OXON HILL, Md. — Junior lightweight titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko, who some already regard as the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world after just eight fights, has very few problems in the ring.
He is a brilliant boxer who is above average in every category in the sport, be it power, speed, defense, technique, ring intelligence — you name it, Lomachenko’s got it.
Where: MGM National Harbor, Oxon Hill, MD
TV: HBO, 10 p.m. ET
He is also viewed by many as the best amateur in history, thanks to back-to-back Olympic gold medals (in different weight classes) for Ukraine in 2008 and 2012, as well as a pair of amateur world titles and an incredible record of 396-1 (with the loss avenged).
The biggest issue that confronts Lomachenko, who also won a featherweight world title in his third fight to tie the boxing record for fewest bouts needed to win a world title, is getting opponents to dare to step between the ropes to fight him.
When promoter Top Rank finally convinced powerful undefeated former featherweight titlist Nicholas “Axe Man” Walters to fight Lomachenko in November — after about a year of trying — it was supposed to be a serious test. Instead, Lomachenko so thoroughly dominated Walters that he quit after the seventh round of a shockingly one-sided fight.
It has gotten no easier in the months that followed to find opponents for Lomachenko, who Top Rank chairman Bob Arum — quite seriously — says has the best skills he has seen in his 51 years in boxing other than in-his-prime Muhammad Ali, whom he also promoted.
“Nobody that I have ever seen does with his body and his footwork what he does,” Arum said of Lomachenko. “The way he is able to measure distance so well is amazing. It takes him a little time to measure it right, getting closer and closer to punches that could really hurt him but gets him into a better position to fire his own punches. Once he’s able to do that, the opponent has no answer.
“Ali, for that time, nobody — nobody — had ever seen a heavyweight fight the way Ali did. Right now, Lomachenko has shown the style and a skill that nobody I’ve seen ever has had other than the Ali. Now, the question then is can Lomachenko have the longevity of that skill? Can somebody down the road solve it? I rate him as the most skilled, best fighter in boxing.”
Next up, Lomachenko will make his second 130-pound title defense against Jason Sosa on Saturday night (HBO, 10 p.m ET/PT) in the main event of the first boxing card at the new MGM National Harbor. The card marks HBO’s first boxing event in Maryland since a 1979 Sugar Ray Leonard fight.
Although Sosa (20-1-4, 15 KOs), 29, of Camden, N.J., who gave up a secondary world title in order to take the fight, was a very willing participant, he was no better than Top Rank’s third choice for the bout. And although Sosa has not come off sounding like a fighter in awe of his opponent, he sure has shown immense respect for Lomachenko.
“He is the closest fighter to perfection in boxing,” Sosa said.
Sosa had only three amateur bouts and he’s a huge underdog — as much as 25-1 — but he has good power and a never-say-die attitude in the ring. His co-promoter, Russell Peltz, did his best to put a positive spin on the fight at Thursday’s final prefight news conference
“They say we’re not going to win one second of one round in this fight,” Peltz said. “Some of my closest friends in boxing, both of them, tell me that I’m leading a sacrificial lamb to slaughter.
“I don’t know if (Lomachenko is) a great fighter or not. He’s only had eight pro fights. I’m sure he’s a terrific fighter. But if Mike Tyson had retired after beating Michael Spinks in 1988, we’d be talking about him up there with Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. You can’t rate a fighter until his career is over. You just can’t do it. Last month they were comparing GGG (Gennady Golovkin) to Marvin Hagler. Triple-G’s a terrific fighter. But let’s see what happens at the end of his career because, all of a sudden, he was in a fight [against Daniel Jacobs], and people don’t know how good GGG is.
“And what’s the worst thing that can happen to Jason Sosa Saturday night? He’s already been knocked out in one round (in his fifth fight in 2010). Just like Jack Dempsey, Max Schmeling, John Henry Lewis, Bob Montgomery, Joey Maxim, ‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Emile Griffith, Michael Spinks and Ken Norton. And guess what? They’re all in the Hall of Fame. See you Saturday.”
Arum tried to first match Lomachenko with former two-division titleholder Orlando Salido, who handed Lomachenko a close, controversial decision loss in his second pro fight. However, Salido asked for a $1 million purse, which was a non-starter and his way of turning the fight down. Titleholder Jezreel Corrales, according to Arum, also turned down the opportunity to unify titles before Sosa got the call.
HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson, whose network has been involved in all but one of Lomachenko’s fights, knows as well as anyone the difficulties of making a fight for him.
“Lomachenko’s nickname is ‘High Tech,'” Nelson said. “But his other nickname in-house for us is ‘Just Not Next,’ because as we’ve seen with many fighters like him, he presents the type of challenge few fighters want to take.
“We’ve seen this before with, say, GGG or (Sergey) Kovalev, where they say, ‘We’ll fight him,’ and they start using his name in the press to try to get some press for themselves. But then when it comes to the phone call (and the question), ‘Do you want to fight him,’ the answer is, ‘Yes, of course, but just not next.'”
Lomachenko, of course, just continues to train and fight and hope his team, including 2016 Boxing Writers Association of America manager of the year Egis Klimas, can find the best opponents, other titleholders, preferably.
Lomachenko, who set a boxing record by becoming a two-weight titleholder in his seventh fight, the fewest in history, said he respects Sosa but admitted he wanted to fight for another belt or face more highly regarded opponent.
“Yes, I’m very disappointed because I came to unify titles,” he said. “I came to show who is a real champion. I couldn’t do that at 126, so I moved to 130. Looks like 130, same thing — people are not fighting, so I will have to move forward. I am preparing for my name to be in history. I am trying with every single fight, every preparation just to get better.”
Said Arum: “Only problem I have with Lomachenko is convincing him the opponent creates a challenge. He argues with me — ‘Why should I fight him? It’s no challenge.’ We told him Sosa is the kind of the guy who bulls forward, not going to quit, going to press him and make a very impressive fight.”
The 29-year-old Lomachenko (7-1, 5 KOs) will be joined on the card by two of his good friends and Olympic-medal winning teammates, making it “Ukraine night” on HBO.
In the co-feature, light heavyweight contender Oleksandr Gvozdyk (12-0, 10 KOs), 29, who claimed a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, will face Yunieski Gonzalez (18-2, 14 KOs), 31, a former Cuban amateur standout who defected and fights out of Miami, in a 10-rounder. In the opener, cruiserweight world titlist Oleksandr Usyk (11-0, 10 KOs), 30, who won gold for Ukraine at the 2012 Olympics, will make his second defense as he takes on 2012 U.S. Olympian Michael Hunter (12-0, 8 KOs), 28, of Las Vegas.
Even with as many accolades as Lomachenko has received, having Arum compare him to the prime Ali is a big deal. When asked about what he thought of that sort of comparison, Lomachenko pondered the question for a few moments.
“It’s a big responsibility for me,” he said. “But I can’t forbid Bob from saying that. It wouldn’t be proper for me to say (I am that good).”
In fact, Lomachenko refuses to even call himself No. 1 pound-for-pound among active boxers. When it comes to humility, Floyd Mayweather he is not.
“My top three pound-for-pound list is GGG, Kovalev and [Terence] Crawford,” Lomachenko said. “I don’t want to be No. 1 until I deserve it. That means fighting and winning against two or three world champions. After that I may be No. 1, but for sure not now.”
Maybe not now, but there’s a good chance he will be, sooner than later.