THE last time Vasiliy Lomachenko appeared in a boxing ring he was transported to London, England like some exotic animal, then studied like a magician’s hands by a 20,000-strong crowd whose cheers for his opponent, Luke Campbell, were mostly token and patriotic. It was for Lomachenko, after all, they had paid their money. They had paid to watch a fighter, not a fight.
On August 31, 2019, however, they got both: fighter and fight. Campbell played his part, even enjoying the odd moment of success, while Lomachenko, a technician known for perfection rather than drama, abandoned much of what made him untouchable to make a routine fight more entertaining than it needed to be.
It was clever. It was, like everything Lomachenko does, strategic. Yet this was a different kind of strategy to the usual. This was strategy on a larger scale. Forget the fight, the trip itself was strategic, with the event held in England because the Lomachenko legend had started to spread and more eyes wanted to see him. It was, we were led to believe, the fight to upgrade Lomachenko from a purist’s dream to a global superstar and it worked. Lomachenko, in winning both the fight and hearts, had ticked every box. He had, with five world titles in three weight classes already secured, set himself up for the next phase of his career.
But then along came 2020 and an opponent even Vasiliy Lomachenko couldn’t solve.
Now, in what is the best fight of the COVID-19 era, Lomachenko returns to the ring on Saturday (October 17) for the first time in 14 months against Teofimo Lopez before a crowd of no more than 250 people (The Bubble, MGM Grand, Las Vegas), most of whom will be first responders. It will feel like his acid test, something like a career-defining fight, and three world lightweight titles – WBA, IBF and WBO – will be up for grabs. Yet it will also feel like an exhibition, a comedown.
At 32, it’s the fight Lomachenko needs but not the setting he deserves. It will pale in comparison to his fight against Campbell but is twice as meaningful and twice as dangerous.
Luckily, Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic champion who competed for a world title in only his second pro bout, has seen it all – well, almost. He has won world titles at featherweight, super-featherweight and lightweight and scored standout victories against the likes of Guillermo Rigondeaux and Jorge Linares, from whom Lomachenko, 14-1 (10), grabbed his first lightweight championship in 2018.
It is hard to find many weaknesses in his game, never mind point them out, but such is Lomachenko’s excellence plenty will keep searching. His fights against Campbell and Jose Pedraza, for instance, were straightforward enough for the Ukrainian, at least in the sense that he won handily, yet still some people offer these performances as proof his powers could be starting to diminish. He went the distance with both. He was occasionally hit. The opponents didn’t quit the way others had done in the past.
“I don’t think about age because I’m just 32 years old,” Lomachenko said when asked about the prospect of deteriorating. “Who made the rules about age in boxing? It depends on your personal lifestyle. I feel great. I feel young.”
Rather than the number 32 being the issue, perhaps what shines an unusually bright light on Lomachenko’s age this time around is the fact that Teofimo Lopez, his next opponent, is so much younger and fresher at this stage in their respective careers. Lopez, at 23, is almost a decade Lomachenko’s junior and a fighter whose flaws are products not of damage taken but inexperience and ignorance. He fights like a young man. He talks like a young man. In his company, Lomachenko, though only 32, has, in a fighting sense, never seemed wearier.
Moreover, with this youthful vigour comes a fearlessness, both in the ring and on the microphone, and Lopez hasn’t been shy when outlining his ambitions. He has wanted this fight for a while and his belief, even when others questioned it, has never wavered.
“I heard this a lot of times from a lot of boxers,” Lomachenko said, referring to Lopez’s pre-fight confidence. “Then you come into the ring and forget about your words and what you promised. So, for me it’s just trash talk. For me it’s just words. We’ll see what happens in the ring.
“I know he is a tough fighter and a good fighter. It will not be easy for me. We’ll see.”
If Lomachenko’s 14-month hiatus has been far from ideal, Lopez sitting out the bulk of 2020 has been just as disappointing. The Brooklyn native had made some huge strides in 2019, competing four times and winning the IBF lightweight title in December, and appeared all set for a breakout, star-making year in 2020.
Alas, Lopez, like so many, was forced to sit on his hands and wait for his opportunity due to reasons beyond his control. At 23, he has time on his side, no doubt, but there is still a lot to be said for the momentum he was building in 2019 and the excitement generated, in particular, by a two-round demolition of Ghana’s Richard Commey in December.
That fight not only delivered Lopez his first world title as a pro but also saw him stop an opponent never before stopped with relentless aggression and no small amount of spite. He was, that night, patient yet menacing. He was poised and compact and impressively composed. He knew that standing in range with Commey and picking holes in the champion’s porous defence would be the best route to victory and he backed himself to follow it – and quickly. Calm and comfortable in the pocket, he timed Commey with a couple of slashing left hooks, one in the first round and another in the second, before walking him on to a fight-turning right hand. The fight ended soon after, its finish also well-timed.
