By Tris Dixon
UK crowds have famously-turned out for big names over the years.
Sonny Liston, on horseback, bought Newcastle to a standstill decades ago. Muhammad Ali stopped traffic. Mike Tyson caused people to scale buildings and rooftops to catch a glimpse of him. Johnny Tapia had fans queuing round the block to see him go through the motions. Marco Antonio Barrera was mobbed in Manchester.
Thousands jammed into London’s O2 Arena last night to bear witness to Vasyl Lomachenko’s brilliance. It was a sold out event, but that came as no surprise.
Lomachenko-fever had taken hold of the UK. The public workouts were busy, the pre-fight press conference was packed and the weigh in at Old Spitalfields Market was so full you couldn’t exahle without knocking into someone.
Sure, Campbell was the crowd favourite. The Brits noisily get behind their own. But they appreciate greatness, too, and they knew that’s what they were getting with the Ukrainian wizard – a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, a marvel the likes of which we have not seen before. That’s not to say we haven’t seen better, but we’ve never seen this before. We have never seen this kind of movement, these kind of angles, these kind of numbers in such a ridiculous space of time. Inside 131 rounds in 15 fights over six years. Every contest he has had bar one has been for a world title, starting at featherweight, schooling elite super-feathers and now he’s one belt from unifying at lightweight.
He is technically incredible but he’s not solely for the connoisseur. He’s entertaining. He’s comfortable at range and in close and he’s a downright menace when he gets onto your chest and sticks to it. Opponents must feel as though they’re surrounded while trying to traipse through quicksand. You can’t seem to get him off you.
As many said this week, the only thing that might do the trick is someone who is big enough to make a physical impact, perhaps at 140lbs – basically someone who goes into the race with a head start.
As any true fighter with real pedigree would do, Luke Campbell entered the matrix with confidence in his own ability but by the end, though he was fighting for survival rather than victory. Yet he remained defiant that he was not on hand simply to make up the numbers and while he was soundly beaten, he kept it interesting and entertaining all the way through 12 fluid, highly-skilled sessions.
There was some early southpaw fencing but the contest soon unfurled into something far more watchable.
The man they call ‘Loma’ broke through in the third and while the crowd pulled for Luke, they couldn’t help but applaud the skills of the visitor. For them, in many ways, it was no lose regardless of the outcome. They either watched a pound-for-pounder and future Hall of Famer at the height of his powers or they saw one of the bigger shocks in British boxing history. There was no way anyone was going home short changed.
Campbell, a former Olympic gold medallist who gave Jorge Linares some real problems, had never seen anything like Lomachenko. The now WBC, WBA and WBO lightweight champion boxes with crazy angles that you just can’t legislate for. You can’t prepare for them, either, no one has a box of tricks like the Odessa sorcerer. He plays the percentages in that he wastes so little and takes so few.
But that’s not to say it was a procession at the O2, that does a disservice to Campbell, who was poised, quick, accurate and who oozed class himself. It’s just that none of that was enough. The hurtful shots often came tumbling from the Ukrainian’s gloves. Luke was always relevant, always boxing smoothly, frequently beautifully, and he was proving himself world class once more. It’s just that wasn’t enough. His carefully chosen body shots looked the part but they left no dent in Lomachenko.
And Campbell’s greatest achievement was also was his undoing. His most significant success came at the heaviest cost. With Lomachenko momentarily rocked in round seven, the crowd roared Campbell on, tasting an upset. The problem was that Lomachenko wouldn’t stand for such exuberance or defiance. He fought back and did so with the type of thunder that meant Campbell was struggling to stay in the bout by the time the final bell sounded. It was riveting stuff. If there was one criticism, it was Campbell staying in the pocket too long during the exchanges but perhaps he was doing so because he was having success, maybe he did it to show he wouldn’t be bullied, or perhaps he thought another opening would emerge. Either way, he was getting clipped for his incredulity, often allowing Lomachenko a spiteful last word.
By the 11th, one had the feeling that the champion really fancied the gig. He stapled his forehead to Campbell’s chest and began to glide effortlessly in the Hull man’s retreating wake. He didn’t give Campbell a moment’s reprieve. He worked up and downstairs. Blows went into the pit of Luke’s stomach and jarred his jaw. He finally wilted from the pressure, from the punches, from the class, and he had to take a knee.
But Luke wouldn’t go out like that. The crowd got another three minutes of champagne boxing. ‘Loma’ showed out for taking a low shot with a minute or so to go but it wasn’t that sort of fight and Campbell is not that sort of fighter, even if he was hurt again moments later, made to pay for inflicting more discomfort on the visitor.
So the crowd went home happy. The huge underdog covered himself in glory, they saw moments of brilliance from one of the best to do it and their blood lust was satisfied with a damn good fight.
Lomachenko promised he would return to these shores but, really, his work here is done. The PR trip was impeccable and there are more mountains to climb which will repay the British public more than showing his face back here for another week. Fights with Naoya Inoue, Gervonta Davis, Mikey Garcia, the emerging Devin Haney and the Richard Commey-Teofimo Lopez winner would be high on any boxing aficionado’s wishlist. As grateful as they were to see the little magician at work, even boxing a division or two above his best weight, even with more than 400 fights on the clock – amateur and pro – even at 31…
They drank it all in.
Alas, should Lomachenko get through that lot there will be no superlatives left. We will just have to sit back and enjoy it, make the most of what we have been fortunate enough to witness, to have spent our time in the matrix.