On Saturday, IBF lightweight titlist Teofimo Lopez (15-0, 12 KO) will face unified WBA/WBO titlist Vasyl Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KO) in a showdown of the consensus top two lightweights in the world.
When the final bell sounds, barring a draw, we will have the first real claimant to history’s throne at lightweight since Terence Crawford vacated his claims to the throne in 2015.
There are reasons to pick both men in the contest.
No one ever really knows who will win a fight when the bell rings but there is a difference between an assumed outcome that defies expectations and a fight where the uncertainty is part of the allure. One can think they know what’s going to happen this weekend. If it turns out that way, they ‘knew’ all along.
But no one really knows for this one.
And not knowing is the best part.
While they have the same number of widely recognized fights (Lomachenko can also be credited with six more paid wins from the World Series of Boxing), the experience gap is palpable. Lomachenko has fought mostly world class opposition since facing veteran Orlando Salido in his second fight. The two-time Olympic gold medalist will be facing his fifth straight consensus top ten lightweight in a row this weekend.
At 32 and fighting in his third weight class, Lomachenko is still at the top of his game.
The 23-year old Lopez intrigues because of what might be more than what is so far. In just a few fights, he’s gone from building block affairs against veterans and other proving prospects to his first serious contender, Richard Commey, to one of the best in the game at any weight. The naturally bigger man, Lopez’s team is gambling that his youth, power, and talent are ready to topple the experience, skill, and talent of Lomachenko.
Win or lose, it’s going to be a hell of a trip to the learning tree for Lopez. Even if it comes up “L” for Lopez, history says the rounds with Lomachenko could pay long term dividends. While the volume of available belts makes it harder to compare the title picture across time, we can compare circumstances.
In the 1970s, a 21-year old Alexis Arguello got his first crack at a title against excellent WBA featherweight titlist Ernesto Marcel. Arguello was two fights removed from a head turning first round knockout of recently deposed WBC featherweight titlist Jose Legra. Marcel outboxed Arguello but arguably made him better along the way, extending an Arguello who had never been past the tenth round through the full fifteen.
Five fights and ten months later (that’s not a typo for the kids who think everyone needs six months off between fights) Arguelo knocked out Ruben Olivares in 13 to win the WBC crown.
Arguably Lomachenko’s top rival today for the ‘pound for pound’ throne, Saul Alvarez, made the most of a learning tree moment as well. While he’d defended for a while, Alvarez was basically gifted the WBC strap initially, facing a Matthew Hatton who had no business fighting for a Jr. middleweight belt. After some more development fights against a mix of young and veteran fare, Alvarez got by Austin Trout to set up a showdown with Floyd Mayweather.
There were those who liked Alavrez’s chances going in but ultimately even they struggled to find a clear round Alvarez won. It didn’t hurt Alvarez a bit in the long run. Twelve rounds with Mayweather had more value than almost all the rounds Alvarez had to then.
There is also Lopez’s rival this weekend. Lomachenko wanted to turn pro in a title fight. He settled for Salido in his second. Salido missed weight and missed Lomachenko’s belt line repeatedly in a rough affair. It was a clear loss but one where Lomachenko rallied late. The fighter who decided to skip the traditional development process got much of his education about the paid ranks in one night.
Lomachenko hasn’t looked back since.
If Lopez has his way, Lomachenko won’t have time to look back. He wants to make him look at the lights. He’s not coming for the academics.
Win and Lopez won’t be the first to explode from prospect to champion in just a few quick hops.
Mayweather went from the fringes of contention to certain superstar on the rise after his win over Genaro Hernandez in 1998. Mayweather hadn’t faced someone even as accomplished as Commey to that point as a pro. He wasn’t even rated in the top ten by Ring Magazine on the eve of the fight. It didn’t matter. Mayweather was too fast, too talented, too good. Mayweather followed Hernandez with a blowout of highly regarded contender Angel Manfredy and spent the better part of two decades regarded as one of the, and often the very, best in the game.
Lopez’s fellow Brooklyn alum Mike Tyson made mincemeat of the heavyweight division in the mid-1980s, stopping Trevor Berbick for his first belt at age 20 with his toughest tests to then coming from James Tillis and Jose Ribalta. Berbick wasn’t quite the leader at heavyweight but Tyson showed that night and over the next two years that no one in the heavyweight top ten was ready for him.
Experience is an illusory way to evaluate things. No one is experienced until they are. Fighters don’t know until they find out what the bridge too far was.
Neither do fans.
This weekend, a highly anticipated fight will be a learning opportunity for all.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com