By Keith Idec
Miguel Marriaga admits he was surprised when that phone call came late in June.
Marriaga wasn’t expecting his promoter, Top Rank Inc., to get him a fight so soon after his loss to Oscar Valdez in a featherweight championship match two months earlier. And he definitely wasn’t anticipating the opportunity they called about – a shot at Vasyl Lomachenko, one of the top boxers, pound-for-pound, in the sport.
“We talked with the team and we decided to take the fight,” Marriaga told BoxingScene.com through a translator following a press conference Thursday in Los Angeles. “When they called me, I was already training in Colombia, so I was in shape. That’s why we decided to take the fight.”
Fans and media haven’t been nearly as receptive to this Lomachenko-Marriaga matchup as Marriaga was when it was proposed to him. From the moment it was announced June 30, the prevailing feeling has been that this is a mismatch, a waste of time for the gifted two-time Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine.
Handicappers have made Marriaga (25-2, 21 KOs) a 16-1 underdog against Lomachenko (8-1, 6 KOs). It doesn’t help that Jamaica’s Nicholas Walters, the man Lomachenko made quit following seven stunningly one-sided rounds November 26 in Las Vegas, beat Marriaga in boring-but-convincing fashion two years ago in The Theater at Madison Square Garden.
The 30-year-old Marriaga, who’s 0-2 in world title fights, also had to move up from 126 pounds to 130 to challenge Lomachenko, the WBO super featherweight champion. Marriaga, of Arjona, Colombia, senses that reporters and fans aren’t the only ones discounting his chances in their 12-round title fight Saturday night at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.
“I think that he’s overlooking me a little because he’s talking about fighting other fighters, other champions,” Marriaga said. “I always say that you have to take care of what’s in front of you first because anything can happen in a fight and maybe he can be surprised this Saturday.”
Being dismissed by most as a supposedly hopeless underdog has motivated Marriaga during an abbreviated training camp just outside of Cartagena.
“I like it when fighters overlook me,” Marriaga said. “I like it when they’re confident, so that I can surprise them in the fight.”
Nothing about Lomachenko will surprised Marriaga. The Colombian contender fully understands that the uniquely skilled Lomachenko is an uncommon combination of speed, power, intelligence and ring generalship.
“I really think he’s a great fighter,” Marriaga said. “He’s one of the best in boxing right now. But I also know that I’m one of the best and that’s why I think there’s gonna be a surprise in this fight.”
The 29-year-old Lomachenko has been dominant in his seven fights since Mexico’s Orlando Salido roughed him up and upset him by split decision in their 12-round fight three years ago in San Antonio.
The cerebral champion has handed two top opponents their first defeats during his seven-fight winning streak. Those victories over Walters (26-1-1, 21 KOs) and WBC featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr. (28-1, 17 KOs), in addition to dominant performances in stoppages of former super featherweight champions Rocky Martinez (29-3-3, 17 KOs) and Jason Sosa (20-2-4, 15 KOs), have helped establish Lomachenko as a potential pound-for-pound king.
The southpaw’s prowess has generated great interest in matching Lomachenko against everyone from WBC lightweight champion Mikey Garcia (37-0, 30 KOs), to WBA super bantamweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs, 1 NC). Unification fights against WBC 130-pound champion Miguel Berchelt (32-1, 28 KOs) and IBF super featherweight champ Gervonta Davis (18-0, 17 KOs) also have piqued Lomachenko’s interest.
Then, of course, there’s the much-discussed rematch with Salido (44-13-4, 31 KOs, 1 NC), the fight Lomachenko preferred for Saturday night. Top Rank executive Carl Moretti said Salido turned down a $720,000 purse to fight Lomachenko again.
Lomachenko has been asked much more about those potential opponents this week than Marriaga. The former featherweight champion made it clear, however, that he hasn’t underestimated Marriaga.
“He’s physically strong,” Lomachenko said through a translator during a conference call earlier this week. “His conditioning is good. He has skills, so I think that bout, what everybody thinks is gonna be very easy, I don’t think it’s gonna be very easy for me.”
Marriaga’s performance against Valdez (22-0, 19 KOs) impressed Lomachenko.
Valdez dropped Marriaga in the 10th round of that April 22 bout at StubHub Center in Carson, California. The knockdown notwithstanding, Marriaga made Valdez work hard for his win, even though the three scorecards submitted made it seem as if Valdez won their 12-round, 126-pound title fight easily (119-108, 118-109, 116-111).
“I didn’t think that the judges’ scorecards were fair,” Marriaga said. “It was a close fight and the judges’ decision didn’t show that. I think they gave it to him so wide because he was the local fighter.
“I didn’t see myself losing that fight. If the judges would’ve been more fair, I would’ve won the fight.”
It’s important for Lomachenko not just to win Saturday night, but to make sure that his fight against Marriaga isn’t at all close.
Their main event is part of Top Rank’s new partnership with ESPN, which has showcased Lomachenko on its various platforms throughout this week. Lomachenko has been billed as an elite talent and must deliver during a fight available to roughly three times as many viewers than each of his past three fights on HBO.
The Lomachenko-Marriaga match will air after a 10-round lightweight bout between Phoenix’s Ray Beltran (33-7-1, 21 KOs, 1 NC) and Costa Rica’s Bryan Vasquez (35-2, 19 KOs). Beltran-Vasquez will open a telecast set to start at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.
The upset-minded Marriaga intends to ruin the night for new viewers who are curious if Lomachenko can live up to the hype.
“I think I’ve shown what I can do as a fighter,” Marriaga said during the press conference. “My last opportunity that I had, I had a great fight with Oscar Valdez. And I think that’s why I have this fight right now.
“[An upset] would be a great thing for Colombia. It’s a tough fight, but it’s not impossible to beat a great fighter like Lomachenko. I know that Colombia is expecting that world championship and I’m trying to bring it to Colombia on Saturday.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.