Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
Las Vegas -- Bob Arum has been here before: one-thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine times before, to be precise, in a career that began on March 29, 1966, with the first boxing card he even attended, let alone promoted. The headliner that day was a heavyweight of some repute by the name of Muhammad Ali; 50 years and change later, he remains the favorite charge of Arum’s career, a career that has also seen the New Yorker promote 41 Miguel Cotto bouts, 37 featuring Oscar De La Hoya, 20 with Manny Pacquiao and seven with Sugar Ray Leonard, among others.
On Saturday, his 2,000th card will be headlined by his 594th world title bout, his 127th offering on HBO and the eighth professional outing of Vasyl Lomachenko, a blue-eyed Ukrainian assassin of almost supernatural skills, whom Arum has promoted from the moment the two-time Olympic champion turned professional with a plea to be allowed to fight for a world title belt in his very first contest.
In the event, he had to endure a wait until his second pro bout; and that proved to be a half-step too soon, as Mexican brawler Orlando Salido deployed a variety of veteran tricks – from missing weight to repeatedly punching below the belt when the referee couldn’t see clearly – to build a large points lead early. By the time Lomachenko figured out his foe, his storming comeback was too little, too late. Since then, however, his ledger reads six fight, six wins and two world titles -- his first secured in his third contest and his second a few months ago in Madison Square Garden, when he moved up from featherweight to junior lightweight and rendered Rocky Martinez unsure of where, what or who he was.
If there is one element of consistency to Arum’s five decades in the business, it is his penchant for hyperbole, and so when he likens Lomachenko to Ali -- as he has done on more than one occasion over the last several months -- the natural inclination is to raise a skeptical eyebrow. Or at least it would be, were it not for the evidence inherent in the Ukrainian’s in-ring performances. While he may not possess the showmanship of “The Greatest” (and, to be fair, who has truly come close to matching it?), the effortless way in which he glides around the ring, alternately bedazzling and punishing his foes, suggests a generational talent that has to be witnessed to be believed.
In Nicholas Walters, however, the thoroughbred faces a very real challenge: a hard-punching, no-nonsense challenger who, while lacking the precociousness of his opponent, can at his best more than match him in terms of excitement.
Two years ago, the Jamaican “Axe Man” was flying high after following up an annihilation of Vic Darchinyan with a knockout of Nonito Donaire; since then, however, a hugely promising career has looked in danger of plateauing. A matchup with Lomachenko was first mooted in 2015, when both men were campaigning at featherweight; but, in his first outing since the Donaire win, Walters was unable to make weight for an outing against Miguel Marriaga, and looked disappointingly flat while pounding his way to a unanimous decision win. Six months later, he failed to win for the first time as a professional when he was held to a draw by Jason Sosa – although that result is leavened by the fact that few if any observers outside the three official judges saw it as anything but a clear Walters win, and by Sosa subsequently going 2-0 against solid opposition and picking up a world title belt along the way.
But if Lomachenko is the prohibitive favorite, a natural consequence of his otherworldly ability, Walters is a genuinely live underdog, a man of furious focus, no lack of skills and a championship-caliber punch; if he lands flush on the Ukrainian’s jaw -- and the odds are good that at some point in the contest he will -- the way in which Lomachenko reacts will tell us a great deal about just how great he truly is.
Arum has said it matters not one bit to him that Saturday’s card will be his 2,000th; all he cares about, he insists, is that the main event is a good one. Given the clash of styles, and the overall level of quality on display, it is hard to envisage a scenario in which that wish is not fulfilled.
Weights from Las Vegas:
Vasyl Lomachenko: 130 lbs.
Nicholas Walters: 129.5 lbs.