IT’S a tough task previewing a Vasyl Lomachenko fight if the intention is to make the fight in question seem competitive. It’s even tougher constructing the game plan to ensure a fight against Vasyl Lomachenko is competitive. The toughest job of all, though, belongs to the man trying to carry out this game plan, make a mockery of the preview, and be not just competitive but better than Vasyl Lomachenko in a boxing ring.
This Saturday (August 31) in London that man is Luke Campbell,whose job it is to exploit flaws in Lomachenko no one else has spotted, let alone attacked. Meanwhile, it’s the job of Shane McGuigan, Campbell’s coach, to keep the challenger believing even when it dawns on him that perceived flaws have a habit of becoming counterpunches in the company of Lomachenko.
Belief. It’s what it’s all about. Yet to believe in Campbell’s chances against Lomachenko, the WBA and WBO lightweight champion, you need to be either brave or biased. You need to either suspend disbelief or be affiliated with the Hull man. Anything else, based on the evidence available, is little more than conjecture, blind optimism.
Campbell, quality fighter though he is, is going up against arguably the finest technician of his generation on Saturday and has not a single win on his record to suggest he will make this sentence seem overblown come Sunday. He is daring to be great, as they say, but doing so against a man whose greatness is solidified just 14 fights into his professional career. How’s that for a challenge?
Campbell, ranked number one by the WBC, isn’t prepared for what’s to come. Then again, when it comes to Lomachenko, few are.
On a 22-fight pro record, Campbell has an impressive revenge win over Yvan Mendy, as well as solid victories over former world champions Darleys Perez and Argenis Mendez, but that’s as good as it gets. There are losses, too, against Mendy (first time) and Jorge Linares, which, even now, when on the brink of challenging the best in the game, indicate Campbell is still more potential than proven pedigree.
Most of Campbell’s experience and seasoning came as an amateur, of course. It was here, in the unpaid ranks, he developed his reputation – winning gold medals at the 2008 European Championships and 2012 Olympic Games, as well as a silver medal at the 2011 World Championships – and skills. Yet the disparity between amateur and pro boxing has only increased over time and there can be no escaping the fact Campbell has still to replicate his amateur success as a pro. In the pro game, he has less room to measure opponents and has occasionally been roughed up by men for whom physical maturity is the antidote to polished skills. It’s different in the pros. The fights are longer, the fighters tougher.
At 31, Campbell is young enough for it still to happen for him and plenty good enough to one day win a professional world title. But the outdated theory that a title-winning amateur makes a title-winning pro no longer really applies, not when there are now countless examples to the contrary.
Lomachenko, the exception rather than the rule, has had no such issues adjusting from one code to the other. His skills seem transferable and seem to have improved. Unwilling to stagnate, the 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion has now developed his strength and inside game to such a degree he is able to stand in the pocket and gain the respect of those who once assumed solving the Lomachenko puzzle required manhandling him up close and uglying all he seeks to make pretty.
Perhaps he has Orlando Salido to thank for this. Because that loss and lesson, in pro fight number two, seemed to not only frustrate Lomachenko but motivate him to add further dimensions to an already deep skill set. Now, 12 fights later, it is he who is dealing out lessons.
“I’m fighting the elite of the elite,” Campbell, 20-2 (16), concedes. “But they all get beat in the end, don’t they? Sooner or later. I believe I will beat him.
“I’m confident in the 19 years that I’ve put into this sport. I’ve never shied away from a challenge. We’re the best two in the division and you’re going to see one hell of a fight.
“I want to compete at the highest level, and this is one of those moments where you make it or you break it. I believe in myself. Every champion was once a challenger. Timing is everything.”
Campbell wouldn’t be the first underdog to have his big night right when he needs it, nor would Lomachenko be the first celebrated world champion to nonchalantly venture overseas only to find it all a little different and subsequently come unstuck. However, if timing is indeed everything, we must also consider the timing of punches to be everything and it’s in this regard Lomachenko shows no signs of being beaten.
In fact, one could argue it’s this element, the timing of punches and movement, that sets the smooth Ukrainian apart from every other boxer on the planet. Certainly, of his many attributes, it’s his greatest, something he has truly mastered.
