Op-Ed | Why Everyone Should Be Paying Attention to Vasyl Lomachenko
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
ESPN recently unveiled its list of the 100 most famous athletes in the world, topped by Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James, and Lionel Messi. With a collective 250 million followers across social media, their selection is hardly surprising. Soccer and basketball have massive global followings and those guys will go down in history as some of the greatest players ever. And while cricketer Virat Kohli (11), swimmer Sun Yang (17), and badminton player Saina Nehwal (50) might not be household names in every market, their inclusion reveals the influence that comes from being among the best in a particular sport — especially if you’re from the two most populous nations on Earth.
Regardless of methodology, lists are inherently flawed and will always have glaring omissions. But leaving off Ukrainian boxer Vasyl Lomachenko seems particularly misguided. He is, after all, currently the pound-for-pound number one boxer in the world, the fastest to win belts in three divisions, needing only 12 professional fights to do it. Consider for a moment that other legendary fighters who’ve won three titles at different weights, such as Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Manny Pacquiao, needed 22, 34, and 41 bouts respectively to reach that landmark.
Mayweather (14) and Pacquiao (63) make ESPN’s list, as does unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua (46), currently suspended middleweight Canelo Álvarez (58), undefeated middleweight Gennady Golovkin (61), and once-prodigious Ukrainian heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko (74).
Of the boxers listed, only Álvarez, Golovkin, and Joshua can be considered to be in their prime, with Mayweather and Klitschko retired as of last year and Pacquiao at the tail end of his career and serving in the Philippine senate.
Every few years, people start to write boxing’s eulogy. They claim there’s an absence of stars, and there’s befuddlement with judges’ scorecards — none perhaps more egregious than Adalaide Byrd’s 118-110 decision for Álvarez against Golovkin in September last year. And of course there’s the circus-like atmosphere that preceded the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight, which was ultimately built more upon a combination of insults than a flurry of punches.
Add to all of that the recent announcement that ESPN has signed a $1.5 billion deal with the UFC to screen mixed martial arts for five years, and it seems only natural to read boxing its last rites — again.
For all of boxing’s flaws, Lomachenko is the antithesis of its greatest failures. He’s driven by competition above all else. Most unseasoned pros have to run through a series of “tomato cans” (i.e. whipping boys) before they can challenge for a title. Knowing this, Lomachenko opted instead to face proven amateurs at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012, becoming the most recent fighter to walk away with gold medals in two different classes, featherweight and lightweight.
When he finally turned professional in 2013, his only stipulation upon signing with a promotion company was that he would challenge for a title with his first fight. Even with the two Olympic golds and an amateur record of 396-1, seasoned boxing promoters balked at his demand.
Finally, Bob Arum of promoter Top Rank met him in the middle: he’d get his shot in his second fight, which would potentially break Saensak Muangsurin’s 1975 record of winning a super lightweight world title in his third pro fight.
If boxing were like the movies instead of a reflection of real life, Lomachenko would have knocked out Mexico’s Orlando Salido at the Alamodome in San Antonio and won the WBO featherweight title. But boxing is a sport where the guy with the busted up chops can actually be beating another man who looks like he hasn’t been touched, and where the idea of a “weight class” is just an arbitrary number that doesn’t reflect accurate poundage on fight night.
In the case of Lomachenko vs. Salido, the latter failed to make weight — coming in two and a quarter pounds over the 126-pound limit at the weigh-in — and rehydrated to 147 pounds by fight night. Lomachenko, meanwhile, made weight and clocked in 11 pounds lighter on the night. For much of the contest, Salido peppered the smaller man with low blows and the Ukrainian simply didn’t have the professional experience to deal with rules and posturing unlike anything he’d encountered at the Olympics.
Lomachenko lost a split decision and his professional record now sat at 1-1. For context, a single loss in boxing is akin to a 20-game losing streak in basketball or hovering near the relegation zone in the English Premier League. It’s part of the reason why when you look at a champion’s early career, many of those fights are against guys with day jobs — many of whom never fight again after facing the full wrath of a boxing prodigy.
