When a fighter becomes recognized as an extraordinary fighter, pundits writing stories about him invariably conjure up the name of a great fighter of yesteryear who was stylistically similar. Gene Tunney was compared with Gentleman Jim Corbett. Both were seen as cerebral fighters who out-foxed their opponents while maintaining their composure in the heat of battle. The young Mike Tyson drew comparisons with Jack Dempsey. The way that Tyson bobbed his head as he pressed forward was reminiscent of Dempsey. Both were likened to tigers and other jungle cats for the way they pounced on their prey at the sound of the opening gong.
Which brings us to Vasyl Lomachenko. Who is his historical facsimile?
Lomachenko can flummox an opponent without hitting him because his feints are so slick. That’s mindful of Willie Pep who supposedly bet a Minneapolis sportswriter that he could win a round without throwing a punch and won the bet. His feints tied his opponent in knots, impressing the judges who failed to see that Pep kept his offense under wraps.
Lomachenko’s defense also harks to Pep. Willie’s nickname was “will-o’-wisp.” The reference is to a ghost light in folklore, a flickering lamp in the fog that is actually a mirage, luring travelers into a danger zone.
Down through the years, most of the great defensive fighters in boxing were remembered for their ability to dodge punches just by moving their head an inch or two. Lore has it that Young Griffo would bet patrons of a saloon that they couldn’t hit him while his feet were firmly planted on a piece of cloth. It was said of Griffo that he could dodge a punch while looking into a barroom mirror with his back turned. A fighter of more recent vintage, Argentina’s Nicolino Locche, was also renowned for his ability to make his opponents miss without moving his feet. Some credit Locche with inventing the rope-a-dope made famous by Muhammad Ali.
Willie Pep, more than Griffo or Locche, used his lower torso, his legs, to evade the punches coming his way. Vasyl Lomechenko has taken this to a higher level.
Lomachenko was introduced to boxing at the age of four. At the age of nine, his father/trainer Anatoly Lomachenko made him step away from the sport to focus on dancing. For the next four years, he attended a dance studio after school. This training is credited with giving him his defensive core. “He can pivot on a dime,” notes Frank Lotierzo. Greg Bishop, writing in Sports Illustrated, suggested that Lomachenko’s footwork may be the best of any athlete in any sport. The way that he can stand right in front of an opponent and then sidestep out of harm’s way in a blink as the punches coming at him land harmlessly on his gloves or catch nothing but air is pure genius. (True, there was a moment when he lingered too long in front of Jorge Linares, but the punch that put him on the seat of his pants, although a clean punch, wasn’t particularly hurtful.)
The way that Lomachenko relies on his legs is a vindication of sorts for the argument put forth by Mike Silver in his 2008 book The Arc of Boxing. Silver argued that a properly trained dancer would have a leg up if he entered the prize ring. At its foundation, boxing, when understood as an art form, is choreography. “In their primes, writes Silver, “three of the greatest boxers of the 20th century, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, and Muhammad Ali, could have easily been mistaken for members of a professional ballet troupe.” (We’re reminded that Evander Holyfield added a ballet instructor to his team when he was preparing to fight Buster Douglas.)
Of course, Lomachenko isn’t all defense. While his opponents are searching for him, he’s hitting them. Not known as a big puncher, he overwhelms opponents and breaks them down with his rapid-fire combinations. This calls to mind Henry Armstrong. The late great sportswriter Jim Murray, a master of hyperbole, likened Armstrong to a rockslide. His opponents, said Murray, got the feeling they were fighting a man with three arms.
This analogy may be a bit of stretch. Armstrong once knocked out 27 men in succession. For a better comparison, I would suggest going back far deeper into the recesses of time and getting reacquainted with Daniel Mendoza, the slickest of the early bare-knuckle boxers.
A Sephardic Jew born in London, Mendoza was briefly recognized as the champion of England, tantamount in those days to being the heavyweight champion of the world. Standing only five-foot-seven and carrying about 160 pounds, he was almost always smaller than his opponent. “He was the first to truly put the ‘science’ in the Sweet Science,” says the blurb about him at the IBHOF web site. “More than any previous fighter, Mendoza relied on footwork, jabs, and defense rather than brute force.”
I don’t trust all that has been written about Mendoza, or about any other antiquarian prizefighter of note, for that matter, but it is a fact that Mendoza in his heyday was extremely popular. He was the first fighter to give exhibitions at respectable music halls.
What made Mendoza so popular was that his style was unique. He was a darter who moved in and out of his opponents’ range like a pesky gnat. Finding a facsimile was a head-scratcher. Because Mendoza was such a consummate ring artist, all comparisons were imperfect. By all accounts, he was the Lomachenko of his day.
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