By Paul Mason
Compared to the media circus that was Bellew v Haye II last weekend, a fight that needed no selling whatsoever sees two pound for pound big hitters go head to head this Saturday night across the pond.
The superlative Ukrainian, Vasyl Lomachenko, goes in search of a World Title in his third weight class, and in only his twelfth fight. The silky smooth WBA and Ring Magazine Lightweight Champion, Venezuelan Jorge Linares stands in his way. The iconic Madison Square Garden in New York is the venue, with HBO televising in the states, and Boxnation bringing the fight into UK homes.
Here I preview the fight of the year (on paper) so far.
Jorge Linares (44-3, KO27) v Vasyl Lomachenko (10-1, KO8) – 12 Rounds WBA/Ring Magazine Lightweight Titles
Saturday night sees fans get to watch two fighters at their apex, and fighting each other, which is always good to see. Unbelievably Jorge Linares, the WBA and Ring Magazine Lightweight Champion goes into his fight at Madison Square Garden as a 5/1 underdog with most bookmakers to win by any method. The simple reason for this, even though his opponent brings a modest 10-1 record into the ring with him, his opponent is one Vasyl Lomachenko. He is quite possibly the best amateur the sport has ever seen. Compiling a reported 396-1 record in the unpaid code, he is transferring this to the professional game, forcing his last four opponents on the bounce to retire from the contest, wanting no more of the dazzling Ukrainian. In his eleven paid contests, he is already a two weight World Champion, at Featherweight and Super Featherweight. The prospect of him cutting a swathe through the weights is frightening. He may well retire as one of the greatest ever, he is that good.
Albert Selimov holds the distinction of being the only man to defeat Lomachenko in the amateur game, in the 2007 World Amateur Championships, but “Loma” would go on to avenge this defeat twice, and strike Olympic Gold in both the 2008 Olympics in Beijing at Lightweight, and in 2012 at the London Games at Featherweight. This was in addition to his 2009 and 2011 World Championship wins.
Ukrainian Lomachenko turned professional to much courtship and fanfare, eventually settling on a promotional deal with Bob Arum and Top Rank. He made his debut in October 2013 in Las Vegas, immediately gaining a ranking with the WBO at Featherweight. He knocked out Jose Ramirez in four rounds of a scheduled ten rounder to pick up the WBO International Featherweight Title. This allowed him to challenge the wily veteran, and WBO Featherweight Champion, Orlando Salido one fight later. Salido played on Lomachenko’s professional inexperience to perfection, coming in overweight, losing his Title on the scales in the process. But the scalp of an amateur starlet was a much bigger prize for the Mexican, and after rehydrating to 147 pounds, the Welterweight limit, he bulldozed and continually roughed up Lomachenko with more than a few blows below the belt to win a split decision and hand “Loma” his first defeat in only his second fight. Lomachenko was too cagey in the early going, and left it too late to rally back to win the fight.
This is a mistake he hasn’t made twice, and has since gone from strength to strength. With the WBO Title remaining vacant, Lomachenko took on the highly regarded Gary Russell Junior, and took his first World Crown by defeating the previously unbeaten in 24 fight American via majority decision.
Three relatively simple Title defences followed. After Suriya Tatakhun was outpointed in Macau, Lomachenko stopped Gamallier Rodriguez in nine on the Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao undercard in May 2015, and six months later he knocked out Romulo Koasicha in ten rounds.
This lead to a move to Super Featherweight, and he became a two-weight World Champion in only his seventh fight, by dethroning Roman “Rocky” Martinez, relieving the Puerto Rican of his WBO Title via devastating fifth-round knockout.
Lomachenko decided to stay at the weight, and impressively battered the previously unbeaten Jamaican, Nicholas Walters into submission at the end of seven rounds, with Walters seemingly giving up on an impossible task to quit. Another beating was administered in his next fight. The game but outgunned former WBA Champion, Jason Sosa, was thoroughly outclassed and retired at the end of nine rounds. He again forced a retirement win in his next bout, by defending his belt against Miguel Marriaga. Marriaga was down in rounds three and seven, and by the end of this round, his corner had seen enough, giving Lomachenko another stoppage win.
The feat was repeated for a fourth time in his last contest, when he met a man with almost the same amateur credentials in the Cuban, Guillermo Rigondeaux. “Rigo” came into the fight undefeated, but was another retirement victim at the end of six rounds. Rigondeaux cited a damaged hand in the second, but he was simply outclassed. Lomachenko joked he should be renamed “No mas chenko” after the famous Roberto Duran surrender against Sugar Ray Leonard, that had now occurred four times on the spin.
He comes into Saturday’s contest full of confidence and riding high in the mythical pound for pound charts.
Jorge Linares has had to fight for his seat at the top table of boxing’s pound for pound stars. Born in Venezuela, Linares has fought in Japan, Panama, Argentina, Mexico, USA, England and his native country in a 45 fight career. Linares had built a solid 27-0 record, including capturing both the WBC and WBA Super Featherweight Titles. He was dethroned by Juan Carlos Salgado in October 2009, wrecked inside one round. Four quick comeback wins followed, but this was then counterbalanced with two back to back knockout losses. Firstly Antonio DiMarco, who was well behind on the cards, knocked Linares out in the eleventh round.
The unheralded Sergio Thompson then knocked Linares out in two to leave his career seemingly in tatters. Instead, Linares has rebuilt and is now unbeaten in his last thirteen fights. In December 2014, he captured the WBC Lightweight Title with a fourth-round knockout against Javier Prieto. He then travelled to the O2 Arena, London to defend against Kevin Mitchell. Linares was knocked down, and at times badly hurt, but managed to surge in the later rounds to catch up with the tiring and badly cut Mitchell to stop him. A homecoming fight in Venezuela followed, and a stoppage of Ivan Cano was duly delivered.
In September 2016 Anthony Crolla and Linares met in Manchester. After a slow start, Crolla appeared to have found his range by the middle rounds, although the challenger landed with the more eye-catching punches. But the Venezuelan’s superior skills trumped Crolla’s constant pressure and he was awarded a unanimous decision. Two judges thought the fight was close, awarding it 115-114 and 115-113 to Linares, while the third judge had him winning 117-111.
A rematch was a natural, and in March 2017, Linares repeated the trick, even more convincingly this time, dropping Crolla in the seventh round with a hellacious uppercut, before settling for a wide points win. Six months later, he returned to the USA and defended against another Brit, this time in 2012 Olympic Gold Medallist, Luke Campbell. “Cool Hand” gave Linares all he could handle for the twelve round distance, but Linares would retain by narrow split decision. Linares’ last outing was in January this year, widely outscoring Mercito Gesta.
It seems to me that Linares has overcome his rough patch of knockout defeats, and is an all-round better fighter than he was. I feel that although Lomachenko carries cumulative power with relentless onslaughts, Linares can make it to the final bell. I can’t see anything other than a “Loma” victory, but this may be one of his hardest tests to date, and Jorge will have his successes and make Lomachenko work with combinations of his own. It will be a blockbuster for sure, and it’s good to see two great Champions collide, as it doesn’t happen nearly often enough as it should.