On HBO Saturday night, Vasyl Lomachenko steps into the ring for just the 7th time as a professional. Despite that very slight record, there is no end to the superlatives to describe Lomachenko. He’s been called brilliant and, just recently, the best boxer since Muhammad Ali. High praise indeed.
The amazing thing is, he’s earned it. Lomachenko came to professional boxing after an amateur career that earned him the title of greatest amateur boxer of all time in the eyes of many. That run included two Olympic gold medals, two World Championship gold medals, and a 396-1 record.
Since making the transition to professional in 2013, Lomachenko has kept up that dominance (and it’s important to remember that many amateur greats don’t successfully navigate that transition - for every Vasyl Lomachenko, there’s an Audley Harrison). He beat the otherwise undefeated Gary Russell, Jr. in his 3rd pro fight to become a world champion. He’s defended that title three times already. This weekend, he looks to claim his second title, as he moves up from 126 to 130 pounds. In a way, his ascent to pound for pound great status seems inevitable.
Sitting on Lomachenko’s pro record is a notable 1 in the L column. In 2014, in just his second pro fight, Lomachenko took on the grizzled veteran Orlando Salido. Salido used every veteran trick in the Bernard Hopkins book of veteran tricks, slowing the fight down, making it a scrap, and refusing to let Lomachenko show off his technical superiority. And Lomachenko didn’t know how to combat it. The result: a split decision win for Salido, and an early taste of defeat for the Olympic champ. He’s bounced back since then, obviously, but is that fight completely behind him?
That is what makes Saturday night’s showdown with Rocky Martinez so intriguing. At a glance, you would be forgiven for thinking this is an obvious Lomachenko win. He’s a -5000 underdog for a reason - the combination of the superlatives surrounding Lomachenko himself with Martinez being something of a 50/50 fighter in big fights makes a Lomachenko win an easy call. But dig a bit deeper and you see a few points worth mentioning in Martinez’s favor:
- The weight. Lomachenko comes up in weight here against the bigger Martinez, a natural 130 pound fighter. Salido was a bigger man in their fight as well, as he failed to make the 126 pound limit that night, and he used his size well against Lomachenko. How will he handle the size this time? Worth noting here: Lomachenko did compete at a higher weight as an amateur, so he’s not a small Featherweight by any means. But again, amateur and pro are not the same.
- The style. Martinez is an aggressive fighter who will push the pace and get a bit wild at times. He’s become more of a boxer than a brawler through his career, but that brawler streak remains. Lomachenko has not encountered this type of fighter at this level since the Salido fight. His best opponents remain Salido and Russell - and Martinez is much more of a Salido style fighter than a Russell style.
Are those factors enough to tip the scales in favor of Rocky Martinez? Probably not. But they are enough to give pause, and enough to make this a new test for the ever rising Lomachenko. If he passes the test well - if he shows he knows how to deal with a bigger, more aggressive brawler - then you can expect those superlatives to only get louder.