Opinion

Following Lomachenko

Vasyl Lomachenko vs Luke Campbell
Declan Warrington recalls a memorable week a year ago following Anthony Crolla and Vasiliy Lomachenko across Los Angeles for a clinical world title fight

IF fighting Vasiliy Lomachenko for the WBA and WBO lightweight titles represented the biggest challenge of Anthony Crolla’s fine career, the final days leading up to his toughest fight perhaps represented some of the most eventful.

After a majority decision victory over the unremarkable Frank Urquiaga at the Manchester Arena, Crolla announced his retirement at the age of 32. Seven months before then, as Lomachenko’s mandatory challenger, he fought the most remarkable active fighter of them all.

One year on, Crolla is content with his achievements and Lomachenko continues to be widely considered the finest fighter in the world. If it wasn’t his most complete performance, there may yet come a time when the victory over Crolla is considered his most destructive. Boxing News revisits a fight week unlike few others.

Monday April 8 2019

After arriving in Los Angeles, and ahead of the start of the fight week build-up Lomachenko’s influential promoters Top Rank had labelled “LA-Chenko”, BN learned of the frustration Anthony Crolla and his trainer Joe Gallagher had felt at Top Rank’s attempts to book him into a hotel based in Costa Mesa, near the Newport beach made famous by the  popular noughties television series The O.C. and over 40 miles away from the Staples Center Crolla would be challenging Lomachenko in. If potentially travelling in excess of 80 miles, daily, across a city notorious for its traffic for the remainder of that week’s build-up and then fight was already beyond inconvenient, they were also being asked to do so by a promoter who had long implied Crolla was not a worthy opponent, and whose motivation was almost certainly to unsettle a fighter already considered a significant underdog.

Gallagher and Crolla had responded by hiring a villa considerably closer to the Staples in Downtown LA. There may have been few predicting victory for the Briton, but his investment was regardless a demonstration of his intention and desire to win – he viewed Friday evening’s fight as far from the retirement purse others had regarded it.

Tuesday April 9 2019

The Lomachenko-Crolla media workouts took place in the dark confines of the Ukrainian Cultural Center – between West Hollywood and Melrose Hill, an area sufficiently urban that Costa Mesa may never have had greater appeal – when it was otherwise difficult to avoid the glorious sunshine brightening the rest of LA. “We’re in the hood out here, aren’t we?” Crolla’s promoter Eddie Hearn acknowledged upon his arrival.

Hearn, like Crolla and Gallagher, had refreshingly shown up comfortably before Crolla’s workout was due to begin. Lomachenko and his promoter Bob Arum, perhaps predictably, did not. While Crolla waited for his workout to start, the passionate Gallagher, in conversation with those from Sky Sports, could be heard questioning Sky Sports’ boxing content. Speaking to BN, Gallagher later insisted that he considered Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and not Lomachenko, the world’s finest fighter.

For the majority of the media in attendance, Crolla became little more than an afterthought once Lomachenko had arrived, regardless of the Ukrainian’s limited interest in being interviewed. But it was at that point that what was to become a regular theme was first witnessed – one member of Lomachenko’s team followed Crolla around to watch him, without communicating with him or invading his personal space, in a simple attempt to unnerve him. Lomachenko’s casual approach to his workout mattered little; even then his exceptional skills and coordination truly impressed.

Vasyl Lomachenko defeats Anthony Crolla
Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Wednesday April 10 2019

The final press conference, staged at the Staples, again showed Crolla to be a fighter full of confidence. Lomachenko remained the centre of attention, but Crolla, dressed to impress in distinct grey-and-matching shirt and trousers, could barely have been more relaxed – the years of valuable experience, and his previous achievements, had given him the freedom to relish an occasion that had once looked beyond his reach.

