By Jake Donovan
There are so many other angles to identify the June 21 vacant featherweight title fight between Gary Russell and Vasyl Lomachenko.
You can call it a pairing of two former brilliant amateurs in search of their first championship win in the pro ranks. Perhaps it’s a matchup of an underachiever versus an overachiever. Maybe it’s simply a mismatch, a proven prospect waiting for the right opportunity, going up against a professional novice biting off more than he can chew in an ambitious start to the pro game.
The angle with which most seem obsessed, however, is that of Golden Boy versus Top Rank, and whether or not this fight is the first move towards the end of boxing’s Cold War.
Representatives for both companies were the only two in the room on the mid-April day a purse bid hearing was held for the right to promote the fight. Golden Boy won the bid with a whopping $1,052,500 offering. It was good enough to edge Top Rank by a mere $2,250 and absurdly high enough to raise questions if the two companies were determined to outdo each other for a fight that didn’t necessarily register in the grand scheme of things.
At the time, the two sides were not in the habit of doing business together. Richard Schaefer was still operating as CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, and determined to win the rights to this fight, as it meant doing business with a Top Rank fighter without having to include bitter rival Bob Arum in the fight.
That dynamic has since dramatically changed. Schaefer is no longer an active part of the day-to-day operations for Golden Boy. Oscar de la Hoya, after whom the company is named, extended an olive branch to Arum, his promoter for most of his first 12 years as a pro fighter, in hopes of the two biggest stateside promotional companies doing future business together.
Arum and several members of the Top Rank family even made the trek to Canastota, New York over the weekend, to witness de la Hoya gain enshrinement into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. They traveled straight from New York City, mere hours after an event that saw Miguel Cotto make history at Madison Square Garden in his middleweight championship win over Sergio Martinez.
Barely enough time elapsed for Top Rank to reflect on the success of the event before celebrating a major honor for one of its former clients.
“It was all cordial,” Carl Moretti, Vice President of Boxing Operations for Top Rank said of the interaction between the companies during the Hall of Fame weekend. “We were inside the Hall of Fame itself when Oscar walked in. We all shook his hand and congratulated him.
“It wasn’t about Top Rank versus Golden Boy; it was about reveling in a terrific weekend that every boxing fan should make a point to take in. Don King was there as well. The politics of the sport never entered into the day.”
Once Monday rolled around, it was business as usual as far as most in the industry were concerned. There was one difference, however – the belief that Top Rank was now invited to participate in the promotion for the June 21 card at the StubHub Center in Carson, California.
“It’s a good fight. It’s a quality fight. We tried to win the purse bid. They [Golden Boy] outbid us by a little bit. But the fight goes on,” Arum told Boxingscene.com’s David Greisman. “And it goes on in California, so that’s fine. Nobody worries about unfairness. And now that Oscar is in charge of Golden Boy, it’s further reason to relax and to know that everything will be fair.”
The fight marks the first time since Nov. ’12 in which a Top Rank fighter is matched with a boxer from Golden Boy’s stable, and advised by Al Haymon. The last such occasion was when Vanes Martirosyan and Erislandy Lara fought to a technical draw, in a bout that was to determine a mandatory challenger for a 154 lb. title. That bout also went to purse bid, and was won by Top Rank.
You have to go back to Sept. ’11 and Yuriorkis Gamboa’s technical decision win over Daniel Ponce de Leon to discover the last time the two sides willingly conducted business together. As Arum plans to be involved in the June 21 show as much as de la Hoya and the present-day version of Golden Boy Promotions will allow, the question that comes is when the two companies will co-promote an event from start to finish.
For the moment, ‘if’ still seems more applicable than ‘when.’
“This fight happened because of a purse bid, not a negotiation,” Moretti points out. “We didn’t hammer out a deal and divvy up the site fee or anything. We honored the purse bid because the fight made sense.”
The line of thinking has trickled down to the fighters, several of whom have spoken up in recent times.
For the past several years, fighters from each side never bothered to call each other out, realizing the efforts as a waste of time. Top Rank fighters appear almost exclusively on HBO, while Golden Boy’s entire stable – including those who are with the company only through their direct ties to Haymon - was shuttled over to Showtime early last year.
Key fighters have begun to speak up on the situation, even if not holding their promoter’s feet to the fire. Adrien Broner, one of the prize members of Haymon’s stable and who has fought on Golden Boy cards for his entire young career, didn’t hesitiate to call out Manny Pacquiao shortly after his bounce back win over Carlos Molina this past May on Showtime Pay-Per-View.
Mikey Garcia, Brandon Rios and Abner Mares, among others, have also sought lucrative matchups with fighters from the opposite side, only for such bouts to never come close to materializing.
Even Russell himself admitted frustration over the past lack of potential for fights to happen in and around the featherweight division.
“It's a big honor to break that cycle, the Top Rank-Al Haymon-Golden Boy dreck,” Russell (24-0, 14KO) said of his upcoming title fight with Lomachenko (1-1, 1KO). “You have these great fights that fans don't get to see because of the ongoing situation. It's a big honor for me and Lomachenko to break through all of that.”
The fight came about after Lomachenko’s own losing effort for the same title that will be at stake next Saturday. The Ukrainian wunderkind came up just short versus Orlando Salido, who was forced to concede the title at the scales after failing to make the featherweight limit. The veteran fighter proceeded to win a split decision – albeit in an ugly foul-filled affair – thus leaving the title vacant.
Had Lomachenko won, he would have been crowned champ. With Salido out of the running due to missing weight, the 26-year old was left as the next highest ranked fighter to face Russell, the WBO mandatory challenger to fill the alphabet championship void.
The bout is the only one of the three among the Showtime-televised tripleheader to involve both companies. The show itself is promoted exclusively by Golden Boy Promotions, as is a July 12 pay-per-view event in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, Top Rank has its own slew of cards lined up for the summer, most of which will air on HBO and none of which involve Golden Boy.
Once presently scheduled business plays out, who knows what the future has in store.
“Can this lead to future opportunities between our companies? Absolutely. But it will come down to whether the fight makes sense for both sides. There’s the potential to make other fights, but there are still levels we have to overcome to make those fights happen.”
“People tend to care more about the Cold War than the (Russell vs. Lomachenko) fight itself,” Moretti believes. “Let’s appreciate this fight coming up.”
That appreciation grows, however, knowing there’s hope for a brighter future for the sport.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox