Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
It has been almost 46 years since Bob Arum promoted his first show at Madison Square Garden: a December 7, 1970 boxing card headlined by Muhammad Ali’s victory over Oscar Bonavena in The Greatest’s second fight back from his enforced exile. He has showcased many boxers at the World’s Most Famous Arena since then, names such as Roberto Duran, Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini, Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto, but few if any of the 27 cards that he has now brought to the Garden can have been topped by a man with such sublime skill as Vasyl Lomachenko.
It is worth reminding ourselves that, in the aftermath of his dominant victory over Roman ‘Rocky’ Martinez on Saturday night, Lomachenko has now completed a grand total of seven bouts as a professional prizefighter. At that stage in their careers, Duran was still fighting six-rounders in his native Panama City, and even the highly precocious De La Hoya was a year away from his first title fight. Lomachenko now holds world titles in two weight classes, the junior lightweight belt he surgically removed from Martinez added to the featherweight crown he placed upon his head by dismantling Gary Russell, Jr. in just his third professional outing.
Lomachenko’s strength, in his own telling, is the extraordinary variety in his skill set. “I want to show fans in one fight you can do everything,” he has said. “You can throw punches, throw combinations, you can defend, you can move, feint your opponent, the tricks.”
He certainly did everything against Martinez in a tour de force performance in which a three-time world titlist was second best throughout: too slow to hit Lomachenko with his punches or to avoid the blows that the Ukrainian whipped in toward him; increasingly flustered and lost in the face of a whirlwind of boxing perfection; and then flat on his back and unable to beat the count, wondering just from where the punch had come that had exploded on his jaw and left him cold and confused on the canvas.
It took Lomachenko (6-1, 4 KOs) all of a minute to fully zero in on his target, who spent those opening 60 seconds or so acting as if he were in with a legitimate chance of being competitive or even emerging victorious, landing fully five punches until Lomachenko found his range and, bobbing, weaving and jabbing his way in, landed two straight southpaw lefts in succession that snapped back Martinez’s head and served notice of his intent.
A straight left in the second bounced off the defending champion’s head once more, and Lomachenko followed up with a pair of right hooks to the body and another shot upstairs. Martinez (29-3-2, 17 KOs) kept motoring forward but Lomachenko was unconcerned, cracking him with a left hand, spinning him around and then landing again.
Whatever approach Martinez tried met only with dismal failure. When Lomachenko came forward, he did so relentlessly, suffocating his foe, slipping easily under the Martinez jab and landing short, sharp combinations before stepping to one side and launching another fusillade from a different angle. When Martinez tried to meet fire with fire, to step forward and throw right hands toward Lomachenko’s head, the challenger allowed him to do so, stepping back just enough to create the perfect amount of space and then firing a counter right to the jaw and launching a straight left that staggered Martinez at the bell.
By the fourth, Martinez appeared completely lost. Lomachenko now was firing lead left hands that Martinez didn’t even see coming, each landed blow now seemingly giving the Puerto Rican whiplash and causing his knees to buckle that little bit more. Almost as soon as the bell rang to begin the fifth, Lomachenko stepped forward with added violence, aware now that he could finish his opponent whenever he wanted to and deciding that he wanted to do so without further delay.
The finish could not have been more picture perfect or appropriate: Martinez, on the retreat, fired a left hand that missed; Lomachenko effortlessly and imperiously slipped underneath it; and, as Martinez sought to regain his balance, Lomachenko, who at no stage during the contest lost his, fired a left uppercut and a right cross that detonated on the Martinez jaw.
Martinez crashed heavily to the canvas, arms stretched outward. Referee Danny Schiavone counted, but he could have continued well into the night and not seen any sign of movement in the fallen champion. The end came officially at 1:09 of the fifth round.
After recovering sufficiently to formulate words, Martinez summed up his evening, and the Lomachenko arsenal, succinctly and perfectly:
“I couldn’t see his hands.”
As for Lomachenko, as good a boxer as any of the 4,545 in attendance are ever likely to see, he insisted improbably that, “I need more fights to get better.” More credibly, he argued that, “I want more fights to make history” – a history that seems every bit at his fingertips.
One day after the sport’s biggest ever star was laid to rest in Louisville, Kentucky, Lomachenko gave a respectful nod to his predecessor by saying that, “I dedicate this fight to the greatest man who ever laced up the gloves, Muhammad Ali.”
While Ali was the greatest of all time, said Arum, “Lomachenko is the greatest of our time.” He would know, and few would argue.
While Lomachenko came to Madison Square Garden anticipating a coronation, Felix Verdejo entered the ring before him worried that “my career was on the line.” Regarded as a prospect of such potential that he was being talked of as potentially a new Sugar Ray Leonard, the Puerto Rican lightweight had seen his bandwagon empty somewhat on the back of a trilogy of uninspiring performances, all of which had seen him taken the distance.
He had, he said after stopping Juan Jose Martinez in the fifth round of a contest that certainly halted the downward decline of the perception in which he was held, been struggling with the pressures that success had heaped on his young shoulders; as a result, “I lost my focus in those previous fights, and had to work harder in this camp.”
There is still a lot more work to be done if Verdejo (22-0, 15 KOs) is to meet his full potential: he could, for example, stand more in the pocket and throw combinations inside, rather than fire off several punches from mid-range and move away, as is presently his wont. But those punches that he does throw are, when in full flow, a thing of beauty, streaking through the air in the form of uppercuts, left hooks and overhand rights that detonated on the Martinez skull with thudding regularity. It was when he settled down and started to box more conventionally, however, that Verdejo found the breakthrough he needed: body punches in the fourth softened Martinez up, and then jabs in the fifth set him up for the overhand right that sent the Mexican staggering drunkenly into the ropes where Verdejo found him with a follow-up barrage that prompted referee Mike Ortega to step in and halt the contest.