Vasiliy Lomachenko defeated Guillermo Rigondeaux by sixth-round stoppage earlier this year at Madison Square Garden.
NEW YORK — Vasiliy Lomachenko fashioned a historic career in boxing’s unpaid ranks. He fashioned a hard-to-fathom record of 396-1, avenging the loss multiple times, and won back-to-back Olympic gold medals for Ukraine in two different weight classes in 2008 and 2012.
Many consider him the greatest amateur boxer of all time.
When Lomachenko turned professional in 2013, he had only one thing on his mind: To make as much history as quickly as he could.
Already a two-division world champion and the reigning pound-for-pound king in ESPN’s poll of experts, Lomachenko has so far made a lot of history and he has an insatiable desire for more, which he can achieve when he challenges lightweight world champion Jorge Linares on Saturday in the main event of the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card at Madison Square Garden. The telecast will begin at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN App, with the entire undercard streaming live on ESPN+ beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET).
In his third pro fight, Lomachenko toyed with Gary Russell Jr. to win a decision and a featherweight world title, which allowed him to tie the record for fewest fights needed to claim a world title.
In his seventh fight, Lomachenko moved up to junior lightweight and scored a massive fifth-round knockout of Roman “Rocky” Martinez to take his belt and set the record for fewest fights needed to win a world title in two weight classes.
And now Lomachenko (10-1, 8 KOs), who made all four of his 130-pound title challengers – Nicholas Walters, Jason Sosa, Miguel Marriaga and Guillermo Rigondeaux quit — is moving up to 135 pounds to challenge Linares (44-3, 27 KOs), the No. 1 lightweight in the world. If Lomachenko lifts the belt from him in his 12th fight, he would set yet another record: fewest fights needed to win world titles in three weight classes.
“I always said I wanted to make history and I know it would be another record if I win this title in my 12th fight,” Lomachenko said through manager/translator Egis Klimas. “I am very happy and capable of doing what I was planning to do and what I wanted to do when I turned pro. I think already half of my pro career is over and I am very happy with what I have achieved but I didn’t have a plan right in the beginning for the long run. My plan was to become a champion as soon as I could and the rest of it has just come. This part wasn’t planned.”
When he turned pro and Klimas took Lomachenko to meet various promoters. He told them he wasn’t so much interested in a big signing bonus but he wanted to sign with the promoter who could deliver him a world title shot in his pro debut. That was impossible but Top Rank chairman Bob Arum told Lomachenko he could arrange for one in Lomachenko’s second fight.
He signed on the dotted line, won his pro debut and then got a shot at Orlando Salido for a featherweight belt in fight No. 2. Salido missed weight, was stripped and fouled Lomachenko repeatedly. Lomachencko lost split decision.
But because Salido missed weight, Lomachenko was given another shot at the vacant title and he cruised past then-undefeated Russell, who went on to win a featherweight world title he still holds. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I think he’s doing something really great,” Klimas said. “I understand he wants to have these accomplishments faster but he is already doing what nobody did before. He beat a world record – two world titles in two weight classes in seven fights. Now he can win a third in 12 fights. Some guys can’t even win one in one category. Some guys out of the Olympics, they are fighting only six-rounders in their seventh fight. Loma’s first fight was 10 rounds. The rest have all been (scheduled for) 12.”
Lomachenko, 30, a southpaw, is definitely in a rush to accomplish as much as he can as quickly as he can because he knows an athlete’s career is usually short.
“The skills of boxing are not forever. The history is forever,” he said. “That’s what it means to me to make history. Money, titles, belts — you’re not going to take with you when you die. But the history will stay forever. That’s why I decided to go the history route, not the money. You can have the money today but you might not have money tomorrow. But history says forever.
“It’s hard to tell what the history will turn into, but what I want is big challenges. I want big names. I want to win, win, win. The life of an athlete, of a boxer, is very short so I don’t have time to waste doing tune-up fights. I want the best fights. I want to get the most I can out of my short boxing life.”
That’s why he pushed hard for Las Vegas-based Linares, 32, of Venezuela, a three-division world titleholder who has won two versions of the lightweight title and is riding an impressive 13-fight winning streak since back-to-back defeats in 2011 and 2012. It helped that Linares also pressed for the fight. It took work because Top Rank and Linares co-promoter Golden Boy have had a rocky relationship and don’t often do fights together but the fighters kept the pressure on them.
Top Rank worked with Teiken Promotions chief Akihiko Honda, Linares’ co-promoter, to settle on the money — $1.2 million for their side – and then worked it out with ESPN to begin the telecast at 8 p.m. ET so it wouldn’t overlap with the Golden Boy card on HBO that begins at 10 p.m.
“Jorge, to his credit, wanted the fight so that made it easy,” Arum said.
Arum, who has been a boxing promoter for 52 years, continues to marvel at Lomachenko, whom he has consistently said is the most skilled fighter he has ever promoted – and he promoted 27 Muhammad Ali fights, many Sugar Ray Leonard fights and most of Floyd Mayweather’s career.
“I look at Terence Crawford. Great, great fighter,” Arum said of Top Rank’s best fighter other than Lomachenko. “But is he greater than Sugar Ray Leonard? And even if he is how much greater than Sugar Ray Leonard? You can compare him with fighters of the past. With Lomachenko you can’t compare him with anybody (because) he’s so unique. And that makes it really interesting. Somebody whose skill set is such that you can’t really compare him with any fighter, at least that I’ve ever seen.”
Most fighters, while they want titles and legacy, value their paycheck more significantly. Not Lomachenko. They way he figures it the money will come with the success and historic wins. Arum has rarely seen anything like it.
“I have never seen anybody who epitomizes professionalism like he does. Everything is about the performance, is about his legacy and the money really is secondary,” he said. “That being said, he is well compensated but he doesn’t scrape and argue for every dollar.”
Asked if he’d ever seen any fighter place money second, Arum chuckled and said, “It’s unusual. When I met with him I was overwhelmed because he was the greatest amateur boxer in history, in my opinion, and now we have the opportunity to promote him as a professional. People said, ‘Well, he doesn’t speak English’ and so forth. Well, that’ll come. But with that ability I know sports fans crave excellence and they’ll see excellence like they’ve never seen in Lomachenko.”
The night before the fight, Lomachenko and his team will take some time out to attend the annual Boxing Writers Association of America awards banquet, where he will be honored with the Sugar Ray Robinson award as the 2017 fighter of the year. Klimas will receive the Cus D’Amato manager of the year award and Anatoly Lomachenko, Vasiliy’s father, will be honored with the Eddie Futch trainer of the year award. It’s the first time one team has swept all three awards since the that of then-heavyweight world champion Riddick Bowe in 1992.
Though he has a big fight the next night, Lomachenko said he wouldn’t miss the chance to pick up his award.
“Of course, I am planning to come over and get what I deserve,” Lomachenko said. “It means we are going in the right direction and doing everything right. It shows we are writing boxing history.”
Just as he planned.