Jose Pedraza is tasked with one of the most difficult assignments in all of sports this weekend at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City: Figuring out a way to decipher Vasiliy Lomachenko.
While this is a lightweight unification tilt, with Pedraza (25-1, 12 KO) coming in with the WBO belt and Lomachenko the owner of the WBA title, many are treating this as a coronation for the gifted Ukrainian. Lomachenko, who captured world titles at featherweight and junior lightweight, is generally considered among the best — if not the best — boxer in the world.
What he has achieved in just a dozen fights is unprecedented in many respects, but there is a blemish on his otherwise sterling résumé. In March 2014, the audacious Lomachenko — who was coming off an amateur career that saw him capture two Olympic gold medals and compile an astonishing record of 396-1 — attempted to win a major world title in just his second pro bout.
Lomachenko and his management actually wanted to fight for one in their pro debut, but they were told by Bob Arum that simply would not be feasible. Upon signing with Top Rank, they were given a promise that a title shot would be arranged by the second fight.
That particular opportunity came against the rugged Mexican, Orlando Salido, who was the reigning WBO 126-pound champion.
“I remember him being a big amateur star. People were saying how great he was. But he had never been with a real warrior inside the ring as a professional. He had never seen anything like me before,” said Salido, who retired after his loss to Miguel Roman in December 2017 and finished with a career mark of 44-14-1 (31 KO).
Early in their matchup at the Alamodome in San Antonio, it was clear that Lomachenko (11-1, 9 KO) was made uncomfortable by the suffocating, grinding style of Salido, who pressured him and kept digging downstairs to the body.
Facing one of the cagiest fighters in the sport, who wasn’t afraid to stretch the limits of the Marquess of the Queensberry Rules, the inexperienced Lomachenko certainly looked out of his element in the early rounds. Body punching is rare in the amateur ranks, and in Salido, Lomachenko was facing someone who had developed into one of the game’s true craftsmen on the inside.
Truth be told, many of Salido’s shots strayed south of the border, and referee Laurence Cole was complicit in his unwillingness to penalize him throughout the 12 rounds. From Salido’s perspective, was it really a crime if it wasn’t being policed properly?
“Maybe the best thing to do is let Lomachenko beat you up and maybe somehow get him to relax his guard and sneak one in on him because I don’t have a game plan against that guy. That is one of the toughest questions I have had about what you would do against a guy.”
Trainer Joe Goossen on how to fight Vasiliy Lomachenko
Speaking through publicist Ricardo Jimenez, Salido told ESPN.com, “I had a game plan, and I executed it, and he didn’t know what to do. I smothered him, and I didn’t allow him to think in there. He never made any adjustments in there.”
That isn’t completely accurate, Lomachenko gained his bearings in the late rounds versus Salido and slowly began to show the form that made him such a highly touted prospect. He even hurt Salido in Round 12 and had seemingly figured things out by the end of the fight. Unfortunately, his rally fell short, and he came out on the short end of a split decision. But there is an asterisk by this result, as Salido failed to make the 126-pound weight limit for this featherweight title fight, and the WBO belt remained vacant.
In his next fight three months later, Lomachenko fought for that same title and dominated the talented Gary Russell Jr. From that point on, Lomachenko has evolved into a complete practitioner of “the sweet science.”
Now he seems virtually impossible to defeat. So how do you map out a game plan to at least make it uncomfortable for the 30-year-old stylist?
Veteran trainer Joe Goossen chuckled for a few seconds while searching for an answer.
“I laugh because there’s so few ways to make it difficult for him,” said the man who guided the likes of Michael Nunn, Gabriel and Rafael Ruelas to world titles and is now working with former IBF 140-pound belt holder Sergey Lipinets. “The limited time we’ve seen him fight, it’s enough to see what he’s made of, and it’s something very special.”
His most recent victory, a 10-round stoppage of the respected Jorge Linares in May, impressed Goossen.
“Linares was so fast that night and sharp,” Goossen said.
But as Lomachenko seemingly had complete control of the proceedings that night at Madison Square Garden, he was shockingly sent to the canvas from a counter right hand from Linares in Round 6. Goossen believes he was the victim of complacency, and with that, perhaps laying traps versus Lomachenko is the way to go.
“Maybe the best thing to do is let Lomachenko beat you up and maybe somehow get him to relax his guard and sneak one in on him because I don’t have a game plan against that guy,” Goossen said. “That is one of the toughest questions I have had about what you would do against a guy.”
The problem according to Goossen is that Lomachenko, though he might be the “Baryshnikov of Boxing” with the ballet he conducts inside the squared circle, is a guy who isn’t afraid to stick his nose in a pile and get dirty.
“He can press, and he can box,” Goossen said. “So if you want to press him, he’ll box you. You want to box him, he’ll press you — and he’s a southpaw to boot. And he’s got this incredible footwork and angles at the ready, at any time. He’s very flexible, so he can contort his body into ways that make you miss punches. He just knows his way around the ring like no one’s business, and on top of it, he’s hyper-athletic, and he can push, he’s accurate, he’s fluid, throws punches in abundance. He’s your worst nightmare. He really is.”
Goossen is far from the only trainer who is effusive in his praise of Lomachenko.
Rudy Hernandez, who trains WBO 130-pound titlist Masayuke Ito, made it clear that Lomachenko is a difficult fighter to prepare for.
“I think if you don’t rough him up, if you don’t hit him low, you don’t hit him in the hips, you don’t slow him down in some way, his skills are on a different level, and it’s going to be difficult,” Hernandez said. “And if you think you can out-box him, well, I haven’t seen that guy yet that’s either come up or around that can outbox Lomachenko.”
Putting him in confined areas, where he isn’t so free to operate and control distance and spacing, is paramount to having any sustained success against Lomachenko.
“Be on him, not let him breathe and disrespect him, piss him off, get him to fight,” Hernandez said. “Because if you allow him to box, it’s going to be a long night.”
In other words, do what Salido did?
“Absolutely,” Hernandez said. “Salido hit him on the hips. Salido stayed on him.
“That was the plan: just to pressure him, stay on top of him, throw as many punches as we could, don’t let him think,” said Salido, who won a world title at 126 and 130 pounds in his career.
But there’s one problem with that thesis, according to trainer Abel Sanchez.
“How many guys can be like Salido?”
“I remember him being a big amateur star. People were saying how great he was. But he had never been with a real warrior inside the ring as a professional. He had never seen anything like me before.”
Orlando Salido on Vasiliy Lomachenko
That is a good point. Salido’s record as a pro belies the craft he developed in the second half of his career. Yet while defeating the current version of Lomachenko is daunting, Sanchez, best known for his work with Gennady Golovkin, doesn’t think it’s impossible.
“I saw him against Jorge Linares, and he’s an exceptional, great fighter,” Sanchez said. “But I also feel Linares could’ve done a whole lot better if he had just had more confidence in his left hand and not just depended so much on the right hand.”
Lomachenko dramatically ended the fight with Linares with a perfectly placed right hook to the body in Round 10. At the time of the stoppage, both boxers were ahead on one card by the score of 86-84, and the third card had it dead-even at 85-85.
Teddy Atlas, a long-time ESPN analyst who recently led Oleksandr Gvozdyk to the WBC light heavyweight title, believes that first and foremost, you need to have a very good fighter. But he also said that whomever you’re bringing into battle versus Lomachenko has to be buttoned up mentally. Recently, the likes of Guillermo Rigondeaux and Nicholas Walter capitulated to frustration in trying to get a bead on Lomachenko. They didn’t get beaten down physically so much as psychologically.
According to Atlas, Lomachenko is a master illusionist inside the ring.
“You’re dealing with a guy who makes you think he’s doing one thing and then he does another,” said Atlas, comparing him to the football team that will run misdirection running plays on a consistent basis. “He makes you think he’s going one way. He goes the other.”
One of his favorite maneuvers is to attack an opponent and then pivot sharply to his right side. He creates a blind spot that creates situations in which Lomachenko is the only one who can consistently stay on the attack while creating defensive shelters for himself through angles. You can’t always punch to where Lomachenko is but where he’s going to end up.
“You have to know what he does, and you have to be good at controlling range,” Atlas said. “You can’t let him control you, getting up in a distance where when he makes those movements. You have to get some separation, where at the right time, where you can actually see it unfold in front of you. If he’s right close to you, he’s got you in his magnet, so to speak.”
Again, you can’t hit what you don’t see, and you won’t be able to defend oncoming punches that come from unusual trajectories. While you have to anticipate his movements and tendencies, you can’t just guess.
“See what he’s really doing, or you’re going to be caught up in the grips of it,” Atlas said.
Jason Sosa, who held a version of the WBA 130-pound belt, faced Lomachenko in April 2017 and was halted in nine rounds. The 30-year-old from Camden, New Jersey, said he had the “absolute worst training camp.” But he takes nothing away from him.
“Lomachenko is a very special guy. He does whatever he wants in that ring,” Sosa said. “He’s really gifted. His boxing ability is unexplainable. The guy gives you crazy angles. He’s constantly hitting you.”
Going back to what Goossen said, Sosa mentioned that Lomachenko is difficult to prepare for.
“For not being a pressure fighter — he’s a boxer — he’s also constantly on top of you.” He added that Lomachenko “doesn’t have a weakness.”
Is there anybody who can realistically topple Lomachenko?
“A guy like Mikey Garcia (39-0, 30 KO) is just a bigger guy,” Salido said of Garcia, who had unified titles at lightweight and will be challenging IBF welterweight champion Errol Spence (24-0, 21 KO) on March 19. But while Garcia might have a size advantage on Lomachenko, in Salido’s opinion, Spence doesn’t have the skills to beat him.
“I think Lomachenko just may be too fast,” Atlas said.
It’s clear that the Lomachenko who was outpointed by Salido has evolved into one of the most complete boxers on the planet. In many ways, he has exceeded the expectations that were placed upon him.
“He’s developed into a really good fighter. He’s learned a lot. He’s gotten experience of being a professional,” Salido said. “In every aspect of being a fighter, he’s gotten better and better.”