by Cliff Rold
It looked like the speed of Gary Russell might be a problem for Vasyl Lomachenko.
That look lasted about ninety seconds.
That’s about how soon into the first round one could begin to see the former two-time Olympic Gold Medalist time the quicker man. In one of the better coin flip matches in some time, no one could be certain of what they were getting. As noted in the pre-fight report card, one guy hadn’t fought anybody and the other had only two fights.
On that basis, the question should have reverted to who was the better man at foundation. Lomachenko was the better amateur, by a lot, and with little to develop either man since, that gap remained.
Let’s go the report cards.
Pre-Fight: Speed – Russell A; Lomachenko A-/Post: A+; A-
Pre-Fight: Power – Russell B; Lomachenko B+/Post: Same
Pre-Fight: Defense – Russell B+; Lomachenko B/Post: B-; A
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Russell B; Lomachenko B+/Post: B; A-
The first thing to say is let’s not get too carried away. Lomachenko was impressive Saturday night but, one fight past, he let a fight with Orlando Salido get away. The Ukrainian is a superlative talent but there is still room for development. That was evident in some of the rounds he lost (two by this scribe’s count), and some of closer rounds that made two final scores of 116-112 understandable.
Lomachenko is still adjusting to twelve round fights and there are spots where his offense slows down as he attempts to pace himself. It’s not a big knock, and it’s something that he will iron out as he adjusts. He also can push his straight left sometimes. That can also be improved.
Everything else was on point. There were spots where he was nearly unhittable, leaving Russell flailing and grunting and with little to show for it. It was a fight where punch stats were probably inaccurate as, really, how much did Russell land of meaning all night?
The same couldn’t be said for Lomachenko. His body attack was vicious and he landed some pretty counters to the head throughout. Lomachenko is fun to watch on offense, his punch selection diverse enough to keep anyone guessing without ever departing from picturesque fundamentals. There’s a reason he almost never lost in the unpaid ranks.
It showed on Saturday.
Already with a belt, it’s unlikely his road will get any lighter. Promoted by Top Rank, he is in the enviable position where he has three other titlists as possible foes (Evgeny Gradovich, Nicholas Walters, and Nonito Donaire). Of the three, the biggest money might eventually be in a Donaire fight. In terms of adding hardware while keeping an eye towards continued development, Gradovich is the perfect opponent. If the Golden Boy/Top Rank hugfest going on gets anywhere, a crack at Jhonny Gonzalez would also be a good match for Lomachenko.
Oh, and he’s still only 2-1 (depending on how one views his World Series of Fighting bouts and that argument is valid both ways).
The other name to mention is 122 lb. titlist Guillermo Rigondeaux. Given they were the two best amateurs of recent memory, there might be some interest in that fight from pockets of the “Cult of Rigo” in particular. If that is going to happen, the sooner the better for the Cuban’s chances. Rigondeaux isn’t a very big Jr. Featherweight. Lomachenko is a big Featherweight who may eventually grow into Jr. Welterweight. When Lomachenko really gets settled as a pro, that size will mean a lot. It might mean less now.
Not that Top Rank will be looking for that fight anyways.
For Russell, this is the latest example of a hole in the Al Haymon machine. Haymon is great at getting fighters shots, seems to have incredible luck with at least one judge no matter what’s going on in the ring, and works well in keeping established talent happy. However, there is something not all there in the way fighters who sign with him early are developed. Andre Berto and Adrien Broner are two recent examples of fighters who got to title shots while doing little of note.
They both won belts, but they had much less to deal with than Russell did Saturday in picking up initial vacant straps. When they were confronted with serious opposition, they were in big trouble. It seems sometimes to be a development model based on overly avoiding risk until titles open up, and that’s not all wrong but there has to be some risk along the way. How else does a fighter learn?
Gary Russell basically fought the same level of opposition from 2011 to Lomachenko. Lomachenko fought that level in his first, Salido in his second, and was more prepared for Russell in less than a year than Russell was for him in five. Salido wasn’t blessed with half the physical gifts of Russell and it’s not like Russell didn’t have his own amateur foundation. This should have been a better fight than it was (and Lomachenko may always just be better). That it wasn’t speaks to Russell not being pushed to maximize his talents before he got there.
At 26, there is still time to correct course and give him the seasoning he lacks. Russell’s speed and reflexes are uncommon but speed is not a skill. Speed is a talent granted. Skill is earned through the refinement of talent.
If Gary Russell’s next fight is someone equivalent to the Jr. Welterweight version of Carlos Molina, take it for granted the lesson wasn’t learned.
Report Card Picks 2014: 29-13 (including staff prediction for Alexander-Soto Karass)
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org