Arum, delivering his insult playfully but unable to hide a sense of animosity likely owing to Hearn’s ambitions with DAZN, insisted that Hearn “didn’t know dick” about promoting; Hearn accused him of still being frustrated at being “outmanoeuvred” when Crolla became established as Lomachenko’s mandatory challenger. The mysterious member of Lomachenko’s entourage again used the same tactics to attempt to unsettle his latest opponent; if Crolla was again unmoved, the tense Gallagher – who had so far forbidden media access to his fighter at their villa – instructed members of their team to block his view of Crolla. Again speaking to BN, Gallagher, typically studious, spoke with relish of attempting to “solve the Rubik’s cube” Lomachenko represented, and of how developing fighters’ tactics in preparation for Andre Ward was more straightforward.

Thursday April 11 2019

The funeral for rapper Nipsey Hussle, shot dead in LA and, incidentally, someone BN had never heard of, proved such a significant occasion that even those whose chief interest was the weigh-in for Lomachenko-Crolla were unable to avoid it. The true weigh-in had been staged in private that morning, in anticipation of the difficulties involved in attempting one that afternoon when the public memorial was unfolding at the Staples.

A public weigh-in still took place, and close to the Staples, but by then the fighters had started to rehydrate; they regardless stood on the scales, as their promotional obligations dictated, while that morning’s weights were announced like they were being recorded at that very point. Intriguingly, at that morning’s weigh-in, Gallagher had confronted the retired Ward, present in his capacity as a media analyst, to demand that he fight Callum Smith. When the accent of one British journalist, standing at six foot and approaching 13 stones, was overheard on the way to the weigh-in he was asked, seriously, by one member of staff near the Staples if he was the Briton fighting Lomachenko the following evening. From an American perspective, the British challenger, a proven world champion, was truly considered little more than a participant.

The hearse carrying Hussle’s body left the Staples at around the same time the weigh-in was concluding. Hearn’s Matchroom had organised a media event at a restaurant that in normal circumstances would have been little more than five minutes’ walk from the weigh-in, but the staggering crowds in attendance – beneath numerous helicopters, both media and police, overseeing the occasion – tripled that. Hussle’s death had resonated on both sides of LA’s long-term gang conflict – between the Crips and Bloods – and, even early on a Thursday afternoon, the streets could not have been more populated with mourners. Similarly palpable was the overwhelming tension and emotion among those crowds. Regardless of the obvious desire to respect the occasion, so many police were there for a reason. Very little was required for so many of those distraught, to the point of openly weeping, to react unfavourably – and to potentially disastrous effect. BN was among those with little choice but to attempt to negotiate those crowds, through roads closed to traffic, before reaching the relevant restaurant; another British journalist arrived at that same restaurant shortly afterwards and, having made a similar journey, was visibly shaken at the potential for danger.

If those crowds had meant that the start of the Matchroom event was delayed – it eventually took place in that restaurant’s outdoor area, and therefore on those same streets – those waiting had become engrossed by the funeral procession continuing on live television. The hearse was, for one lengthy period, flanked by a LA-based group of Hell’s Angels; by the time Matchroom’s event had started only Princess Diana’s funeral, of those in Britain, had felt comparably significant.

Scott Quigg, then training with Freddie Roach at LA’s esteemed Wild Card Boxing Club, told BN that one of the reasons he was relishing life in LA was because “here, everyone genuinely wishes you well and wants the best for you; at home, they want you to fail”. A local, discussing the funeral that was still unfolding and that still had everyone’s attention, explained, simply, “He’s a celebrity, and this is LA”.

Friday April 12 2019

Shortly before Crolla started his ring walk, BN learned that the same member of Lomachenko’s entourage who had spent so much of that week stalking Crolla was the individual chosen to watch him get his hands wrapped, pre-fight. The Mancunian had a reasonable following at the Staples, but that following would have feared the worst when, towards the end of a relatively competitive opening round, Lomachenko accelerated his efforts and landed a powerful right hand that hurt his challenger and gave him that round. The stoppage that followed after 58 seconds of the fourth was perhaps the most clinical of his career.

The post-fight press conference was dominated, almost entirely and rather shamelessly, by sycophantic questions directed at Lomachenko. For his part, the champion remained unmoved.

*

Three days later at LAX, BN encountered one of Crolla’s friends and was told that the fighter was considering abandoning his plans to take the short flight to Las Vegas for a holiday, because of the devastation he felt at his defeat. He had truly believed he was capable of victory.

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