HBO Boxing Insiders Eric Raskin and Kieran Mulvaney speak with recent Hall of Fame inductee Harold Lederman about the weekend in Canastota and memories from nearly 50 years in the sport.
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.
Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
History is in the air this week at Madison Square Garden. It always is, of course, at the World’s Most Famous Arena, the fourth iteration of which is closing in on its 50th birthday and which – notwithstanding the glorious nights enjoyed by the likes of Roberto Duran, Felix Trinidad, Bernard Hopkins, and Miguel Cotto, among many others – remains most celebrated by boxing fans for the Fight of the Century. Burt Lancaster was a co-commentator, and Frank Sinatra a ringside photographer, for that night on March 8, 1971, when Joe Frazier repelled the challenge of Muhammad Ali and retained the heavyweight championship that had been stripped from his rival almost four years earlier.
The weigh-in for Saturday’s Boxing After Dark card, headlined by a junior lightweight battle between Roman "Rocky" Martinez and Vasyl Lomachenko, was moved up an hour so that those in attendance could more easily watch Ali’s funeral, taking place in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, one week after his death at age 74.
Among those paying his respects in the Bluegrass State was the promoter of Saturday’s fight, Bob Arum; and on Thursday, before he caught a flight from New York, he was in an expansive mood, regaling reporters with tales of how his first fights as a promoter had been Ali’s last before being denied his license and sentenced to jail for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
Almost lost amid the reflections and celebrations, however, was a cautionary note for the future of boxing in the Big Apple. Arum claimed that “this will be the last fight I do in New York,” unless changes are made to a bill passed in March by the New York Assembly, and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in May, that imposed a requirement on promoters to post a $1 million bond for each fighter as insurance in the event of a combatant suffering traumatic brain injury.
“We’re a big company, a lot bigger than a lot of the local New York promoters,” Arum told the New York Post. “But I can’t afford to put up bonds like this.”
Of course, if Arum didn’t spout hyperbole, he wouldn’t say much at all, and the smart money has to be on some sort of agreement being made between now and September 1, during which time the New York State Athletic Commission has the authority to make any appropriate amendments. Still, the venerable promoter is far from the only one to have expressed concerns about the viability of boxing in one of the sport’s traditional hotbeds unless that language is changed; and Saturday’s fight – a relatively low-key affair, being held at the more intimate of the Garden’s two venues, The Theater – is exactly the kind of smaller-scale card that would have to move somewhere else if it isn’t.
It is also a card that reflects the ever-changing dynamics of the sport. At the time of Ali-Frazier, boxing was dominated by Americans, who comprised the vast majority of its champions; as years went by and world class athletes found alternative, safer and more lucrative opportunities in other sports, the demographics shifted so that by the early years of this century, Arum was focused almost exclusively on promoting Hispanic fighters.
Among those was Cotto, who for years made this date – the day before New York’s Puerto Rican Day Parade – his own: fighting in New York seven times, five of them at the Garden. With Cotto’s career winding down, there is enthusiasm for passing his island’s torch to Felix Verdejo, but the exceptionally talented young lightweight is still a work in progress, and so the charismatic prospect will be in the chief supporting bout on Saturday night.
Puerto Rico’s hopes in the main event rest on the shoulders of Martinez, a three-time world titlist who is nonetheless a huge underdog against Vasyl Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a representative of boxing’s latest wave: a conveyor belt of supremely talented fighters from the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Lomachenko’s fellow Ukrainians Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko were arguably the vanguard, and his compatriot Viktor Postol will be taking on Terence Crawford in Las Vegas on July 23. There are others: the "Siberian Rocky" Ruslan Provodnikov and, most notably, Russia’s Sergey Kovalev and Kazakhstan’s Gennady Golovkin, who are among the best, most popular and most avoided fighters in boxing today.
In terms of pure skill, however, Lomachenko may outshine them all. In just his seventh professional fight, he will be seeking to win a world title in his second weight class. It is no knock on Martinez that he will be heavily favored to do so. After plying his trade in Las Vegas, Carson, San Antonio and Macau, Lomachenko will be making his New York debut; he will of course be working to ensure that he becomes the latest in a long line of famed boxers to dazzle the Garden’s fans, and Arum isn’t alone in hoping that he won’t be the last.
Weights from Madison Square Garden:
Rocky Martinez: 129.8 lbs.
Vasyl Lomachenko: 129.6 lbs.
Felix Verdejo: 134.8 lbs.
Juan Jose Martinez: 133.8 lbs.
Watch Friday's weigh-in live at 1 PM ET, 10 am PT.
By Diego Morilla
We all wish for one miraculous, magic comeback in our lives.
For most of us, it is the return to a place or a time that we hold dear, a chance to relive a meaningful moment, or an opportunity to change destiny. And on the flip side of the semantic coin, many of us would give anything to fire a quick comeback to a hurtful remark by either a friend or a foe in our past.
