SEVEN months after the coronavirus shut down sports in the United States, boxing fans finally got what they were waiting for on October 17 when Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez met in the “bubble” at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. It was a high profile fight to unify the four major 135-pound titles. And it would be televised on ESPN – the most anticipated fight on “free” television in the United States since Keith Thurman fought Danny Garcia on CBS 43 months ago.

Lomachenko turned pro on October 10, 2013, after a stellar amateur career that saw him win two Olympic gold medals on behalf of Ukraine and compile an other-worldly amateur record of more than 300 wins against a single loss. Now 32 years old, he had been at or near the top of most pound-for-pound lists for much of his pro career while building a 14-1 (10) record and annexing belts at 126, 130, and 135 pounds. He entered the ring to face Lopez holding the WBC, WBA, and WBO lightweight titles.

Lomachenko carries himself like a champion and has always been willing to go in tough. But in recent years, due to the economics and politics of boxing, his opposition has been frustratingly limited. The 23-year-old Lopez, 15-0 (12), represented a refreshingly stern challenge. Fast-tracked for stardom by Top Rank, Teofimo was the 2018 ESPN and Ring Magazine “prospect of the year.” On December 14, 2019, he knocked out Richard Commey in the second round to claim the IBF 135-pound title.

It wasn’t easy for Top Rank (which promotes both fighters) to put the promotional pieces for Lomachenko-Lopez together. Under normal circumstances, the fight might have sold out Madison Square Garden. But the pandemic precluded a live gate in New York, and holding the fight in other jurisdictions posed similar problems. A pay-per-view promotion was possible. But major PPV cards in the United States carry a price tag in the neighbourhood of 75 dollars. And the only major pay-per-view card in America since the pandemic began – the September 26 doubleheader featuring Jermall and Jermell Charlo – drew poorly.

Teofimo Lopez

Eventually, ESPN offered a license fee large enough to pay Lomachenko a purse of roughly $3.25 million while Lopez received $1.5 million. Arum spoke without hyperbole when he said, “It’s clearly the best fight since the pandemic started. It would have been a major fight even without the pandemic, and now it’s being shown to the public without an extra charge. Nobody [in the United States] has to pay five cents to watch it. If they’re a cable subscriber or a satellite subscriber, they get it for nothing.”

In the United Kingdom, the bout was distributed by FITE at a cost of £9.99.

ESPN promoted the Lomachenko-Lopez telecast heavily on multiple platforms. Lomachenko, by winning three belts at lightweight and standing at or near the top of most the pound-for-pound lists, had done the heavy lifting to give the fight its elite status. There was talk of the bout being a “grudge” match because the fighters were trained by their respective fathers and Lopez and his father were shooting off their mouths a lot. But no one had kicked anyone’s dog, insulted anyone’s wife, or stolen anything that belonged to the other fighter.

Soundbites that Lopez offered included, “I don’t like the guy and I’m going to have fun as Lomachenko’s face is beaten and marked up by my hands… The takeover is here and the reign of Lomachenko, the little diva, is coming to an end… I don’t like the way he carries himself. After this fight, I don’t want to hear about him or talk about him again… I don’t think any fighter has ever given Loma this much disrespect. I don’t give a s**t about him… I’m not looking at Lomachenko. I’m looking through him… Loma is on his way out. I’m on my way in.”

Lomachenko (unlike Lopez) is not one to run his mouth. But as time passed, he responded: “I’ve heard this a lot of times from a lot of boxers. Then you come in the ring and you forgot about your words and your promise. For me, it’s just trash talk, it’s just words. We’ll see what happens in the ring… Teofimo Lopez can talk all he wants. He’s very good at talking. He has done nothing but say my name for the past two years. When we fight in Las Vegas, he will eat my punches and his words… I don’t like them [Teofimo and his father] because they’ve been talking bad things about me. I want to beat him very badly, very, very badly… In my country, if you insult somebody, you’d better be prepared for them to hurt you. If I get a chance to cause him pain, I’m going to do it.”

The odds were 7-to-2 in Lomachenko’s favour. But most insiders thought the fight shaped up as being much closer than that.

Lomachenko’s partisans noted that, while each man had 15 previous professional fights, Vasiliy had won two Olympic gold medals, fought far tougher competition in the pros than Lopez had, and established himself as an elite boxer. Also, Lomachenko had gone 12 rounds on five occasions while Lopez had fought past six rounds only twice.

“I started to watch his fights, “Lomachenko said during an interview on ESPN. “And I started to learn him. He is an excellent puncher. He has a high boxing IQ. He is younger. But I have vast experience during my fights in 12 rounds. So we will see how he can hold his own during the fight.”

However, on the other side of the coin, Lopez would be the most dangerous opponent that Lomachenko had faced. He had the freshness and audacity of youth on his side and the power to turn the fight around with one punch.

Teofimo’s size was perhaps his biggest advantage. As Lomachenko has moved up in weight, the size and strength of opponents has blunted the superiority afforded him by his ring craftsmanship. “One-thirty-five is not my weight class,” Vasiliy conceded. “For me, my weight class that is more comfortable is 130. But I need four belts. I need to be the undisputed world champion. That is why I moved to 135.”

Teofimo Lopez

Lopez punched harder than anyone Lomachenko had fought and would enter the ring as the much bigger man. He’d turned pro at 133 pounds and could easily move to 140. “I’m a big lightweight,” Teofimo proclaimed. “Come October, 17, I’m going to bring him back down to 130. This is not his weight class.”

Few people expected Lopez to outbox Lomachenko. But Teofimo is at a point in his career where he’s getting more skilled and stronger with the passage of time. Vasiliy, by contrast, seems to have plateaued and might be on the verge of decline. It wouldn’t be shocking, insiders agreed, if Lopez were to turn the tide with one big shot or break Lomachenko down with a sustained body attack.

