Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
OXON HILL, Md. -- Three different men will act as chief consultants in the corners of the Ukrainians who are contesting the televised bouts on Saturday’s edition of HBO World Championship Boxing (10 p.m. ET/PT). Marco Contreras will be piloting light heavyweight Oleksander Gvozdyk, who takes on tough Yunieksi Gonzalez; Russ Anber will be giving instructions to cruiserweight champion Aleksandr Usyk, who tackles tricky American Michael Hunter.
But the sage whose spirit guides them all is the man who will physically be in the corner for the main event, taking care of his peerless son Vasyl in his junior lightweight bout against Jason Sosa: Anatoly Lomachenko, the man who, more than any other, has been behind the tremendous recent success of Ukraine’s amateur boxing program. The fact that, for the first time in history, a US boxing broadcast features three Ukrainians is a result of his early and ongoing influence on their careers, as is the fact that each of those Ukrainians is regarded as, at worst, a legitimate contender or, at best, a potential great.
Gvozdyk is the man who perhaps has yet to prove himself more than his compatriots, although that is due primarily to how scary good those compatriots already are – as well as the fact that Gvozdyk is the only one who has shown genuine vulnerability at any point so far in his brief professional career. The 2012 Olympic bronze medalist was dropped and seemingly hurt in the opening round against relatively limited Tommy Karpency last July, although the Ukrainian came back to score a sixth-round stoppage. But on either side of that underwhelming outing he impressed; last April, Gvozdyk annihilated Nadjib Mohammedi in two rounds and, last November, looked good against tricky veteran Isaac Chilemba before the Malawian retired with an injured shoulder. At just 12-0 with 10 KOs, Gvozdyk has by most standards barely had time to get his feet wet in the professional ranks, but is already diving in to the deep end.
So, too, is Usyk, who won gold at those same Olympics and won a cruiserweight title in just his 10th professional outing. After making his US and HBO debut with his first defense of that title last December, he takes on the undefeated Hunter – whose late father, heavyweight Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, scored wins over the likes of Frans Botha, Oliver McCall and Tyrell Biggs.
But both Gvozdyk and Usyk are positively pedestrian compared to Lomachenko, who not only won gold in 2012 but did so four years previously, and who already has won world titles at two weights despite being just eight fights into his pro career. The fact that he is the only one of the three to have tasted defeat as a professional is testament, not to his relative lack of talent, but his precociousness: Not only did he challenge for his first title in just his second pro fight, but the man he tackled, Orlando Salido, is ring-savvy and brutally tough. Not only that, but the Mexican missed weight, landed numerous unsanctioned but unpunished blows to Lomachenko’s groin during the course of their bout, and still had to hang on to avoid being knocked out in the 12th and final round. It is perhaps significant that Salido, whom few potential opponents would willingly face unless they had to, has shown little to no inclination to grant Lomachenko a rematch.
Jason Sosa’s last appearance on HBO saw him awarded a draw in a bout with Nicholas Walters that most observers felt he lost. Nonetheless, his performance won him admirers, and subsequent victories against Javier Fortuna and Stephen Smith have underlined his credentials as a legitimate player in the 130-pound division, someone who is certainly in the top 10 in that weight class and perhaps among the upper half of those 10. And yet few outside of the fighter, his family and friends, and his promoter Russell Peltz, give him a prayer of winning more than a round or two against Lomachenko, if that, on Saturday night.
That is a testament to just how good Lomachenko appears to be, a feeling bolstered not just by the subjective “eye test,” but by the cold, hard facts of his results, especially of late. Last year, for example, brought a fifth-round annihilation of Rocky Martinez that was capped with a picture-perfect knockout punch, and a drubbing of Walters so complete that the hitherto undefeated Jamaican simply chose not to fight any more.
But that aforementioned eye test adds an extra dimension, for it reveals a man with sublime defense, blazing fast hands, and perfect footwork that enables him to maintain almost perfect balance at every stage of every contest, whether jabbing in from distance or working in close. The roots of that perfect balance are buried in soil laid by Papa Lomachenko many years ago, when in order to improve Vasyl’s future prospects in boxing, he took him out of the ring and instructed him to learn how to dance.
There is an Odessa-on-the-Potomac feel about Saturday’s card, which takes place in the shadow of the Beltway at the new MGM National Harbor – an impressive property which seems destined to join the roll call of regular boxing venues. These are tumultuous times in the nation’s capital, but for one night at least, expect a peerless Ukrainian to remain the king, his countrymen his courtiers, and his father, standing outside the limelight as the power behind the throne, but enjoying the sight of a lifetime’s work coming to fruition.
Weights from MGM National Harbor:
Vasyl Lomachenko: 129.6 pounds | Jason Sosa: 130.0 pounds
Aleksandr Usyk: 199.4 pounds | Mike Hunter: 198.0 pounds
Oleksandr Gvozdyk: 174.2 pounds | Yuniesky Gonzalez: 174.8 pounds