ONCE the boxer who all fans adored and every up-and-coming fighter daydreamed of becoming, Vasiliy Lomachenko, at 35 years old, is suddenly in a fight to save his career. A one-sided loss to Devin Haney and he’ll be cast aside as yesterday’s news, merely the latest boxer to fall at Father Time’s feet. Haney, 11 years the Ukrainian’s junior, might then take his place as the sport’s new invincible man. But he too will one day experience what many are predicting will happen to Lomachenko on Saturday night inside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. They all do.
The circle of life, particularly in its truncated boxing form, is agonisingly cruel. No sooner have all the hours in the gym paid off, when everything is flowing beautifully, the shots crack and the target unmissable than the trigger gets jammed, the bullets fall short and the ability to withstand or avoid any return fire diminishes. It’s a familiar story with an inevitable end.
But it still seems hard to believe that Lomachenko, of all people, will this weekend go the same way as the rest. Not so long ago the untouchable magician, one so in tune with his box of tricks that all who faced them were left with a feeling of grave inadequacy, the Ukrainian southpaw – who some have argued is as talented as any boxer in history – is today the underdog for the first time in his professional career.
Haney, the 2/5 favourite, may not have wowed audiences like Lomachenko used to, but there’s a buzz surrounding the Sin City resident that suggests he soon will. The world lightweight champion is unbeaten in 29 fights and since he stepped up to outclass an ageing Yuriorkis Gamboa in November 2019, he’s been harvesting that reputation as a premier – if slightly risk averse – marksman. Even if Lomachenko was at the height of his peak, and at 35 he simply can’t be, ‘The Dream’ would have been a formidable opponent.
However, it’s worth remembering that Devin is yet to beat a boxer who could claim to be truly elite or at their best. Much of our belief that Haney is extra special is based largely on what we presume is still to come, as opposed to what we’ve already witnessed. Gamboa was years into his decline when he was widely outpointed, Jorge Linares – though he gave Haney plenty to think about in May 2021 – had seen better days, and George Kambosos Jnr, from whom Haney took the championship, was last year made to look decidedly ordinary not once but twice.
Of course, great boxers are in the business of making very good boxers appear that way. But, for now, the feeling is that Kambosos’ upset win over Teofimo Lopez was as much a case of Lopez fighting poorly as it was the Aussie proving his class at the highest level. But if you’re going to follow the logic that Lopez beat Lomachenko, as he did in 2020, therefore Kambosos must be better than Lomachenko by virtue of his victory over Teofimo, you could – just about – argue that Haney is about to hand the Ukrainian his most comprehensive loss since his amateur days.
Lomachenko, the two-time Olympic and two-time World champion in the vest, blamed injuries for his loss to Lopez. Though wide on the cards (116-112, 119-109 and 117-111), plenty felt that Lomachenko had hacked away at an early deficit and was only pipped by a round or two at the contest’s conclusion. Whatever the reasons for the defeat, or the margins of it, it was the latest encounter that seemed to confirm Loma was fading.
Perhaps the first sign occurred when he had to pull himself off the canvas to beat Linares in a thriller in 2018. Jose Pedraza subsequently gave him a tougher than expected tussle and though Anthony Crolla was thrashed in the interim, Luke Campbell also exceeded expectations as he landed several blows on the once unhittable man before losing on points in 2019.
Lomachenko sees things differently. “Inside, my ego was very, very big,” he explains about that period of his career which culminated in defeat to Teofimo. “A lot of people didn’t see this. But after the loss, I saw myself. I started changing after this moment.”
Though they’d only dare whisper it in the company of boxing aficionados, some might suggest that Lomachenko has been overrated all along. And if asked to pinpoint the finest victories in his 17-2 (11) career, that viewpoint suddenly and unexpectedly comes into stark focus. Gary Russell Jnr, then 24-0, was beaten by Loma in just his third paid outing and it remains one of his best wins on paper. Though he went on to humiliate Nicholas Walters, Jason Sosa, Miguel Marriaga and a blown-up Guillermo Rigondeaux in stunning four-fight spree at super-feather from 2016 to 2017, it’s undeniable that Lomachenko’s peak lacked a fitting rival.
Up at lightweight, besting an in-form but slowing Linares is arguably the standout result of his entire career and those aforementioned wins over Pedraza, Crolla and Campbell came in good company, but it wasn’t until he encountered Lopez – and lost – that he faced an opponent who was thought beforehand to have any chance of winning.
So, if we’re to say that Haney is yet to meet anyone as good as Lomachenko, it’s imperative to consider that the opposite might also be true. Loma needs Haney as much as Haney needs him, though for different reasons. Should he win and win well against a boxer deemed younger and quicker, Lomachenko’s case for true greatness becomes open and shut. For Haney, victory over an older and slower rival will only strengthen his reputation in the here and now. For both, however, anything less than a triumph could be seen as a disaster. With the stakes so high, it’s a fight that’s impossible to resist and one that’s been in the making for several years.