“He’s very talented,” Teofimo said. “And so am I.”

It was all talk. On Saturday night, the action began.

There were two introductory fights on the ESPN telecast. In the first, Edgar Berlanga sought to extend his consecutive first-round knockout streak to fifteen against Lanell Bellows. No one thought Bellows would win. The question was whether Lanell (who had never been knocked out but hadn’t faced much in the way of competition) would survive the first round. He didn’t. Then Arnold Barbosa won a 10-round decision over Alex Saucedo.

Meanwhile, the ESPN telecast was marked by over-the-top claims that sounded like dubious advertising in a presidential campaign. Blow-by-blow commentator Joe Tessitore proclaimed that Lomachenko-Lopez was “the biggest fight that boxing can make” (which might come as a surprise to fans who are hoping for Fury-Joshua). He also called televising the fight on ESPN “a paradigm shift for the sport.”

In a different time, Lomachenko-Lopez would have been contested in a packed house at Madison Square Garden with partisans on both sides cheering for their standard-bearer. In this instance the Nevada State Athletic Commission had ruled that 250 fans and members of the media could be present. Tickets were distributed primarily to the fighters’ camps and to first responders who had worked to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. No tickets were available for sale to the general public.

One day earlier, Lomachenko had ignored social distancing guidelines after the Friday weigh-in (each fighter weighed 135 pounds) and moved aggressively into Lopez’s space. But when the bell rang for round one of their actual fight, that aggression was lacking.

The notes I took during the fight read as follows:

Round 1: A feeling out round. Lopez trying to engage behind a marginally effective jab. Lomachenko fighting cautiously. Very cautiously.

Round 2: Lomachenko throwing next to nothing which is allowing Lopez to gain confidence and believe that he belongs in the ring with him. One gets the feeling that Lopez can hurt Lomachenko more than Lomachenko can hurt Lopez.

Round 3: Lopez the aggressor. Lomachenko isn’t looking to land as much as he’s looking to avoid confrontations. He hardly looks like a generational talent.

Round 4: Lopez fighting a smart disciplined fight. His power – or Lomachenko’s fear of it – is the key factor so far. Lomachenko is doing virtually nothing to score points.

Round 5: More of the same. Lomachenko letting Lopez dictate the pace of the fight, not showing much in the way of angles and not letting his hands go. Vasiliy usually does more than just frustrate opponents; he hurts them. Right now, he’s doing neither.

Round 6: Lopez stalking. Virtually no offence from Lomachenko. He’s conceding round after round, doing little damage to Lopez and not doing much to tire Lopez out. If this was at MSG, the crowd would be booing.

Round 7: Lopez in command. Not only is he bigger, he seems to be almost as fast as Lomachenko.

Round 8: Finally, Lomachenko becoming more aggressive, opening up. Lopez willingly trading with him.

Round 9: Lopez coasting a bit.

Round 10: Lomachenko throwing more and landing more. Lopez standing his ground.

Round 11: Lomachenko throwing, scoring.

Round 12: Lomachenko going all out. Lopez standing his ground and finishing stronger. Teofimo cut badly on his right eyelid from a headbutt near the end of the round. This was Teofimo’s coming out party.

This writer scored the bout 116-112 for Lopez, giving Lomachenko rounds eight through eleven. That was identical to Tim Cheatham’s scorecard. Steve Weisfeld scored it 117-111. It’s hard to know what Julie Lederman was thinking to get to 119-109 in Teofimo’s favour.

As for the future; it’s good for boxing to have another talented young fighter in the mix, and Lopez meets that criteria. The number of viewers who tuned in for Lomachenko-Lopez will be a significant factor in determining the extent to which television networks in the United States are willing to underwrite quality fights on free television in the year ahead. It would be nice to see Lopez in the ring against Devin Haney or Ryan Garcia assuming that one of both of those fighters wins his next already-scheduled fight. But because of boxing’s parallel promotional worlds, the chance of Lopez fighting either of these men anytime soon is slim.

Teofimo Lopez

Alternatively, Lopez could move to 140 pounds. Or we might see Lopez-Lomachenko II promoted with the suggestion that Lomachenko figured Lopez out in the second half of their first fight and would do better in a rematch.

Meanwhile, Lomachenko-Lopez could lead to a reevaluation of Lomachenko’s greatness. Vasiliy’s fights have long been portrayed as being about his extraordinary technical prowess and physical conditioning rather than the ability to dig deep and gut a fight out. Indeed, in the two fights when Lomachenko was called upon to gut it out – first against Orlando Salido and now against Lopez – he came up short.

One might say that, when Lomachenko was tested, greatness was lacking. Or one might say that, against a skilled opponent with a big punch, 135 pounds was simply a bridge too far.

Thomas Hauser’s next book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing  – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.

Teofimo Lopez (135lbs), 16-0 (12), w pts 12 Vasiliy Lomachenko (135lbs), 14-2 (10); Arnold Barboza Jnr (140lbs), 25-0 (10), w pts 10 Alex Saucedo (140lbs), 30-2 (19); Josue Vargas (142lbs), 18-1 (9), w pts 10 Kendo Castaneda (142lbs), 17-3 (8); Edgar Berlanga (169lbs), 15-0 (15), w rsf 1 Lanell Bellows (169lbs), 26-6-3 (13); Jose Vivas (128lbs), 20-1 (11), w rsf 1 John Miralde (127lbs), 23-4 (13); Quinton Randall (147lbs), 7-0 (2), w pts 6 Jan Carlos Rivera (146lbs), 4-1 (4); Jahi Tucker (145lbs), 2-0 (1), w pts 4 Charles Garner (142lbs), 1-1.