The fight itself had been well-timed. Before it, Lopez, 15-0 (12), had looked out of sorts throughout a decision win against Japan’s Masayoshi Nakatani in July and the vultures were beginning to circle. He was, based on that showing, considered style over substance, the product of hype, and not fit to share the ring with the likes of Vasiliy Lomachenko. There was a feeling that he still had a lot to learn and that the biggest risk to him coming unstuck was his own impatience.
Yet there were reasons for his subpar performance against Nakatani. There were personal problems in the buildup, which stuck around and did their best to distract, and the opponent, too, all of 5ft 11ins, was a physical proposition Lopez, at 5ft 8ins, had never before encountered. His arms were long, his moves hard to predict. Lopez wasn’t so much overwhelmed as frustrated, content to just huff and puff his way towards his first 12-round decision.
The issues were understandable and the fight proved two things: one, that there is always a style out there to trouble even the most gifted and celebrated of prospects; and two, Lopez, for all his talent and punch power, remains very much a work in progress.
Even now, with an IBF title to his name and a date against Lomachenko on the horizon, Teofimo Lopez remains a work in progress, a prospect with a belt, a boxer whose potential trumps his achievement. However, being a work in progress, someone whose ceiling is unknown, does not mean he cannot defeat Vasiliy Lomachenko on Saturday night, nor that he is necessarily out of his depth. For again it all comes down to timing – timing of punches, timing of decisions – and never has that word been more appropriate than this year. In 2020, some things have been delayed and other things have been rushed. This fight may well have been both.
Ideally, a contest as intriguing as Lomachenko vs. Lopez should be taking place inside a sold-out arena and not at a time when people are only starting to venture outside. It should be taking place with both fighters at the peak of their powers – that is, active and fuelled by momentum, not impacted by a year of unpredictability, turbulence and confusion. It should also be taking place at a time when we can be a little surer of how the two fighters – young and old, master and apprentice – match up. Which is to say, it would have been nice not to have to rely on archetypes and for Lopez to have at least made a defence of his belt before tackling what is unquestionably the toughest test of his career.
Sadly, though, with so many belts available these days, a battle between champions has lost most if not all of its prestige and Lopez, at 23 and with just 15 pro bouts to his name, remains closer to a prospect than a champion, irrespective of any title he holds. His best win is his last one, a stoppage of a top 10 contender who briefly held a version of the world title, and since then he has been unable to add to his record – again, through no fault of his own. In an ideal world, we would have a better grasp of Lopez’s threat level ahead of any fight against Lomachenko. But for now, with the world not even normal, much less ideal, we must make do.
If, in the end, this fight does prove to have come too early for Lopez, it will be hard to shake the image of Floyd Mayweather getting his timing spot on against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in September 2013. That was another example of a master meeting their apprentice long before they were on equal footing and it would end up being both a shrewd move on the part of Mayweather and a learning experience for Alvarez, one from which he would only grow and improve. Both are now considered greats in their own right, of course, but their fight, because it happened when it did, will never enjoy the same reverence. The timing was perfect for one of them but all wrong for the other.
Perhaps, given the unpredictability in the air, it’s now or never for Lomachenko and Lopez. Lomachenko isn’t getting any younger and Lopez, despite not appearing in the ring this year, is full of energy and desire and has been calling for the fight for some time.
But it’s still a shame for it to happen like this. It’s a shame for fans who would have liked to have experienced more of a buildup, not to mention seeing it in person, and it’s a shame for the two men involved who, for different reasons, will have seen Saturday as their coronation night. For Lopez, a win would mark the emergence of a new American boxing star, a fresh face for a sport in need of one. For Lomachenko, meanwhile, a win against a fellow champion widely touted as a future force would only strengthen his case for being the sport’s number one pound-for-pound fighter. That one of these scenarios will unfold to muted applause, at best, is regrettable.
Then again, maybe there are some fights and some fighters suited to silence. Silence does, after all, offer us time to pause and to reflect and to focus and to study, properly study, what it is we see around us. It allows us to take stock of what we are witnessing and appreciate all we might normally take for granted. With it, we are able to slow down and marvel at things we were once too busy to even notice.
In the case of Lomachenko, he has neither been taken for granted nor gone unnoticed. But he has certainly been missed. And now, with distance the enemy, and silence his soundtrack, we have the chance to appreciate a master at work all over again, this time sharing a ring with arguably the most dangerous and confident opponent of his career.
In fact, as a pair, they could turn out to be perfect, these two. Lomachenko brings the colour; Lopez brings the sound. Together, with no crowd to distract, they will for one night be unshackled, unburdened and unmasked, left alone to compete and create whatever they feel like creating. Whether a lesson or an upset, they will be free to produce compelling action and flashes of technical brilliance and, in doing so, give life to a sport struggling for breath.
We, the audience, will watch from afar but never more closely.