Photos: Ed Mulholland/Will Hart
By Eric Raskin
As the upper reaches of the sport of boxing are increasingly taken over by fighters from the former Soviet Union, it’s natural to group together three of the best of them: Vasyl Lomachenko of Ukraine, Gennady Golovkin of Kazakhstan, and Sergey Kovalev of Russia. While there is much debate over how to rank the trio as pugilists, there is little denying that Lomachenko faces the toughest road to connecting with American audiences. He’s not the natural knockout artist that Golovkin (33 KOs in 37 wins) and Kovalev (26 KOs in 30 wins) are. He doesn’t have a clearly defined personality yet to rival Golovkin’s catchphrase-spewing goofball and Kovalev’s friendly bad-ass. And in general, public interest in the 130-pound division is typically harder to stir up than it is for the bigger, more-steeped-in-tradition middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.
Lomachenko is a master craftsman, a delight for the true connoisseurs. That doesn’t always translate to box-office bonanza. So, more than Golovkin or Kovalev, he needs pound-for-pound recognition as a marketing tool. Asked recently if he was learning English in order to crossover to the mainstream more readily, the Ukrainian responded, in his native tongue, “I am talking in the language of boxing.” Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it isn’t.
The good news is Lomachenko has time to get his message across. Whereas Kovalev just turned 34 and Golovkin will turn 35 this Saturday, Lomachenko is only 29. And while Golovkin is blowing out candles on his birthday cake, Lomachenko will be seeking a blowout of his own against game underdog Jason Sosa at MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. These are the kind of fights in which winning isn’t enough. If Lomachenko is to be more than just the hardcore boxing fans’ little secret, he needs to dazzle the way he did his last two times out.
In November against Nicholas Walters, thought by many to be the strongest threat to Lomachenko at 130 pounds, the all-but-untouchable southpaw known as “Hi-Tech” frustrated Walters into a stunning submission after seven rounds. Five months prior, Lomachenko defied conventional wisdom about his knockout power with a sizzling jaw-jacking of Roman “Rocky” Martinez in the fifth round. That two-fight run earned Lomachenko Fighter of the Year consideration and elevated him into the upper pound-for-pound echelons.
But none of that has scared off Sosa or his Hall of Fame promoter, J Russell Peltz.
“We didn’t hesitate when the fight was offered,” Peltz told Inside HBO Boxing. “It was the biggest money option, for sure, and also the biggest challenge. I know nobody’s picking our guy to win. That’s fine. There’s less pressure on you that way. Lomachenko’s expected to win. He’s got to be a 20-1 favorite.
“But I don’t buy that he’s the best fighter, pound-for-pound. Listen, is he a good fighter? Yeah. But, you know, you have 400 amateur fights, that’s gonna start weighing on your body after a while. All those years in the gym, all the punches you take, sooner or later it cracks. People close to me have told me, ‘You won’t win one second of one round, and you’re taking a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.’ Well, we have a better chance of beating Lomachenko on April 8 than anybody else does.”
There’s no denying that. And the high-volume Sosa has been known to pull off surprises (even if not against Lomachenko-level opponents). As a prohibitive underdog, he managed an official draw against Walters. In a challenge for an alphabet belt against undefeated Javier Fortuna, he got off the canvas to score two knockdowns en route to an unexpected 11th-round TKO win. The 29-year-old from the working-class (to use a euphemism) town of Camden, New Jersey followed that up with a lopsided win over Stephen Smith to run his record to 20-1-4, 15 KOs. Peltz points out that his trainer, Raul “Chino” Rivas, who also took Tevin Farmer from middling clubfighter to contender, deserves a lot of the credit for getting Sosa to this point.
It’s been just over a decade since a torn ACL ended Sosa’s high school football career, leading him to boxing. His amateur résumé was – to put it mildly – less distinguished than Lomachenko’s. Whereas the Ukrainian went a mind-boggling 396-1 in the unpaid ranks and won two Olympic gold medals, Sosa had, um, three amateur fights.
“The fights I am getting as a professional are keeping me hungry and focused on maintaining my craft,” Sosa said when the Lomachenko fight was announced. “I am going to be in the best condition of my life. I have to be to fight one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world and the best amateur fighter that ever lived.”
Lomachenko may very well be that. And Sosa wasn’t quite done praising his opponent. Moments later, he said of Lomachenko, “He is the closest fighter to perfection in boxing.”
It was a statement reminiscent of something HBO color analyst and former pound-for-pound king Roy Jones, perhaps the earliest passenger on the Lomachenko P4P train, said not long ago. Speaking to the assembled press after Lomachenko’s win over Walters, Jones was asked what the Ukrainian does well in the ring. “Everything,” Jones answered without hesitation. “He does everything well.”
Lomachenko (7-1, 5 KOs) lost his second pro fight – a narrow decision to 55-fight veteran Orlando Salido, who failed to make weight for the contest – and it speaks to Hi-Tech’s level of execution that in a mere six fights since, he has essentially erased that defeat from most people’s minds. The CompuBox statistics support the argument that Lomachenko can already be considered the best in the business; he’s ranked No. 1 in the whole sport in plus-minus (his connect percentage minus his opponents’ connect percentage), and his opponents have the lowest connect percentage of any active fighter. His footwork is otherworldly, helping to make his defense so exceptional. Aside from the fact that he isn’t as heavy-handed as a Golovkin or a Kovalev, Lomachenko truly is the complete package in the ring.
And he might even be creeping up in the personality department on the man who coined such phrases as “good boy” and “Mexican style” (Golovkin) and the one who makes fowl noises when “Adonis Chickenson’s” name comes up (Kovalev). Lomachenko was asked recently, “When you look in the mirror, do you see yourself as the best fighter in the world?” He responded, “It is very hard to answer the question because when I look in the mirror I don’t think about who the pound-for-pound fighter is. I am usually working on my hair at that moment.”
Cosmo Kramer may have once famously declared that “Ukraine is weak” while playing the board game Risk on a subway car, but in boxing right now, no statement could be further from the truth. The televised undercard to Lomachenko-Sosa features two undefeated Ukrainian fighters looking to turn heads against quality opponents.
In the show opener, light heavyweight Oleksandr Gvozdyk (12-0, 10 KOs), fresh off an impressive win over Isaac Chilemba, takes on Cuba’s Yunieski Gonzalez (18-2, 14 KOs), best remembered for dropping a fairly ridiculous decision to Jean Pascal in 2015. And after that, cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk (11-0, 10 KOs), arguably the best in his division already following wins over Krzysztof Glowacki and Thabiso Mchunu, meets fellow 2012 Olympian Michael Hunter (12-0, 8 KOs). Gvozdyk is a promising prospect; Usyk might be much more than that. If all three favorites win on Saturday night at MGM National Harbor, that ought to debunk any assertions about Ukraine being weak.