NEW YORK — The records would have you believe Vasiliy Lomachenko is an overnight sensation, a boxing prodigy who became the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet almost as soon as he stepped into the ring.
After all, Lomachenko on Saturday set the record for fewest fights needed to win a world championship in three divisions, doing so in just his 12th professional fight. The previous record was 20 fights. Lomachenko had already set the record for fewest fights needed to win world titles in two divisions, setting the mark in his seventh fight. Lomachenko has only the 12 professional fights under his belt, but the last 10 have been world title fights.
Lomachenko’s “quick rise” to the top of the boxing world actually began over a decade ago, when he was one of the greatest amateur fighters of all time. He compiled a mind-boggling 396-1 record as an amateur and won gold medals for Ukraine at the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics as well as gold medals at the 2009 and 2011 World Boxing Championships. He was already considered one of the greatest talents in the sport when he made his professional debut on Oct. 12, 2013, on HBO by defeating Jose Ramirez in Las Vegas to claim the WBO international featherweight title.
“When he came into the professional ranks, he was almost a full-fledged professional,” said Top Rank founder and CEO Bob Arum. “He was already one of the great talents.”
But Lomachenko became something more than that on Saturday with his 10th-round technical knockout of Jorge Linares to claim the lightweight world championship. In the sixth round, Linares knocked Lomachenko down with a straight right to the jaw. It was the first time Lomachenko had been knocked down as a professional and his first time on the canvas since an amateur fight (which he eventually won) in 2007. Lomachenko quickly got up, finished the round and eventually finished Linares, who was on a 13-fight winning streak dating back to 2012.
“He proved he’s a fighter, tonight he proved he’s a fighter,” Arum said. “He already proved before that he’s a talent, but tonight he proved he’s a fighter. I think it elevates his legacy. We always knew what a great talent he is, but he showed tonight he’s a real fighter against the best guy he ever fought — a bigger guy who knows how to fight and wasn’t going to quit and was going to go out on his shield. Loma stood up to him and showed what a fighter he is. He showed deep-down guts, and to knock him down with a body shot was tremendous.”
Lomachenko is the No. 1 fighter in ESPN’s pound-for-pound rankings, ahead of Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez. But unlike those two, who headlined a pay-per-view last year that attracted 1.3 million buys and sold out the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Lomachenko is still building his popularity among casual fans. His last three fights have been on ESPN, but Saturday’s was his first in the “main room” at Madison Square Garden after he’d fought inside the 5,500-seat Theater at the Garden his previous two times in New York. The fight attracted 10,429 fans, twice what he normally draws, but it still meant the 20,789-seat Madison Square Garden was half-empty. It might end up being the last time Lomachenko fights in a half-empty arena and could be his penultimate fight on free television.
Teddy Atlas would rather see Vasiliy Lomachenko move up in weight class to face Mikey Garcia over a rematch with Jorge Linares.
The next fight for Lomachenko will take place at The Forum in Inglewood, California, on Aug. 25. While an opponent hasn’t been named yet, it is expected to be WBO lightweight champion Ray Beltran. If Lomachenko wins that fight and Mikey Garcia beats Robert Easter Jr. in their July 28 fight at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a Lomachenko-Garcia fight in December to unify the lightweight championship would make sense as the pay-per-view debut for two of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
“I’m always interested in unifying the titles,” Lomachenko said. “That’s why I came to this weight class, and I will be looking to unify the titles in the future.”
Of course, this is boxing, so fights that make sense on paper don’t always become reality as quickly as we’d like them to. Arum seemed skeptical of a Lomachenko-Garcia fight taking place before the end of the year, comparing those potential negotiations to the drawn-out Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather talks. “The negotiations will go on and I may be 90 years old when the negotiations are finished,” said the 86-year-old promoter. “I’m tired of that.”
If he doesn’t fight Garcia, there’s also been talk of Lomachenko possibly facing Pacquiao in a pay-per-view fight. That would certainly give Lomachenko a big-name opponent to raise his profile.
“He’s building a fan base with casual fans and boxing fans,” Arum said. “He already has a tremendous Ukrainian fan base. There’s a lot of Ukrainian fans in New York and Los Angeles.”
Saturday was the next step in Lomachenko’s journey to becoming not only the best pound-for-pound fighter but also the biggest star in boxing. The two are not always connected. Lomachenko wants to be selling out arenas and on pay-per-views by the end of the year, and for that to happen, he needs to fight a big name like Pacquiao or give the fans what they want, which would be a unification bout against Garcia. While boxing is an individual sport, fighters on the rise always need able dance partners to become superstars.
If Lomachenko reaches that status by the end of the year or early next year, his sixth-round knockdown may have been the turning point for one of this generation’s best fighters, who hasn’t had the easiest time getting the best opponents after demoralizing his previous four prior to Saturday, making them quit on their stool.
“After the fight, I told [Top Rank vice president of boxing operations] Carl Moretti in the ring, ‘It’s going to be much easier for you to get opponents for me because they all see I’m also a human being,'” Lomachenko said. “What I did was make my promoter’s job easier.”