By Oliver Goldstein
Vasyl Lomachenko returns to action Saturday night in pursuit of his second title belt in as many weight classes when he meets Roman Martinez at Madison Square Garden on HBO Boxing After Dark at 10 PM ET/PT. Fed up of waiting on a much-mooted bout with Nicholas Walters, Lomachenko has taken what might now be called the Golovkin route: if someone won’t fight you, win as many belts as possible until they do.
Unlike Golovkin, though, Lomachenko is blessed with a welter of plausible opponents if Walters doesn’t want to dally. Martinez (29-2-3, 17 KOs) is a seasoned pro with a raft of solid names on his record, including none other than Lomachenko’s one conqueror to date in Orlando Salido. Having lost to Ricky Burns after coming out perhaps too strong in the first round in 2010, Martinez has refused to let his career fizzle out. Even a knockout loss in 2013 to Mikey Garcia, who has all but disappeared since, has failed to derail him: Martinez came back to claim a third super featherweight title by knocking Salido down twice in May 2015 to win a decision.
Indeed where a lack of willing competition has forced Golovkin to plunge the depths of the middleweight division in search of a rightful opponent, Lomachenko is fortunate here. After all, if the Ukrainian is to be the star his talent suggests, he needs to face what all good non-American lower weight fighters need: either guys with similar talent, or guys that are willing to slug. At present the one fighter Golovkin could face with potentially both those credentials is prepared to wait on him. But while the absence of a suitable challenger has thus forced GGG to fight the likes of Dominic Wade, Walters’ avoidance of Lomachenko is certainly nowhere near so costly. Though Martinez isn’t even a third as refined a boxer as Lomachenko, much more a bruiser than anything, he’s a thoroughly genuine opponent with legitimate credentials of his own. And he might not necessarily need to be a world-class boxer either: Salido, very much a bruiser himself, was able to offset Lomachenko enough to eke a decision in the Ukrainian’s second fight.
Still, by the final rounds of their bout Salido had increasingly become the canvas for Lomachenko’s artwork many expected him to be. And even if Salido, fighting well overweight, did escape with the decision, Lomachenko still showed quite how much hurting his variety of pugilistic refinement can produce: while Salido was disproportionately bigger than Lomachenko on the night, his face in the aftermath, red and swollen, painted its own distinctive picture. Against a much smaller man with one previous professional bout on his record, the Mexican was taken to the deep end.
But if a split-decision loss to a 41-12-2 veteran of the sport didn’t entirely demonstrate Lomachenko’s talent, his next fight might have gestured more fully to its sheer extent. Then, against the much-hyped Gary Russell, Jr., the Ukrainian managed to secure his first title belt in just his third bout. In turn he was able to hint at the depth of his capabilities, lulling Russell about the ring, in complete control of its geography, and rending his opponent’s rumored devastating speed merely decorative. Even in rounds where Lomachenko seemed to withdraw into himself, as though calculating silently exactly how much effort would need to be exerted, and where, and how, the few moments of action he provided were almost always enough: in the sixth, which saw Russell thrashing combinations into vacant space, one particularly emphatic jab was enough to take it. Lomachenko was surgical.
And ultimately it is his sureness in his talent, his absolute confidence, his conviction that he has the ability to control the course of events in a sport where control is the most elusive thing of all, that makes Lomachenko such a special talent. This confidence is not illusory, moreover. In six fights Lomachenko has yet to meet an opponent without a winning record. Only Salido, the toughest of them all, has had more than four losses on his slate. Not only is it hard to think of any fighter in history who’s begun their career plunging quite so far into the deep end, it’s equally hard to think of many fighters practicing today so willing to fight whomever whenever.
“I just want to get the big names in the future of my career,” Lomachenko told Inside HBO Boxing recently over the phone through his manager, Egis Klimas. “If I’m going to worry about the résumé of my opponent then it’s going to be a boring fight.” Ultimately the surest sign of Lomachenko’s confidence is this: after just six fights, he’s already moving up in weight to seek a second world title. Speaking three weeks out from his fight with Martinez, he confirmed that he hadn’t even formulated a plan for this particular bout.
Martinez might hope to seize on that come Saturday night. If Lomachenko’s fight with Salido suggested anything negative about his transition to the professional ranks, after all, it might have been this: sticking to one specific style, no matter how hugely refined it is, could result in a fighter coming unstuck if they’re unlucky enough to meet the wrong man on the wrong night. Even Floyd Mayweather, the most gifted and the most surgical of fighters through the last twenty years, had several different repertoires he was able to dip into depending on the situation.
But then Lomachenko likely knows all this. And even if Roman Martinez refuses to be the canvas to Lomachenko’s paint, the Ukrainian tends to know how to get his way. Expect a masterpiece in the end.
Felix Verdejo returns Saturday night when he meets Juan Jose Martinez at lightweight. Generally considered one of the top prospects in the division, Verdejo has been held back somewhat by a series of hand injuries, which required surgery last year. Though Martinez has only lost twice, distinguishing him from Verdejo's last opponent, Saturday should be most interesting for seeing whether the Puerto Rican's vaunted punching power can put much of a dent on his Mexican opponent. Top Rank, as history proves, has great experience in building Puerto Rican stars at Madison Square Garden. Expect Verdejo to take another small step toward becoming the next one on Saturday night.