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Vasyl Lomachenko Judo Chop: Improvising inside the lines

Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch takes a look at one of many brilliant sequences from the creative career of Vasyl Lomachenko.

Vasiliy Lomachenko & Gilberto Ramirez Media Workouts Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Expertise always seems more than a little mystical. When the jazz pianist’s fingers flurry across the keyboard, smooth notes and jagged all crashing and winding together in a flawless, improvised fabric, we don’t hear the complex, interlocking web of chord shapes and modes guiding his way. It’s not the Mixolydian flat six against the inverted dominant thirteen that moves us; we fixate, as we’re meant to, on the sound, and the feeling. So powerful are those feelings that we can’t help but marvel at the unbridled creativity that must go into them. That kind of genius, we think, is a language anyone can understand, but only a chosen few can speak.

But genius is rarely as wild as it seems.

Vasyl Lomachenko is an undeniably creative fighter. His performances are virtuosic, his style utterly unique. We all know, sort of, that he’s no less indebted to Willie Pep or Nicolino Locche than Hiromi Uehara is to Oscar Peterson, but watching him fight, we can only shake our heads and wonder that we have never seen another artist quite like him.

The thing about boxing (and jazz) is that it’s systematic. When Lomachenko slips and sidesteps and counters and pivots balletically away from return fire, he is absolutely improvising—but he does not improvise absolutely. Hi-Tech operates within the same limits as every other boxer: he has two eyes, two hands, and two feet to work with. Then there is the system to which he has confined himself, and into which his trainer (dad, Anatoly) has molded him over the years. There is, in Lomachenko’s mind, a correct way to move, a proper way to punch, a right answer to every conceivable question. At the end of the day, there are perhaps only a few dozen different moves that comprise the entirety of the Lomachenko skillset.

Today, we’re going to look at a single sequence of such moves from Lomachenko’s most recent fight. a short and one-sided beatdown, as so many of Loma’s fights are, of Anthony Crolla.

And here it is. Pure, fistic jazz. Lomachenko pressures, feints, evades, and fires off a salvo of crisp, accurate punches with grace and a casual air. If you love boxing, I don’t need to tell you that this is a beautiful, picturesque display of the artform. If you don’t, you still ought to be pretty damn impressed.

All masterpieces have their influences, but boxing is particularly immediate, as far as artforms go. Fighting, like jazz, is inherently conversational. The fighter probes, and questions, and formulates his reply, in part, based on the answers he is given. So while this sequence begins with Lomachenko drawing out an attack, the response he gives might have been imagined minutes prior.

As he moves in, Loma leans to his right, suggesting an attack from that side, only to pull back to the left immediately after. Earlier in the fight, Crolla sighted an opportunity in this same movement. As Loma went left, he gave Crolla a clear view of his floating ribs. So Crolla went for the left hook, reaching for the liver and pivoting around the side as he did it.

Early in round two, the rhythm of the fight had yet to really establish itself, so Lomachenko’s response was a cautious one. He hopped lightly away, tossing out a defensive jab in case Crolla opted to chase after him.

Now, in round three, Crolla’s hook is expected. Pressuring with feints and footwork, Lomachenko doesn’t give Crolla time or space to think, only to feel, and react. His toying head movement is a five chord demanding resolution, and Crolla aches to provide it. He too has learned from the previous round. This time, he steps outside Lomachenko’s front foot well before the Ukrainian maestro has pulled his weight back. This time, at a closer distance from a better angle, he goes for the chin.

But Loma’s cadence is a deceptive one. As he measures with his right hand, keeping careful track of the changing distance between himself and his foe, he spots the hook coming high, and drops underneath it. Now, still in range to respond, it is Crolla’s wayward punch that suddenly demands resolution, and Lomachenko finds a characteristically thrilling route back to one.

First, he must deal with the fact that he’s facing a moving target. Crolla might have missed his shot, but he still uses it to escape, pivoting out of the corner in which Lomachenko has trapped him. He is within reach, still, but momentarily out of the crosshairs. But Lomachenko’s system takes care of the thinking; the counter is intuitive. With his weight on his left foot, it’s no trouble for Loma to swing his right around. He plants his toes outside the line of Crolla’s own left foot just as Crolla did to him moments ago, even as his upper body rolls under and around to occupy the new angle. Still in the process of collecting his balance, Crolla suddenly finds himself right back in the sights, and tries to cover up.

Music without rules is just noise; boxing without a system gets you knocked out. Like Cory Henry taking a solo, welding familiar shapes to sensible theory and somehow producing something totally novel, Lomachenko’s brilliant inventions are all rooted in a firm understanding of the sweet science. What looks like wild improvisation is actually a lot more like inspired switch-flipping. Years of meticulous training have wired into Lomachenko’s body a whole range of conditions and responses, like a vast and complicated flowchart of fighting moves.

When my weight is here, I can move this way more easily than that; when my head is there, I only have so much space to pull it back into; when I throw this punch, I am open here, here, and here, to this, that, or the other strike, and I can move such-and-such a way to avoid it.

“I try to build a bridge,” Archie Moore once said of fighting. “With each punch I try to build a bridge so I can escape over it if something goes wrong . . . Even when I’m escapin’ I’m tryin’ to think of how to get myself back in position.”

Lomachenko gets himself into perfect position almost before Anthony Crolla realizes he’s escaped. Thanks to constant, steady pressure, he knew when Crolla was going to throw. Thanks to his close attention in the earlier rounds, he knew what Crolla was going to throw. And thanks to a lifetime under the guidance of a masterful coach, he had the tools to escape harm without losing position.

All that remains now is to punch the other guy in the face.

Lomachenko’s combination is a whole new sequence of rapid-fire decisions in and of itself. First, a hybrid left uppercut—the perfect punch for an opponent hunched over at close range. The right hook that follows it doesn’t find the mark, but it is perfectly engineered to punish any attempt Crolla might have made to get away from the uppercut. The final shot, a straight left hand down the pipe, is the ideal weapon for the new distance created by Crolla’s desperate retreat. Each punch sets up the next, or plays off the one before it—and it all happens in about half a second.

A Vasyl Lomachenko fight is a dizzying affair. He churns out a dozen of these high-speed improvisations each round, accenting rhythms his opponents can’t feel, harmonizing chords they don’t know they’re playing, and enjoying himself every step of the way. From the stands, it seems like he’s making it all up as he goes along, occupying one vulnerable position after the next and somehow escaping each one unscathed.

But though some of them may be unique to him, Vasyl Lomachenko knows the rules, and he plays by them.

Musicians often worry that too much music theory will squash their creative potential, render their art predictable and stale. The fear is that, by knowing the way things are supposed to be done, one loses contact with some innate, nebulous creative force. In reality, the opposite is true.

Vasyl Lomachenko is not a magician. His seemingly supernatural foresight is, like his hands, his feet, and his chin, entirely human. What makes Lomachenko special is his attention to detail, and his obsessive dedication to his craft. When you break it down piece by piece, nothing he does is really all that novel. But brilliance is always built of prefab parts. Whether trading punches or dueling banjos, creativity thrives within a framework. Genius needs a sandbox.

The artistry is not in the pieces you use, but how you put them together.