Four years ago, when Haney was only 20, he started calling for Lomachenko. And last year, negotiations were at an advanced stage when Vasiliy opted to stay in Ukraine and join his country in their fight against the Russian invasion. “He made me wait four years to fight him,” said Haney. “So, I don’t like Loma, I want to beat him bad. I want to send him into retirement.”
Walking away has yet to cross Lomachenko’s mind. Though his best years were likely at the lower weights, he rejected the chance to return to super-featherweight after the defeat to Lopez. “Perhaps I could have dropped back down [to 130lbs] but because my defeat came at lightweight, that was where we felt we had to stay,” said Lomachenko. “Otherwise, it was like admitting failure.”
Vasiliy returned in June 2021 with an emphatic ninth round stoppage of Masayoshi Nakatani, followed six months later with a lopsided 12-round points win over Richard Commey and, most recently, in October 2022, a more competitive distance win over the talented but unproven Jamaine Ortiz.
Lomachenko insists he is obsessed with winning this contest. It will provide him with the chance to hold all four belts for the first time and remind everyone what a once-in-a-generation talent he remains. “I go to bed with this dream,” he said. “I wake up with this dream. That’s big, big motivation.”
It’s what the greatest boxers can do. As they get older, and when they need it most, they deliver a majestic showpiece that strengthens their legacy. One could compare it to Roberto Duran beating Davey Moore and Iran Barkley in the 1980s. Perhaps we can also liken it to Sugar Ray Leonard rolling back the years against Marvin Hagler. But Haney, if what we’ve witnessed thus far is indeed a fair indication of what’s to come, is a more complete opponent than either Moore or Barkley and at a very different stage of his career than Hagler was back in 1987.
Haney wants that legendary status for himself. “I want my name to be remembered forever and with each fight I’m a step closer to that,” he said. “I don’t fight for the money, I fight for legacy and that’s what separates me from all the fighters today. They’re fighting for the wrong things. But I’m different, I’m a throwback.”
Haney fights smartly, with every facet of his game efficient and hard to trump. His lead hand is long and spearing, the accompanying overhand right is a punch to admire and his left hook, delivered spitefully when up close, is a weapon that’s both snazzy and hard to avoid. There are nearly always question marks about his ability to make lightweight, however, such is his zombie-like appearance on the scales on the eve of battle. But we’re yet to see him appear weakened on fight night. And against Lomachenko, who has no problems making 135, he will be able to boast a reach advantage of just shy of six inches.
Though basic, almost rudimentary analysis, that wingspan would appear the key to victory for the younger man, particularly if he can get his jab on target during the early exchanges. And even in the hardest of fights, it can often come down to who can execute the basics most effectively.
If Lomachenko is to win, one senses he’ll have to do so from the front, make Haney miss early and regularly, and take control from the start. But if Haney bosses the opening three rounds, for example, Lomachenko – even with his wise old head – could be forced to take chances, the kind that Haney can exploit, just to play catchup. And though the younger man, the American does not fight with abandon of youth. His priority is never to wow or entertain, it is only to win and if the formula is working early, do not expect him to stray too far from it.
That’s not to say that Haney is the pick to win a shutout. Even if the fight is slipping away, expect Lomachenko to have success. Though his best years are behind him, the feeling here is that he will be buoyed by the occasion and a desire to prove his doubters wrong. Do not underestimate either his will to win or his sense of patriotism during a very difficult time for his country. Lomachenko will need every ounce of his mental fortitude to remain competitive.
We expect that to be the case. Lomachenko, not ready to succumb to retirement, can win rounds and teach Haney plenty along the way. But Devin has more than just youth on his side, and he’ll deserve the decision that’s awarded to him after 12 enthralling sessions.
In chief-support, there is a decent super-flyweight battle contested over the championship distance when Japanese southpaw Junto Nakatani, 24-0 (18), takes on Australia’s Andrew Moloney, 25-2 (16).
Moloney is ranked sixth to Nakatani’s seventh among the 115lbs contenders but we expect Junto, a former belt-holder at flyweight, to win on the cards. The vacant WBO strap is on the line.
In 10-rounders, Californian lightweight starlet Raymond Muratalla, 17-0 (14), could be taught a thing or two by the robust but likely rusty Namibian Jeremia Nakathila, 23-2 (19), while Mexico’s Oscar Valdez, 30-1 (23), fights for the first time since losing to Shakur Stevenson 13 months ago. Glendale’s Adam Lopez, 16-4 (6), will provide the target practice.
THE VERDICT – Lomachenko will need to be at his very best to win but we’re not sure if that version of Loma exists anymore.