By Nat Gottlieb
The Mayweather-Pacquiao undercard features two fights with champions who could be on an exciting collision course. One is featherweight Vasyl Lomachenko, a legendary amateur who in just four professional fights has ignited the boxing world with his electrifying all-action style of boxing. The others is the popular and undefeated Leo Santa Cruz, a super bantamweight champion looking to make waves, possibly in the loaded featherweight division.
Lomachenko, who made history by winning a world title in just his third professional bout, will be taking on the largely untested Gamalier Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican who has won 17 straight fights since suffering his last loss in 2009.
It seems strange to say that that the 28-year-old Rodriguez (25-2-3, 17 KOs), who has 30 fights under his belt, is taking a huge step-up in class against a boxer with just four pro bouts, but that clearly is the case here. Lomachenko – a two-time Olympic gold medal winner from the Ukraine who had an extraordinary 396-1 amateur record – is a force of nature, a gift from the boxing gods. He’s as close to a perfect boxer as we have in the sport today.
“Lomachenko may be the most special talent in boxing,” says HBO analyst Max Kellerman. “He always seeks the best available opponent and could be the best pound-for-pound fighter within 18 months.”
Aside from his incredible skill set, what makes the 27-year-old Lomachenko (3-1, 1 KO) such a must-watch for boxing fans is that he fights every second of every round to the final bell. If opponents aren’t willing to keep up that pace, there will be hell for them to pay.
Lomachenko is a veritable punching machine, a terminator who never stops coming at you, never gives you a moment to rest. His hands are so fast opponents barely can see his fists coming. If there’s a punch in boxing that Lomachenko doesn’t have in his arsenal, then it probably hasn’t been invented yet. Because of the variety of his punches, opponents find it impossible to get a read on when and where his next one will come from. A typical sequence for the southpaw might be a hook to the head, followed by a dig to the body, then an uppercut and a straight left, all in less than three seconds.
Rodriguez has been on the kind of roll that can produce surprises in the ring. Still, he’s largely unproven, not having fought a single top tier fight. How he responds to this big challenge will go a long way in determining just how good he is or isn’t.
What we do know for now is that the Puerto Rican has very good footwork, above-average hand speed, works the body and head, and has long arms for a featherweight with a 69-inch reach that serves his jab well.
Carl Moretti, vice president of operations for Rodriguez’ promoter, Top Rank, has said of his fighter, “Gammy is a very talented, hardworking boxer-puncher, who accepted this challenge without any hesitation. Puerto Rico will be fully behind him in this fight.”
To beat Lomachenko, Rodriguez is going to have to take his game up to a higher level than he’s ever shown before. That being said, boxing history is littered with fighters who’ve come out of seemingly nowhere, taken a big step up, and stunned the experts. Nonito Donaire’s shocking TKO of then unbeaten pound-for-pounder Vic Darchinyan in 2007 is one memorable example.
The 26-year-old Santa Cruz is something of an enigma. An obviously talented boxer, he has yet to fight the kind of elite opponent that could define him. His handlers are bringing him along slowly, which is an odd thing to say about a world champion with two title defenses under his belt. One thing we do know for sure, Santa Cruz comes to fight.
“Santa Cruz basically is a guarantee of an action fight every time you see him,” Kellerman says.
His opponent for this Cinco de Mayo weekend card is a fellow Mexican, Jose Cayetano (17-3, 8 KOs), who’ll be fighting outside of Mexico for the first time. Cayetano is not a slick fighter who moves much. He comes forward flatfooted and in so doing, he’ll be standing in front of Santa Cruz, guaranteeing that this will be an all-action affair for as long as Cayetano can stay on his feet. The little known fighter comes into this bout having lost his last fight by a wide-margined unanimous decision to a journeyman boxer with a 20-7 record.
While some feel that Santa Cruz has been ducking tough fights, the reality is that there aren’t many to be made in the super bantamweight outside of with the unbeaten Cuban, Guillermo Rigondeaux, an expert technician who rarely is crowd pleasing.
That should change soon because Santa Cruz is moving up to featherweight for this fight in anticipation of taking on some of the division’s best, including Abner Mares, Gary Russell Jr., Evgeny Gradovich, Jhonny Gonzales, and of course Lomachenko. How comfortable Santa Cruz feels boxing at this weight will help him determine if he wants to abandon his super bantamweight title and remain at featherweight.