It’s fair to say that most people expected Jamaine Ortiz not to offer too much resistance on Saturday night — just enough to get the systems going, maybe, but he hadn’t been anywhere near this sort of level before and he’d been showing certain mistakes that he’d need to polish away sharpish if he was going to compete.
Not only did he do that, but he came with a host of tactical choices specifically catered to Lomachenko’s style, which the aging great had to work out and overcome on his way to what proved to be one of the most hard-fought victories of his career. Let’s take a look at the game of adjustment and counter-adjustment that played out.
The first thing to mark is the physicality of this matchup. Lomachenko is used to being the smaller man, as a fighter who started two divisions below where he is now (and wasn’t the biggest at that weight). He’s not, though, used to being matched for speed — even his loss to Teofimo Lopez was more a case of having just enough speed to match the timing to cause him problems. And he certainly isn’t used to being challenged for his speed of foot.
Ortiz, really, challenged him on all three fronts, but it was by no means a brute-force performance. He used those advantages wisely, bringing new wrinkles in at the right time and dialing right back on a previous tendency to just throw everything and see what sticks. That made it doubly tricky for Lomachenko, because once he worked out one problem Ortiz would bring a new one into play.
The fight started with the two exchanging jabs, in center ring, but as Loma looked for angles early two things became apparent immediately. First, Ortiz had prepared very well to turn with Lomachenko as the older man circled, and second, he wasn’t going to give up any freebies. Loma is adept at getting the first and last word in exchanges and opponents are often a little hesistant to throw with him because a badly-judged strike can get punished with multiple clean shots. Ortiz though insisted both on getting his jab on first but also on pretty much always having some kind of answer and never letting his opponent get away clean after throwing. He also wouldn’t allow the clinch to be a rest spot or somewhere Loma could bump him around, always looking to work at least one hand free and work the body.
The first move and counter-move of the chess game occured early. Lomachenko hadn’t had much joy getting inside and working his combinations because of the threat of Ortiz’ right hand down the middle, but in an open-stance matchup, southpaw vs orthodox, if one fighter can get round the lead side of their opponent they have a lot of room to work. Lomachenko is adept at this kind of thing and he quickly started slipping under Ortiz’ jab and stepping to his right (Ortiz’ left). The younger fighter responded immediately though, by mixing his jab up with other lead hand shots. Nothing complicated or even particularly clean, but little sweeping forehands, hooks and simply varying the level from head to body made it much harder to know where the safe space was going to be, and when combined with smartly-judged pivots, took away one of Lomachenko’s best weapons for the early part of the fight.
So one of his favourite tools was, for now, out of the game. Lomachenko isn’t a helpless rookie though, so how would he respond? Turns out the answer was fairly simple- Ortiz was very focused on covering off the routes down the outside, but he seemed less prepared down the middle. The jab was there, yes, but if Loma could time it right and follow it in, the follow-up defences weren’t quite there and he’d be able to land some straight lefts down the pipe, as well as regularly tagging the left eye with his jab. So he did. Through the fourth and fifth rounds he regularly snapped Ortiz’s head back that way, and when he started to mix it with body shots, Ortiz’ volume started to slow a bit.
That was the first real moment of concern for Ortiz. His initial adjustments had been pre-planned, knowing what Loma was likely to do, but here his first gameplan was starting to come unravelled a bit, and he had to change it up. Luckily for him, he had something in his locker he’d been holding back just for this. Not all stance switches are wise, and he could have been accused of using them unwisely in the past, but here towards the end of the sixth he simply switched to southpaw to close up the open stance. That made the timing of the straight-line approach immediately different, and meant he could throw his right hand as a lead with a much shorter route to land. It meant Lomachenko had to back off, just to take a look and see how this affected things. Ortiz took the opportunity by immediately pushing up his own pace again and, on a couple of occasions, win direct head-to-head exchanges on sheer volume. It should be noted that that really just doesn’t happen to Lomachenko, and must have been a bit of a shock to the system.
He didn’t stick in the southpaw stance purely for long, though. That could be considered a mistake since the moment of switching is one of vulnerability itself, but as long as he kept it clean it was a good way to prevent Loma from getting the time he needed to work out the southpaw stance as he had the orthodox. At this point the fight got pretty fluid, the pair throwing different looks at each other with rapidity- a bump in the clinch from Loma here, a set of uppercuts from Ortiz there. But, while he’d done very well so far to keep those technical mistakes from spoiling the show, this was when the last physical aspect started to rear its head, and it was in Lomachenko’s favour.
He might be the younger man, less worn by injury and more active more recently in the boxing ring, but Ortiz had never been 12 rounds before — heck, he’d only been 10 twice. There is always a little worry when a fighter makes that jump whether their stamina will hold up and if they have the experience managing the pace. For the first time to be against Lomachenko, one of the greatest volume punchers and active movers of his generation... baptism of fire is putting it gently. To his credit, Ortiz never quite crashed, energy-wise, but he clearly began to slow, and that opened up another problem.
Simply said, when a fighter makes big new changes to their technique or gameplan in camp, it usually takes a little while for those changes to bed in such that they are the natural instinct even when operating hurt, tired or with very little time to think. Ortiz and his camp had done a downright heroic job at putting those technical errors to bed, but as his energy flagged, they did start to show. From about round nine, he did start to find his feet crossing or square as Lomachenko circled, and that got him caught and hurt with shots that weren’t doing any serious damage earlier. And as he responded to that by pushing the harder and trying to keep Loma from circling by forcing him back, he did, as he hadn’t to this point in the fight, start to come just a little heavy over his front foot- and the uppercuts were waiting.
He never folded, he didn’t give up and he never stopped making it hard work for Lomachenko, but it was precisely those rounds, the tenth-round-and-on championship distance, that the difference was found. Loma was able to finally get his circling movement going, and this time Ortiz wasn’t able to curtail it, and by the end he was getting him enough of balance that he was able to consistently win the little shoving matches in the clinch too. That second half dominance was ultimately decisive, and Lomachenko moves on to, hopefully, take a crack at undisputed champion Devin Haney- but Ortiz comes away with an invaluable experience and a huge bump in his stock in the division.
Lomachenko is clear on what he wants to do next — fight Devin Haney for the belts. He said it before the fight, and again face-to-face with him afterwards, that he’ll give up pretty much all necessary concessions to get the fight made, just as Haney did himself to get the shot at Kambosos previously. In terms of the prospects of how that fight goes, there will be some concern. Both Haney and Loma noted he wasn’t quite at his best tonight, and while he did promise he’ll be better now he’s knocked the rust off... well, he’s 34. It’s quite possible but he can’t be sure, and Haney, though he isn’t powerful and makes some little errors Loma will think he can exploit, is big, strong, technically rounded and very fast. It’s an excellent fight and one we should hope happens as soon as possible.
Ortiz, meanwhile, has made himself a player in the division. He lost, but in his losing performance he gave the great Vasyl Lomachenko looks and things to think about that far more experienced fighters have not, and he can only learn from going the 12-round distance and having to deal with someone that good while doing so. The future’s bright for him, and he may well get a shot at the titles again in future.