Opinion | Sep 01 2019

BN Verdict: Genius Lomachenko plays teacher to Campbell’s A-grade student

Vasyl Lomachenko adds the WBC lightweight belt to his WBA and WBO versions and serves up a masterclass against plucky Luke Campbell, writes Elliot Worsell
Vasyl Lomachenko
Luke Campbell faces the ultimate test in Vasyl Lomachenko Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

EVEN his name is a riddle these days.

Some say it’s Vasyl Lomachenko. Others elect for Vasiliy.

Tonight’s promoters, meanwhile, took to scrawling ‘Vasily’ on the door of the WBA and WBO lightweight champion’s O2 Arena changing room, a new spin on his first name certainly wrong but perhaps an attempt to claim the smallest of victories on a night when only moral ones were available.

Either way, for them, and for Luke Campbell, it was as good as it was ever going to get.

(To avoid further confusion, let’s just call the Ukrainian ‘genius’, which is presumably what ‘Loma’ means in English, and be done with it. Genius, after all, is universal. His genius is now undeniable.)

To try and beat Vasyl Lomachenko in 2019 is to try and catch water. Two hands won’t do. Nor, it seems, will cool hands.

Luke Campbell, owner of a couple of cool hands, knew this before tonight but can now officially add his name to a list of fighters who have believed and tried but ultimately succumbed to boxing’s finest technician and been left only with homework.

Of the victories available, Campbell achieved a moral one in lasting the distance and a surprising if short-lived one when rocking Lomachenko in the seventh round. He also managed to win Lomachenko’s respect for not quitting as so many have done before him.

But, of course, he came nowhere near winning the actual fight and taking home the WBA, WBC and WBO world lightweight titles. Two belonged to Lomachenko beforehand, and now the vacant third, the WBC, does as well. As if it was ever in doubt.

Lomachenko
Lomachenko relaxes (Action Images/Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)

Still, during the first round of the fight some will have set Campbell’s nervy, focused work against Lomachenko’s reluctance to punch and considered it a positive start for the Brit. And it was, I suppose, especially given the damning pre-fight forecasts and cries of mismatch.

Yet, equally, those familiar with the approach knew Lomachenko, keen to analyse movement and mannerisms, was merely letting Campbell hold the controller, briefly letting him play the game, before planning to unplug him once he had built up a sweat and the real game had begun. Clues were in the head movement, the parries, the shifting feet and the head nods. To say he knew what he was doing would be an understatement.

Oblivious to this, Campbell never stopped believing. Unlike other Lomachenko opponents, he kept the faith and whipped in body shots to keep Lomachenko honest, as well as long backhands which kept the Ukrainian wary of rushing him too much. He gave the impression of being in the fight, even if by now only Lomachenko was plugged in and playing.

Occasionally, the champion would have to remind him of this. He would reveal to Campbell he was participating in a one-player game. When wanting to punch, for instance, he would punch. When he wanted punches to land, they invariably landed. It seemed, too, that whenever he wanted to hurt Campbell, he managed to hurt him, and all that was required to achieve this was for Lomachenko to throw punches with increased snap and to fashion rapid-fire combinations when trapping the challenger against the ropes.

The impact of these shots could be seen on Campbell’s face and in his body language. It was evident in the way he shelled up whenever Lomachenko decided to soar through the gears and remind him that only one fighter was walking away with three world titles tonight.

It was a masterclass, the kind rare these days. It was a masterclass of footwork, agility and head movement. Moreover, it was a lesson in how a boxer can beat up an opponent mentally without so much as even throwing punches and then use this approach, all stemming from the feet and an ability to suffocate with movement, to weaken them physically as a fight progresses. Don’t try it at home. Only a few are special enough to fight this way. But do watch and appreciate just how difficult a feat it is to achieve.

In this case, by the fifth round Campbell’s beating had switched from mental to physical and Lomachenko was now making an impression with sickening body shots. He turned the screw on the Brit and Campbell, with seconds to go in the round, was left cowering by the ropes, praying for the bell to sound. Thankfully, for his sake, it soon did.