Consider Mayweather’s first five opponents after turning pro. Their combined career wins and losses stand at 39-86. Now look at Lomachenko’s first five opponents: 186-29. Among those early bouts, Lomachenko handed Gary Russell Jr. the only defeat of his career to date.
In a sport where ducking opponents is a regular occurrence, Lomachenko has continually been able to fight intriguing bouts with game opponents. There’s simply no other way to obtain three world titles without doing so.
Mike Tyson’s exploits will forever be associated with the era of boxing when the electricity in the room was palpable. His actions — good and infamous — suggested anything was possible inside the squared circle. Audiences didn’t dare blink, as a knockout could happen in a split second thanks to his devastating punching power.
With Lomachenko, people would be wise to employ something similar to the device used during the Ludovico technique treatment scenes in A Clockwork Orange. That is to say, when Lomachenko isn’t even punching, it’s still mesmerizing to watch.
“Feet before fists” is something of a mantra in the Lomachenko camp. His father and trainer, Anatoly, famously placed his nine-year-old son in dance classes to hone his skills in the traditional Ukrainian style of “hopak” before mastering the basics of the one-two.
“I didn’t understand at that time,” Vasyl said, reflecting on the move. “He didn’t pay attention to my hands. He didn’t pay attention to my defense. First, he was paying attention to my footwork.”
When Lomachenko fights, he rarely stands directly in front of his opponent, oftentimes taking hard angles outside of an orthodox fighter’s lead foot as he pivots around them. As they instinctively shell up into a high guard, they lose all sense of their peripheral vision, like a medieval knight in a jousting helmet.
Although boxing pundits have stated that Lomachenko isn’t blessed with natural punching power, his persistent and precise style of fighting has proven effective. Equal parts Willie Pep and Chinese water torture, his darting style led four of his last five opponents to throw in the towel, unable to withstand the pressure.
His most recent fight against Jorge Linares further added to the Lomachenko legend. Facing adversity for the first time since the Salido fight — Linares dropping him with a well-timed right hand, Lomachenko’s first knockdown since an amateur fight in 2007 — Lomachenko didn’t get sucked into a brawl.
Linares was the naturally larger man. But for Lomachenko, that simply meant the Venezuelan had more real estate to protect. Ask anyone who’s ever put on a pair of boxing gloves and sparred, and they’ll tell you the liver shot Lomachenko landed to capture the WBA lightweight title is the perfect punch. Bust a guy’s nose and he’ll bleed and swell. But punch a guy in the liver and you’ll see a man deal with all of his internal organs sending signals to the brain simultaneously, screaming “No más!”
Weeks later, Lomachenko revealed that he’d spent nearly the entire fight contending with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, which needed surgery at the end of May.
One could make the argument that Lomachenko’s mind is his greatest weapon. The Linares liver shot was probably only plan C in a versatile fight language that stretches longer than the Khmer alphabet.
After hours-long workouts, Lomachenko is often seen in training videos staring at Sudoku-like number grids and rearranging color-coded Jenga-style blocks with numbers on their sides. The former is called the “Schulte table” and was designed by German psychiatrist Walter Schulte. Comprising a grid of 5×5 randomized numbers, the goal is to stare at the number in the center and then point at numbers one to 25 without moving your eyes off the center.
In a boxing context, it improves peripheral vision, allowing Lomachenko to instantaneously see the cues he has to pick up on from opponents. When asked if he’s the smartest boxer in the sport, Lomachenko grinned, nodded his head, and said, “Yes.”
After just 12 fights, Lomachenko is officially a must-watch star, transcending whether the viewer even likes the sport of boxing. He may not ever match LeBron, Cristiano, or Messi when it comes to social media, but the eye test doesn’t lie. If people still want to mourn boxing, place the grief upon the shoulders of the next man Vasyl Lomachenko faces. That man simply isn’t long for the sport.