By Lyle Fitzsimmons
I appreciate Manny Pacquiao.
The things he’s accomplished since reaching the championship level two decades ago measure up to anyone over the same time frame, and he’ll be a deserving International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee at the very instant he becomes eligible.
But in spite of the hype still resonating from a blowout of fraudulent title-holder Lucas Matthysse a weekend ago in Malaysia, any days resembling his best ones are long, long gone.
The Argentine has been operating on reputation for the better part of five years, and Pacquiao, now 39, hasn’t beaten anyone capable of truly elite-level resistance since his odometer was barely past 37.
Nevertheless, the Filipino camp has been buzzing of late with talk of one Vasyl Lomachenko.
For those uninitiated, the Ukrainian was a near-pristine amateur, then a professional prodigy and has since become a three-division champion thanks to a TKO of lightweight claimant Jorge Linares.
He’s the best fighter in today’s world to these eyes – just edging the likes of Mikey Garcia and Terence Crawford – and he’s the kind of fighter who evokes memories of greats from generations long past.
“He is really special,” HBO unofficial judge Harold Lederman said. “The movement. The hand speed. If there were more old guys like me around, you’d compare him to Willie Pep. Willie Pep was special.
“The only difference is that he was right-handed.”
Pep, incidentally, won 226 fights in a career that touched three decades and was part of the IBHOF’s inaugural induction class – alongside more recognizable surnames like Ali, Robinson and Marciano.
Whether Lomachenko stays relevant long enough to record a worthwhile fraction of Pep’s victory total remains a mystery, but one thing Ali-era commandment seems clear from this vantage point:
If Pacquiao even dreams about beating Lomachenko, he’d better wake up and apologize.
While Crawford has already leapt from 135 pounds to 140 and seems destined to evolve into a terrific welterweight, those around the aging senator have long insisted he’d be more comfortable – and perhaps more devastating – with a move down to 140, a division he invaded with a two-round erasure of Ricky Hatton in 2009 before chasing bigger names and purses at 147 and beyond.
Lomachenko would stand a half-inch taller in a press conference staring contest while conceding the same narrow difference in reach, and a successful match with a certified pay-per-view stalwart would go a lot further toward putting the Ukrainian over with mainstream fans – and tilling the ground for even bigger shows – than middling unifications at 135 with the limited likes of Linares.
It's the “eventually, he'll get Pacquiao” path Bob Arum used to suggest for Brandon Rios before age, weight and brawls took their toll on “Bam Bam” and made the duel more sparring than scintillating.
Lomachenko seems in no danger of such precipitous fizzling.
“There’s no doubt who’s going to rise to be the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world,” HBO’s Max Kellerman said. “It leaves us scratching our heads about who could fight him on this level.”
Indeed, headliner shows warrant far better than bar-band encores.
And given the 30-year-old’s comfort on the big stage, there seems no reason not to start the tour.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
IBO super flyweight title – Site TBA, South Africa
Gideon Buthelezi (champion/No. 23 IWBR) vs. Lucas Fernandez Leone (No. 28 IBO/No. 50 IWBR)
Buthelezi (20-5, 4 KO): Fourth title fight; Six-fight win streak since 2015 (6-0, 0 KO)
Fernandez Leone (12-1-1, 9 KO): First title fight; First fight scheduled for 12 rounds
Fitzbitz says: No one suggests Buthelezi is the cream of the crop at 115, but he’s carved out a niche and should continue success against a less-experienced foe. Buthelezi by decision (80/20)
WBA mini flyweight title – Qingdao, China
Thammanoon Niyomtrong (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Chaozhong Xiong (No. 2 WBA/No. 13 IWBR)
Niyomtrong (17-0, 7 KO): Fifth title defense; First fight outside of Thailand
Xiong (27-7-1, 14 KO): Seventh title fight (3-3); Held WBC title at 105 pounds (2012-14, two defenses)
Fitzbitz says: Niyomtrong has established himself as a rock-solid commodity at 105 and should handle himself against a guy who’s been on the title level, but has slid back. Niyomtrong by decision (85/15)
WBO flyweight title – Qingdao, China
Sho Kimura (champion/No. 14 IWBR) vs. Froilan Saludar (No. 3 WBO/No. 34 IWBR)
Kimura (16-1-2, 9 KO): Second title defense; Three straight wins by KO/TKO (22 total rounds)
Saludar (28-2-1, 19 KO): First title fight; Fourth fight outside of the Philippines (1-2, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Kimura has discovered his inner KO artist since reaching the top level. He may not continue the streak, but should retain his belt against a tier-lower challenger. Kimura by decision (85/15)
IBF/WBC lightweight titles – Los Angeles, California
Robert Easter Jr. (IBF champ/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Mikey Garcia (WBC champ/Unranked IWBR)
Easter (21-0, 14 KO): Fourth title defense; Four straight decision wins after five wins by KO/TKO
Garcia (38-0, 30 KO): First title defense; Second fight in Los Angeles (1-0, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Garcia is part of the three-headed elite pound-for-pound monster that also includes Lomachenko and Crawford. Easter is a respectable champ, but not on that level. Garcia in 7 (99/1)
Vacant WBO junior lightweight title – Kissimmee, Florida
Christopher Diaz (No. 1 WBO/No. 35 IWBR) vs. Masayuki Ito (No. 2 WBO/No. 36 IWBR)
Diaz (23-0, 15 KO): First title fight; Eighth fight in Florida (7-0, 4 KO)
Ito (23-1-1, 12 KO): First title fight; First fight outside of Japan
Fitzbitz says: It’s a razor-thin margin between these two newbies to the world stage. Says here that Diaz has enough pop to make a difference over the championship distance. Diaz by decision (60/40)
This week’s bogus title-fight schedule:
Last week's picks: 3-0 (WON: Usyk, Munguia, Khonco)
2018 picks record: 48-22 (68.5 percent)
Overall picks record: 969-326 (74.8 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.