Photo: Will Hart
By Nat Gottlieb
Following Andre Ward’s exciting victory over Sergey Kovalev last weekend, Saturday night’s fight between Vasyl Lomachenko and unbeaten power puncher Nicholas Walters on HBO World Championship Boxing (10:35 ET/PT), promises to offer the same sort of thrills.
Lomachenko (6-1, 4 KOs) is as close to a perfect boxer-puncher as there is in the sport. He’s a brilliant technician who can also rattle your brains with blistering combos, sometimes as many as four or five punches at a time. Although the Ukrainian goes by the alias “High-Tech,” a more apt description would be “Energizer Bunny.” Lomachenko keeps going and going with such a seemingly endless supply of energy that it’s almost exhausting for a fan to watch him, let alone for an opponent to keep up with him.
Walters (26-0-1, 21 KOs) is a fearsome puncher with dazzling hand speed and a very high motor. He has superstar potential, but first he’ll have to step up in class and defeat Lomachenko. The Jamaican junior lightweight has defeated high-quality opponents such as Nonito Donaire and Vic Darchinyan, but Lomachenko is a whole different breed of boxer.
“Whatever Nicholas did in the past doesn’t compare to this,” said Howard Grant, a former professional fighter from Jamaica who has followed his fellow countryman’s career closely. “Moving up to fight Lomachenko is like changing from a Toyota to a Rolls Royce. Lomachenko is a once-in-a-lifetime fighter.”
It’s highly doubtful that Walters can outbox the masterful Lomachenko, and the Jamaican fighter seems aware of this. He has said repeatedly in the lead-up to this bout that he’s approaching it with one strategy in mind: to knock out the Ukrainian and not let the fight go to the scorecards.
“Any fighter can be knocked out, no matter who he is,” Walters said. “I’m going for the knockout and he won’t last. Just like I did to Nonito, that’s how I’m going to defeat him.”
Walters faced Donaire two years ago and scored a stunning sixth-round TKO upset. It was the first time the former four-division champion had ever been stopped, and the victory vaulted the Jamaican from prospect to serious contender.
While there’s no question Walters has the power to KO virtually anybody in the 130-pound division, Lomachenko poses a unique challenge in that he’s very difficult to hit.
The Ukrainian uses incredible foot work and body movement to prevent his opponent from finding a clear opening. He can be in front one moment, and then in a blink of an eye will spin around behind him, forcing the opponent to turn in order to find him. But in that instant, Lomachenko will tag his opponent with a stinging combo before the fighter has his feet set and balanced.
“Lomachenko is like a ballerina,” said Grant, who along with his brother, Otis, a former middleweight champion, trains fighters at Grant Brothers Boxing in Montreal. “You can’t teach what he does. He’s like a work of art in the way he moves, and he’s very tough to hit.”
Grant sees only one way for Walters to beat Lomachenko, and that’s for the Jamaican to put his power on display as soon as possible. “The key for Nicholas is to hurt Lomachenko early, get his respect, and don’t let him settle into a rhythm and his comfort zone. I don’t think Lomachenko has ever been hit solid or clean. He never puts himself in a difficult position. He’s so elusive, so fast and so unorthodox.”
Walters has nearly an eight-inch reach advantage over Lomachenko, but Grant doesn’t see him trying to box on the outside if he wants to win. “If I was training Nick, I’d tell him not to go to the guy’s head. The way Loma moves his head and body makes him very hard to hit. Nick has got to get to Lomachenko’s body.”
It’s a sound strategy -- provided Walters can execute it. Despite possessing the 73-inch reach of a welterweight, Walters is at his best fighting inside, where he throws short, precise shots upstairs and downstairs with a higher accuracy that he does from a distance. On the flip side of that strategy, Grant said, "Lomachenko is a tremendous inside fighter, the way he maneuvers you and hits you.”
Both Lomachenko and Walters moved up from featherweight to junior lightweight in their last fights, with differing results.
Lomachenko took on reigning junior lightweight champion Roman Martinez and boxed circles around the Puerto Rican for four rounds before connecting on a Knockout of the Year candidate in the fifth. A minute into the round, the Ukrainian fired off a blistering left-uppercut and right-hook combo that sent Martinez sprawling to the canvas. Such was the power of those shots that it took Martinez well over a minute before he could be helped to his feet. After the fight, Martinez would say that Lomachenko was so fast that “I couldn’t see his hands.”
One doesn’t normally think of Lomachenko as a power puncher, but the only other fighter to knock out Martinez in 34 previous fights was the undefeated Mikey Garcia. By beating Martinez, Lomachenko earned his second division title in just his seventh pro fight, an unprecedented accomplishment even for a boxer who lost just once in 397 amateur fights and won two Olympic gold medals.
Walters, on the other hand, didn’t have the same kind of statement-making debut at junior lightweight. Taking on once-defeated junior lightweight Jason Sosa, Walters fought to a majority draw, although many believed the Jamaican had won by a comfortable margin. Harold Lederman, HBO’s unofficial judge, gave the victory to Walters, 99-91. But even that disputed draw would later raise Walters’ stock when Sosa in his next fight defeated then unbeaten 130-pound champion Javier Fortuna. Sosa followed that victory up with an impressive successful defense of his title against Stephen Smith.
Lomachenko’s bout with Walters has generated an enormous amount of interest among boxing fans and writers. So much so that Bob Arum of Top Rank, who'll be promoting his 2,000th fight, tweeted the following on Nov. 18: "Media covering other fights this week calling me with only one question, 'Who wins the Nov. 26 @VasylLomachenko-@AxeManWalters fight?'"
The answer to that question should make for great boxing theater.