By Thomas Gerbasi
A fighter can lie to the world. He can’t lie to himself. Jorge Linares knows that now, but the way the WBA lightweight champion feels heading into his Saturday bout with Vasyl Lomachenko, there’s no reason to tell any tall tales.
“I analyze myself very much,” he said during a media roundtable in Los Angeles in March. “I have a mirror at home and it’s not just to see what I’m wearing. I want to see beyond the mirror and see what I am and who I’ve become. I say to myself, ‘Do I have a chance or do I not have a chance?’ You have to always be clear. I feel I’m in the best moment of my career. I know who I have to fight, and I’m very clear that I can win.”
If not the pound-for-pound best in the sport, Lomachenko is in the discussion for the top spot. And while winning and defending world titles at 126 and 130 pounds in just 11 pro fights is enough reason for such talk, the 30-year-old Ukrainian has done something unexpected since turning pro in 2013, as he’s started to become a crossover star, a fighter’s fighter whose style has earned him comparisons to “The Matrix” films. When he’s in the ring, you want to be watching, simply because you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
That should have been Linares. A three-division world champion with otherworldly technique but just enough grit to keep things interesting, the Venezuela native had all the tools to be where Lomachenko is today. But what happened is that he knew it too.
“I think Jorge went through a phase in his career where he thought, ‘I’m Nino de Oro, I just need to show up,’” said Robert Diaz, matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions, which reps Linares.
It worked for a while, as Linares piled up wins and title belts, but it wasn’t going to last forever. The Boxing Gods don’t allow such things to go unpunished. In the space of five months in 2011-12, Linares was stopped in back-to-back bouts against Antonio DeMarco and Sergio Thompson. At 26, he was seemingly finished as a top-flight fighter. To everyone but him.
“I went through some tough times,” he admitted. “Back to back losses, a lot of people wrote me off. But hard work and my dedication got me back in there. I’m going through the best moment in my life right now – a 13-fight winning streak – and it’s all because of hard work. I went through some tough times, I suffered, but I was able to get myself up and that’s what gets me ready in the morning. I can wake up early in the morning because of the motivation of fighting the best.”
It was a slow burn, but Linares put together win after win, eventually scoring a hard-fought stoppage of Kevin Mitchell in May 2015 that put a world title belt around his waist again. That win for the WBC lightweight championship didn’t just prove something to the boxing world and Linares, but Diaz as well, as he watched his fighter navigate hostile territory in England to beat a Brit on his own turf.
“I questioned myself, how is Jorge going to react,” said Diaz, who saw Linares do it twice more in the UK when he beat Anthony Crolla in 2016-17. “It was even more with Crolla because Crolla was so loved. I think we had six people for Jorge.”
Linares smiles, knowing that winning at home can be easy, while the degree of difficulty amps up on the road. He’s not fighting in Lomachenko’s hometown this weekend, but he might as well be, as the challenger has a cult following that will be in attendance for his third appearance at Madison Square Garden.
That most recent trip to the Mecca saw Lomachenko stop Guillermo Rigondeaux in a highly anticipated SuperFight that fizzled. It only went six rounds, but Linares couldn’t make it that far.
“The best I can tell you is I fell asleep and I stopped watching,” Linares said. “It wasn’t his (Lomachenko’s) fault. He (Rigondeaux) made him look bad. But he had more advantages than Rigondeaux and he destroyed him. Now reverse it. He’s the smaller guy. Be careful, so maybe the same thing happens to him.”
Linares doesn’t dismiss Lomachenko outright, admitting that his opponent is “very fast with his hands, he’s got great footwork and angles,” but also making it clear that “a lot of it he repeats.”
That’s where Linares feels he will have the edge, as he will figure out Lomachenko’s patterns and make him pay. And that’s just one aspect of his game plan.
“The big key is gonna be the feet – movement, speed, my legs,” he said. “The other strategy I’m working on, I can’t tell you, but I’ll show you on fight night.”
For purists of the sport, Linares-Lomachenko is a must see. Then again, we said that about Lomachenko-Rigondeaux and got paid with a forgettable outing that thankfully only went six rounds. Luckily, Linares’ offensive-minded attack always delivers, but will there be any bumps in the road without longtime trainer Ismael Salas in the corner?
“Ismael Salas didn’t leave me, I didn’t leave him – it’s a matter of scheduling,” said Linares, who has his younger brother Carlos Linares, Rudy Hernandez and Jorge Capetillo handling things this time around. “But remember, out of these last 13 fights, there were two or three fights he was not involved in as well. My world title win in Japan, he was not there. But I worked with my team and we’re still gonna work hard, we’re gonna train hard, and the most important thing is to show up on fight night with great condition, great strategy, and win the fight.”
Show up with the tools to win, not just show up. That’s the difference between the 20-something Jorge Linares and the 32-year-old version. It’s a noticeable one to Diaz, who now uses Linares’ career rise fall and rise again as a learning lesson for the up and comers on the Golden Boy roster.
“Losses are not career ending and I use this with a lot of my younger fighters,” Diaz said. “Look at Jorge Linares. He came back from back-to-back losses, both by knockout, and he’s a world champion and the best in the division. You mature and that’s what Jorge did. He matured. Sometimes a young fighter with the talent Jorge has thinks, ‘I just need to show up and I win.’ When you realize that’s not the case every time out, then you go back and realize what got you there – hard work, discipline, training, dedication. And that’s where you mature.”
Will that maturity be the difference on Saturday night? That and a lot more as far as Linares is concerned.
“He (Lomachenko) knows what he’s in for,” said Linares. “I’m not an ordinary fighter.”