By Keith Idec
NEW YORK – Two truly great boxers will square off Saturday night in a 130-pound showdown that has generated incredible buzz among hardcore fight fans.
That much is indisputable.
Ukraine’s Vasyl Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) and Cuba’s Guillermo Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs, 1 NC) are ranked among the top 10 boxers in the world on every credible pound-for-pound list. And it took just three days to sell out the 5,200-seat Theater at Madison Square Garden once tickets went on sale for this excellent encounter in September.
Lomachenko-Rigondeaux is historically significant, too, because their 12-round fight for Lomachenko’s WBO super featherweight title will mark the first time a pair of two-time Olympic gold medalists will meet as professionals.
It remains to be seen, however, whether these skillful, powerful southpaws can justify all this hype and anticipation by producing a truly great fight when they go at it in an ESPN main event (9 p.m. EST). Below we’ll examine eight factors – one for each pound Rigondeaux has moved up for this fascinating fight – to consider as we wonder whether this ultimate fight fan’s fight can deliver on its promotional promises.
AGE EDGE: More than anything, this is Lomachenko’s biggest advantage over Rigondeaux. The undefeated southpaw is listed at 37, but there has been rampant speculation for years that the Cuban defector is older than he has always claimed.
Regardless, Lomachenko is at least eight years younger than him. Unlike Lomachenko, Rigondeaux is no longer in his physical prime.
That might not matter as much if he weren’t about to battle arguably the most skillful boxer in the sport. Just six days ago, upstairs from where Lomachenko and Rigondeaux will meet, Sadam Ali, who’s the same age as Lomachenko, proved just how important youth can be when he defeated Miguel Cotto, who’s the same age Rigondeaux, at Madison Square Garden.
ACTIVITY LEVELS: Age and inactivity are a potentially insurmountable mix for even the most intelligent, talented boxers.
In addition to his advanced age, Rigondeaux has boxed a total of three rounds in the past two years. Since he out-boxed the Philippines’ Drian Francisco (29-4-1, 22 KOs) to win a 10-round unanimous decision on the Canelo Alvarez-Cotto undercard in November 2015, Rigondeaux has stopped England’s James Dickens (22-3, 7 KOs) after two rounds because he broke Dickens’ jaw in their July 2016 bout and had his first-round knockout of mandatory challenger Moises Flores (25-0, 17 KOs, 1 NC) changed to a no-contest because Rigondeaux hit Mexico’s Flores following the bell to end the first round June 17 in Las Vegas.
Inactivity hasn’t been a problem for Rigondeaux only recently, either.
Since he defeated Nonito Donaire for the biggest win of his career in April 2013, he has fought just six times in nearly five years. And he has just 18 fights on his professional record, despite that Rigondeaux turned pro 8½ years ago.
Lomachenko, meanwhile, will fight for the fourth time since last November 26, when he dominated Jamaica’s Nicholas Walters (26-1-1, 21 KOs) until the former featherweight champion quit before the eighth round began in Las Vegas.
SIZE DIFFERENTIAL: Rigondeaux looked more muscular than usual during an open workout Wednesday at Mendez Boxing Gym, definitely thicker than Lomachenko.
There’s still no denying that moving up two weight classes is dangerously ambitious, even for a gifted fighter who has never lost as a professional. Rigondeaux has come in above the super bantamweight limit of 122 pounds for just one of his 18 pro fights and never higher than 125½ pounds.
The 5-feet-6 Lomachenko is listed as two inches taller than Rigondeaux and was noticeably bigger than him when they went face-to-face after a press conference Thursday. Rigondeaux does have a two-inch reach advantage over Lomachenko, who figures to be heavier when they step in the ring Saturday night.
There is, however, a contractual clause that prohibits either fighter from getting on the scale at more than 138 pounds at a second-day weigh-in Saturday morning.
CHIN CHECK: Lomachenko doesn’t own one-punch knockout power, but he hurts his opponents, often by catching them with sharp punches from various angles.
Rigondeaux’s reflexes and overall elusiveness have made him one of the most effective defensive fighters in boxing. He still has been knocked down four times – once apiece by Donaire and Ricardo Cordoba, and twice by Hisashi Amagasa – and buzzed by another opponent, Robert Marroquin.
Lomachenko hasn’t been knocked down as a pro, nor has he been hurt badly.
CONTRASTING STYLES: Both boxers have fast hands, move well and are used to being the smarter fighter in the ring.
Lomachenko’s diversity offensively and consistent commitment to initiating action makes him more aesthetically appealing than the typically defensive-minded Rigondeaux.
The WBA super bantamweight possesses plenty of power, though, and could make Lomachenko think twice about taking some of the chances on offense that he has taken against lesser opponents. But if Rigondeaux falls behind early and doesn’t think he can come back against a younger, better, bigger boxer, it could cause him to retreat into a defensive shell and become content just to go the distance.
CEMENTING LEGACIES: Rigondeaux doesn’t think he gets the respect he deserves and feels as though Lomachenko has been overrated by promoter Bob Arum, fans and media.
That’s among the reasons he pushed to jump up two weight classes to prove himself against an opponent generally regarded as one of the top three boxers, pound-for-pound, in the sport. Rigondeaux realizes he has no more time to waste and can cash in if he upsets Lomachenko for what would be the best win of his career.
That could make him fight in a more fan-friendly way, aggressively against an elite-level talent completely equipped to make Rigondeaux pay for taking more risks than he has grown accustomed.
Lomachenko might not get the credit he deserves for defeating such a skilled, intelligent opponent. But becoming the first fighter to defeat Rigondeaux obviously would enhance what’s already a strong reputation, thanks in part to having already done that with Walters and Gary Russell Jr. (28-1, 17 KOs).
ODDS ASSESSMENT: Lomachenko is more than a 3-1 favorite, but the fighter favored to win the previous Saturday at Madison Square Garden got upset.
Cotto was an even bigger favorite than Lomachenko (11-1), but was out-boxed by Ali, who won a unanimous decision in their 12-round, 154-pound title fight. Rigondeaux, like Cotto, is the 37-year-old fighter in this scenario, but is perceived to be a much livelier underdog than Ali a week earlier.
Moreover, one heavy favorite, Manny Pacquiao, has already lost since Top Rank’s new ESPN series debuted July 2 in Brisbane, Australia. Pacquiao was a 6-1 favorite over Jeff Horn, an unbeaten but unknown contender who beat the Filipino southpaw by unanimous decision to win the WBO welterweight title.
PRESSURE-PACKED: Lomachenko and former undisputed 140-pound champion Terence Crawford are the foundation for Top Rank’s ESPN series.
Rigondeaux is supposed to lose because he’s older, smaller and has been less active than Lomachenko. The pressure undoubtedly is on Lomachenko, who’s in the prime of his career and wants bigger paydays.
Lomachenko doesn’t fight tight, but how will he react if Rigondeaux begins building a lead against him?
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.