By Cliff Rold
There is an audacity to the career of WBO 130 lb. titlist Vasyl Lomachenko.
Two Olympic Gold medals, and two world amateur championships, said a lot about how good he was before he ever turned pro. His stated desire to fight for a title in his professional debut didn’t come to fruition. One wondered if it was a gimmick.
Then he fought Orlando Salido in his second fight, losing a vacant title chance against a veteran who elected to show up over the featherweight limit. Lomachenko went right back after the vacant WBO belt in his next outing and outclassed then-undefeated American Gary Russell Jr.
The combined record of his first three professional opponents was 90-15. Now 6-1 with 4 KOs (12-1 with 4 KOs if one includes his wins in the World Series of Boxing), having won belts in two divisions, Lomachenko faces the second undefeated opponent of his career.
Nicholas Walters (26-0-1, 21 KO) was regarded as the top man at featherweight after he stopped Nonito Donaire in October 2014. He’s fought only twice since but is still perceived as formidable. Saturday will tell what effect a nearly year long layoff has on the Jamaican challenger.
In some ways, this fight feels a little like the February 1999 showdown between Oscar De La Hoya and Ike Quartey. Lomachenko-Walters was hotly desired well before when we’re getting it just as Oscar versus the toughest tests at welterweight was all the buzz for over a year after his disputed 1997 win over Pernell Whitaker.
Originally slated for the fall of 1998, an injury pushed De La Hoya-Quartey back even farther. When Quartey entered the ring, he was breaking a sixteen-month layoff. We still got a dandy of a fight, many believing to this day that Quartey did enough to carry the night despite suffering a knockdown in the final round.
The possibility of similar fireworks is there Saturday (HBO, 10:35 PM EST).
The possibility of a coronation also looms.
For American fans, this might all feel a bit unusual. Even notable fighters with early career titles in the last generation had a selection of feet wetting tune-ups before they added a strap to their collection.
It’s not as unusual from a global perspective.
Fans who follow the lighter weights can recognize what Lomachenko is doing. One could potentially call this an eastern approach to the sweet science. Just look at the rankings from 105 to 115 lbs. in recent years and there are prominent examples.
Japan’s Kosei Tanaka, Kazuto Ioka, and Naoya Inoue all jumped quickly into the title fray in their divisions. Tanaka won a 105 lb. title in his fifth fight and is slated to challenge for a 108 lb. belt in his eighth. Ioka won a belt at 105 in his seventh fight, partially unified in his eleventh, added a belt at 108 in his next bout, and now holds a title at 112, all by his 21st fight.
Inoue, the 2014 BoxingScene fighter of the year, won a title at 108 in his sixth fight and in his eighth jumped two classes to knock off veteran Omar Narvaez at 115.
If you include Lomachenko World Series of Boxing fights, what he’s doing is right in line with that. Without them, it’s even quicker.
What those current Japanese talents are doing isn’t that uncommon in the Asian market historically. Thailand’s Sot Chitalada challenged Hall of Famer Jung-Koo Chang at 108 in March 1984. It was only his fifth fight. He lost the decision, won a pair of easier battles, and was the WBC flyweight titlist with a win over Gabriel Bernal before the year was out.
Another exceptional Thai, bantamweight Veeraphol Sahaprom, won the WBA 118 lb. belt in only his fourth pro fight. He was promptly stopped in his first defense in 1996. Two years later, by then 20-1, Sahaprom won the WBC belt and kept it for fourteen title defenses.
An even quicker rise came for Thailand’s Saensak Muangsurin. In 1975, at only 2-0, he won the WBC 140 lb. title with a knockout of Perico Fernandez. He was disqualified in his second defense, regained the title in his very next fight (the seventh of his career), and went on to defend seven times against quality contenders like Monroe Brooks, and Saoul Mamby.
Muangsurin lost his title and ultimately 4 of his last five fights including a thrashing at the hands of a young Thomas Hearns. If one pulled his record out of a book, they’d see a mark of 14-6; pedestrian on paper.
Paper wouldn’t tell the tale.
Imagine if Muangsurin had taken the more ordinary route of 10-20 building block fights, wins that can be about learning but are more often about padding a resume. Let’s say he won them. What does his record look like then?
What Lomachenko is attempting is a career largely without padding. It’s not unheard of but there is an undoubted fun to it all. Given the talent he’s displayed, Lomachenko could easily have picked up wins for 2-3 years, building his name and anticipation for bigger game as he went. Instead, we’re watching him adapt to the pro game on a high wire.
Ultimately, it’s not just an eastern approach either. De La Hoya won his first divisional belt in his twelfth fight. Current Jr. featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux was in the title picture at 122 lbs. in his seventh fight, a full titlist by his ninth. The great Fidel LaBarba was facing multiple men who would eventually be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in his first dozen fights.
In all these cases, the people who handled the careers of their upstart talents saw that they were ready sooner than later and said ‘what are we waiting for?’
Whether Lomachenko wins this weekend or not, whether he is regarded one day in the company of LaBarba or finishes with a deceiving mark like Muangsurin, no one will ever be able to say his record is padded with fluff.
It’s not a model for everyone to follow but for those who can, those who even try, it’s hard not to be impressed.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]