slight size advantage, had participated in multiple title bouts between 126 and 135 and, most importantly, knew how to fight and showed up to win, not just compete and lose a close fight. Moreover, Linares’s height, good hand speed and imaginative offense presented Lomachenko with some issues he’d never confronted before. And this was one of the rare times since the Salido fight that Vasyl didn’t have it all his way and had to fight with a sense of urgency. If you believe he didn’t learn from the loss to Salido, notice how he looked to the referee when Linares began to stray from the Marquis of Queensberry rules, and I mean that in a positive light.

I always believed Lomachenko wouldn’t waltz to victory every time and there’d be an opponent who would fight him and ask questions of him that all the greats were asked and had to answer. Linares mixed his shots to the head and body consistently and made Loma pay for the few times he stayed too squared-up in front of him. He also nailed Vasyl coming in with his left hand a little low and out of position and dropped him with a very good right hand. It wasn’t a fluke shot and it sat Lomachenko on his rear-end. But he got up, realized he made a technical mistake, and went back on the attack shortly after that and in the subsequent rounds. Eventually his speed, pace, body punching and consistent work rate overwhelmed Linares. And the left hook to the body with which Lomachenko ended the fight was undetectable on TV without seeing it again via replay. Utterly impressive!

So in 12 pro bouts Lomachenko has been tested three times and passed each time. Salido came in overweight and made it a street fight, and by the end of the bout Lomachenko had learned a ton and was hardened by the experience. In his next bout against Gary Russell, he was confronted by a fighter who possessed both speed and skill and actually had some moments against him, but Vasyl was just a tad better and more versatile and he won conclusively. With the exception of Nicholas Walters, Lomachenko had distinctive advantages over every other opponent he fought until he met Jorge Linares.

What we learned watching him against Linares is that Vasyl is stronger than he looks. He can bring the pressure from bell-to-bell and not tire. He takes a good shot and doesn’t lose his nerve or confidence in the midst of a fire fight. And what I liked most is how when rounds were hinging in favor of Linares, he raised the rent and cut loose, solidifying them for him. On top of that his intuition is tremendous. When he could see that Linares was tiring, he smartly picked up his pace and went to his body. Lomachenko sees everything and doesn’t need many rounds to get a bead on what the fighter in front of him is thinking and looking to do.

The other thing we learned about Lomachenko is that he can be hit clean and dropped. And in fairness to him, that isn’t a negative. Lomachenko consistently fights in the red zone where he is just as vulnerable to being hit by his opponents as they are by him – so he is going to get caught and dropped once in a while.

Lomachenko is great for boxing because he’s exciting and is willing to challenge himself with each fight. He now owns the WBA lightweight title and, if you can believe the rumors, will soon own the WBO belt currently in the grasp of Ray Beltran when they meet later this year. Outside of WBC champ Mikey Garcia, who will own the IBF title after he beats Robert Easter in July, they’ll be nobody left for him to challenge.

Garcia has actually been down twice (Walter Estrada and Roman Martinez), but like Lomachenko has never been close to losing. Had Garcia fought Linares on May 12th, I think he would’ve handled Jorge easier than Lomachenko did, but that’s more based on styles than who is the greater fighter. As for Garcia vs. Lomachenko, it’s the perfect storm….the fundamentals, strength, power and discipline of Garcia versus the speed, athleticism and unconventional offense and defense of Lomachenko.

Garcia recently said…….”I can stop him. He looks sensational and does all of this crazy footwork with lesser quality opponents. The minute he stepped up against Linares… yeah he beat him, but it wasn’t an easy fight like those other fights. He also got dropped. It was a flash knockdown, but he still got dropped. I’ve been dropped. You get up and you win the fight.”

“That shows you that he’s not invincible, he’s not this crazy, out of this world phenomenon that people make him out to be. With lower quality opponents he shines, he outclasses them. Step up in competition and face a world champion, you start to see openings and opportunities… not necessarily flaws. Linares has experience and he did well against him.”

Mikey’s points are valid. He is bigger, stronger, more durable and a harder puncher than Linares and he’s much fresher and more confident. However, Linares is a little quicker and his hands flow a little more regularly than Garcia’s, something needed to occupy Lomachenko from really blitzing you. It’s too far in the distant future to get into Garcia vs. Lomachenko. All I can say is, if anyone in the lightweight division can beat Lomachenko, its Mikey Garcia. But that’s certainly up for debate and when they meet I expect Lomachenko to be a slight favorite.

I’ve avoided the race to be first in declaring Lomachenko’s greatness. Once you deem a fighter great, you can’t take it back. And if Garcia were to knock him out or just beat him, how quickly would those who etched him an all-time great, be pulling that card back?

History is what determines who is great, and history takes time. I was around in the 80s when the pundits were declaring Mike Tyson greater than Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, and in the 90s when those same guys were saying Roy Jones was the equal of Sugar Ray Robinson. And then Buster Douglas and Antonio Tarver blew the myths up. And circa 1984-85 when I proclaimed Donald Curry was on his way to being the equal of both Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns, and then he fought Lloyd Honeyghan and my beliefs were shattered.

Through experience I’ve learned to take my time when assessing greatness. I like to see fighters tested and I knew — as unfathomable as others thought it was — that one day soon Lomachenko would be tested. Well, he was, and by an outstanding fighter in Jorge Linares, and he passed the test exceedingly well.

Is Vasyl Lomachenko a once-in-a-generation fighter? It’s looking more and more like it with every fight.

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

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