By Rick Reeno
This past Saturday night at the StubHub Center in Carson, two-time Olympic gold medal winner Vasyl Lomachenko (2-1, 1KOs) officially became a major player in the featherweight division, and certainly a name on the rise, with a statement making twelve round majority decision over previously undefeated Gary Russell Jr. (24-1, 14KOs) to capture the vacant WBO featherweight title.
Top Rank's VP of Boxing Operations, Carl Moretti, and one of Top Rank's head matchmakers, Brad Goodman, expect Lomachenko to be dominant force in the featherweight division.
There is no shortage of future opponents in Top Rank's vast stable of featherweights, which includes three other champions - WBA 'super' champion Nonito Donaire, WBA 'regular' champion Nicholas Walters and IBF champion Evgeny Gradovich.
Lomachenko will fight at least one more time before the year is out, but after Saturday's performance Moretti admits it won't be easy to match him against any of the top fighters in his division. And it won't be because Lomachenko is not willing. Quite the opposite. Lomachenko wants the biggest and toughest fights possible.
"There is no question, whoever he fights next - whether it's another champion to unify or a top ten contender - he wants to fight as good as we can get out there. The problem is going to be - who are we going to get to fight him? So this is going to take a little bit of work," Moretti explained to BoxingScene.com.
After Lomachenko suffered a setback in his first pro fight, a controversial split decision loss to Orlando Salido in March, Top Rank advised the boxer to take things a little slower.
But Lomachenko is not your average boxer with a record of two professional fights. With two Olympic gold medals and an incredible amateur record of 396-1, Lomachenko and his team saw no reason to slow down. So when the WBO ordered Lomachenko and Russell to fight for the vacant WBO title, the talented Ukrainian demanded the opportunity. And despite Russell's professional edge with 24 wins without a loss, it was Lomachenko who displayed the seasoned skills of a veteran.
"We suggested and said 'you don't have to take this fight. You can do a couple of more fights and fight for a title eventually.' But he insisted on it, so we said 'okay, we'll fight Gary Russell,'" Moretti said.
"If you told anybody in the place that he only had two fights, they would think you're crazy. But we live in a different age now, where amateur careers really translate into the pros. It doesn't make that big of a difference anymore."
And Russell was, and still is, a highly regarded contender at the weight - which makes Lomachenko's victory even more impressive. Moretti believes Russell "can hang with anyone at 126." And Goodman, one of the most respected matchmakers in the sport, echoed the same belief.
"Gary Russell is a good fighter. He just fought a guy who was more seasoned and had a lot more experience. Gary Russell has a ton of potential. He has nothing to be ashamed of. As long as he learned from his mistakes, he will become a much better fighter," Goodman told BoxingScene.com.
With Lomachenko now included in the mix, Top Rank is going to have a very busy period at 126.
"Lomachenko, Donaire, Walters, Gradovich, Rodriguez, Avalos. We are going to try to make fights and go from there," Moretti said. "I hate the word tournament, but there's going to be alot of fights at 126."