“He [Campbell] has a big reach and a high boxing IQ,” said Lomachenko, who swept world titles at featherweight, super-featherweight and lightweight in just 12 bouts. “Maybe for me it will be a big challenge.”
I like the use of “maybe”. I like, too, the fact Lomachenko seems to accept Campbell is talented, intelligent and blessed with potentially problematic physical attributes. No doubt he will be aware, based on experience, and based on his trickier than expected 2018 fight with Jose Pedraza, another southpaw, that there is a possibility Campbell could give him a headache or two in the early going. He will also be aware of the Brit’s considerable amateur achievements – even if these achievements pale in comparison to his own – and know that just because Luke Campbell and Anthony Crolla, Lomachenko’s last opponent, hail from the same country does not mean they offer the same challenge in the ring.
“I believe fighting Lomachenko is the toughest test in boxing, and I experienced it first-hand,” Crolla told Sky Sports. “I think Luke has the better tools for the job than what I had, stylistically, and I think for the first three rounds or so he might have a little bit of success. I think he’ll keep it long.
“But I do believe at some point in the fight Lomachenko will catch up with him. I think he’s the complete fighter – speed, defence.”
Crolla speaks as though suffering some form of post-Lomachenko traumatic stress. But it’s not his fault and he’s not alone. To a man, they all tend to be spooked by the experience and rarely are they ever the same for having shared a ring with him. (Only Gary Russell Jnr, in fact, got better as a result of his Lomachenko lesson.) Some, in the ring, ride it out and surpass expectations – Pedraza, Linares and of course Salido spring to mind – but most end up either getting stopped or quitting.
It’s often the worst kind of quit, too. For when a fighter bails on Lomachenko it is typically an acceptance not just of being physically inferior but of being out-thought, bemused and demoralised. It’s the kind of defeat no boxer ever foresees. The one they’re never told about in the gym. The one most foreign to them.
By nature, boxers are physically tough and confident, yet Lomachenko, 31, has a way of forcing confident men to doubt themselves and tough men to quit. He puts his mind on the line against an opponent’s and challenges them to a game for which only he possesses rules. This allows Lomachenko, once the opponent stutters, to show them where they are about to move before the decision has been made in their own head. Then, as they ask themselves how, he gets there first, as if he knew all along.
Ultimately, it’s not so much an ability to read fights Lomachenko boasts but an ability to read minds. And if Saturday goes the way most expect, Campbell should be prepared for it and probably forget Plan A altogether. He should instead start with Plan B and take it from there.
First, though, he will believe. He will believe in the benefit of having two inches in height and six inches in reach on Lomachenko. He will believe long levers and strong legs will help him keep away and peck away and that the underrated snap in his punches, especially the southpaw left cross, will be enough to keep Lomachenko honest, especially early, and at bay. He will also believe this is no more than an elongated amateur bout and remind himself that he and Lomachenko were once two of the best amateurs in the world and that, on his day, he has the technical skills to match anybody with two arms and two legs.
That’s the fantasy at least.
The reality, on the other hand, is that Campbell seems built only to survive or, at best, frustrate, and even his most ardent supporters struggle to pinpoint logical ways he can actually win. You will instead hear guarantees that he will give it a go and be rangy and awkward and surprisingly difficult for Lomachenko to suss. Yet this is not the same as saying he will win, nor is it all that different to what we have heard before.
Previous Lomachenko’s opponents have approached the task, this most unenviable of tasks, with the initial aim to survive, then to exceed expectations, then to make it to the finish line – to not quit. But hard to find is the fighter who treats Lomachenko as a fellow human being, not something superhuman, and point-blank refuses to partake in his seemingly rigged one-player game.
Maybe that man is Luke Campbell. But if it isn’t, expect more of the same. If it isn’t, Lomachenko, 13-1 (10), will continue making a hard sport look easy and the job of predicting his fights even easier. Because if it’s tough previewing his fights, tougher plotting a way to beat him, and tougher still actually fighting him, the easiest thing in the world is calling a Vasyl Lomachenko victory in 2019.
Here, like the last one, and the one before that, the real question is not whether Lomachenko wins or loses but whether he retains his belts – and adds the vacant WBC belt – via decision or stoppage. One suspects that will be for him to decide.
As for Campbell, he should be smart enough to make it to the end of class, even if the reward for doing so won’t be three world titles but homework.