Interestingly, whenever Campbell enjoyed even a sliver of success in the early going, Lomachenko could be seen nodding his head. A mark of respect, perhaps. A sign of encouragement. However, in the sixth, when Campbell landed a shot it was noticeable that he shook rather than nodded his head and it was clear then that the champion’s mindset had switched from that of a teacher guiding a student through a lesson to that of a world champion intent on dismantling a challenger. It was then things started looking ominous for Campbell.

There was greater urgency on Lomachenko’s part, too, when Campbell stunned him in the seventh round with a left uppercut. This shot, Campbell’s best, wobbled the champion momentarily and had the Hull favourite’s supporters on their feet but, alas, amounted to not much more than a souvenir, a collector’s item.

Not only that, Lomachenko’s reaction to this minor crisis was almost as brilliant as the rest of his work. Because, rather than panic, he simply tucked up, went small and low, stayed small and low, and moments later fired a compact right hook in close, thrown from a crouch, which caught Campbell and shifted the momentum in an instant. It was the very definition of staying composed under fire and Lomachenko, to the surprise of no one, ended the round on top, chasing Campbell about the ring, and added the seventh – what could have been a crisis round – to the many others he had won.

In fact, the only other round Campbell seemed to clearly win, aside from the uneventful first, was the ninth. And, let’s be honest, there’s every chance Lomachenko decided to take that one off too.

If he did, it set him up perfectly for a solid tenth and an even better eleventh, the round in which he smashed Campbell’s body to bits and finally registered a knockdown. A straight left and screw shot to the solar plexus did the damage and Campbell no longer tried, or had the energy, to fight it. The pain was too much. The opponent and task was too much. He would have been forgiven for staying down.

But no. Instead, to his credit, Campbell, a student with boundless potential, pulled himself upright and saw out the lesson. In doing so, he won the respect of the teacher – if not the fight – and accepted scorecards of 119-108 (twice) and 118-109 replete with red lines and others markings, as well as a A-grade for effort.  

Vasyl Lomachenko vs Luke Campbell
Campbell lasts the distance in gallant effort (Action Images/Reuters/Andrew Couldridge)

Safe to say, Luke Campbell, 20-3 (16), even in defeat, is a new star in the lightweight division. Meanwhile, Vasyl Lomachenko, simply put, is a new kind of superstar. The best kind of superstar. He is a superstar for whom talking with fists truly is an approach tangible and sensible and bankable. He is a superstar whose broken English does zero damage to his popularity. Rather, it enhances it.

Fluent with his fists, Lomachenko’s inability to express or explain himself in English only adds to the mystery and intrigue. Like a legendary auteur, his work speaks for itself and would suffer for being diluted and explained for the benefit of the masses. Instead, best to sit back, watch and ask no questions. Us: watch and appreciate. Opponents: watch and learn.

The British fans who sold out the O2 Arena in double-quick time understood this. They came out in numbers for Lomachenko and treated him like some rare animal at the zoo, shipped in from overseas to ogle and admire from afar. They wanted to see him in his natural habitat and to take pictures. They wanted to be able to one day say they were there. They saw him. He was real. And yes, he was every bit as great as they’d have you believe.

Campbell, on the other hand, was, at the start of the night, more akin to a domestic pet: comfortable, familiar, likeable. A dog, or a cat, he was someone the UK fans had witnessed countless times before, someone whose appeal stemmed from immense likeability rather than atypical ability.

If some choose to describe Lomachenko’s moves as ‘boxing porn’, Campbell was tonight the male talent. He was mostly off-camera, unimportant, needed only as Lomachenko’s foil. But that of course says more about Lomachenko than it does Campbell.

All eyes were on Lomachenko, 14-1 (10), because he is different, extraordinary, the rarest of species. Without a direct descendent, let alone a peer, he is rewriting rules and inventing fresh tricks in this oldest of sports. He has fellow fighters fawning over him and proclaiming his greatness and has invited these testimonies without bothering to contribute to the campaign, much less expound his own brilliance.

Show, don’t tell.

That’s the Vasyl Lomachenko mantra and, combined with some otherworldly skills, it’s what makes him different. It’s what makes him different to the chasing pack. It’s what makes him different to those who paved the way. It’s what allows him to somehow make an old and simple sport like fist-fighting look, well, different.

It’s also why tonight was no different to any other night.

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