In my modest case, it would represent a chance to embrace Lobo, the weary old dog I rescued from the fright and the cold of the streets when I was eight years old, one more time before leaving my hometown for good. Or a renewed opportunity to be the last member of my family to hold my mother’s hand while she was still alive, but only a few hours earlier than the moment I did so, when she was already in her deathbed and no longer able to hear the last words that I hardly managed to blurt out of my knotted throat.
For Muhammad Ali, the comeback was his art, his craft and his life’s mission. He mastered both versions of it: the unlikely return to previous glories, and the snappy, witty verbal retort that he dominated with such gracious belligerence.
A kid stole his bicycle in his early teens, and his comeback to that was his enrollment in the local boxing gym, which resulted in a stellar amateur career capped by an Olympic gold medal and a professional boxing career that had very few parallels in history. His government drafted him into the army to fight a war in a foreign land when he felt that the war for his own freedom was still unfinished, and his comeback launched a political, legal and ethical quandary that ended up in the Supreme Court and that still echoes today whenever someone questions the very nature of modern warfare. The world of boxing deemed him incapable of regaining his title after 10 years of his first and equally improbable title bout, and his comeback to that was one of the most memorable fights in history, a triumphant return to the land of his ancestors, and a victory that turned him into a superhero to his race – the human race.
Four years after that memorable African dawn in Kinshasa, Zaire, and a mere 24 years after having his bicycle stolen, a special issue of “Superman” had Ali fighting the red-caped superhero – and winning.
But his life, as it is customary for juggernauts, was not without controversy or contradiction. At times, he even became a victim of his own discourse.
He embraced Islam, a religion that claims to hold women as the most precious beings worthy of all the respect in the world, even though he remained a notorious womanizer.
His desire to avoid blows to the face made him develop a beautifully defensive style that kept foes from hitting him as much as possible, but in doing so he took much more punishment to the body in his later years, and this resulted, according to his own physician, to liver and kidney damages that worsened and accelerated his physical downfall. But he happily paid the price of his own vanity and his desire to emerge unblemished and unpunished from his fights against some of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history just to continue on his mission to be the defiant face of black triumphalism in a white man’s world, and an icon to his people.
He refused to give in to America’s imperialist and dictatorial wars abroad, but he later empowered foreign dictators and took their money in two of his most famous fights overseas in Zaire and Manila.
But for all of his contradictions, it was his loyalty to his beliefs that kept earning him a second chance in the hearts and minds of both fans and detractors. From his earliest life, it was clear that young Cassius always had his sight on achievements that others would have considered impossible to achieve.
Just as his comeback to a simple act of petty larceny triggered an epic quest towards greatness, and his comeback to accusations of cowardice in the face of war was answered by his bravery to stand up to war itself, his comeback to racial integration was an increasing demand for much higher goals.
His grandfather’s slave master, after whom he was originally named, may have been a staunch abolitionist, but even so young Cassius considered his name a “slave name.” His first backers may have been a group of white businessmen who offered him a lucrative and advantageous deal in an era in which the mob still ruled boxing, but he still asked for more.
And more he got. He became a star beyond his realm, the most recognizable face on Earth, deemed capable of impossible deeds. Like clashing with Superman equipped only with his trademark white boxing trunks as a nameless superhero that could easily have ditched his known early monikers (“The Mouth of the South”, “The Louisville Lip”) in favor of a more appropriate “Comeback Kid,” a name worthy of a character with the power to turn back time and shoot back stingy rhymes.
But just as Superman had to be shipped out of his exploding planet by his dying parents to find his mission in life, Ali’s greatness was built on his ability to meet the challenges that his life placed on him, first as an angry teenager, and then as a boxing champion, a soldier of peace and a role model. After all, a stolen bike didn’t provide enough rage to fill an entire career as a prizefighter, so Ali had to find new causes. New comebacks to add to his legendary ability to turn challengers and doubters away.
And he didn’t have to look too hard. He came back from his banishment from boxing to regain his title against the most fearsome of foes in the form of George Foreman, in an African country that now exists only in the history books and is mentioned almost solely to honor his accomplishment, like the name of an ancient city now lying in rubble mentioned only when the name of his conqueror is recalled. And he defied the odds once again when he took on the much younger and inexperienced Leon Spinks in his quest to regain his belt a record third time. And somewhere in between, he came back from the brink of death from exhaustion to defeat his archenemy Joe Frazier in one of the most grueling battles in memory.
The comeback was his magic trick, and Ali’s claim of greatness was his comeback to everyone else’s claim of greatness. The measure of his success toppled every bragging right in boxing, both in and out of the ring – and to some extent, in life itself.
And his forced reclusion after the last two punishing bouts of his career left him progressively silent was our cue to generate our own comebacks, our own wars against war, our own struggles for our own lofty goals. And here we are, speechless, waiting for another illuminated sportsman to use his notoriety to stand up for the beliefs of his people with his same passion and eloquence that Ali stood for.
The wait, as it turns out, may take a long while. __________________________________________________________
Up until his very last breath, Ali kept dreaming about one last comeback.
“My father is one of those people who would have spent all of his life trying to come back,” said Hana Ali, one of his nine children, in a recent documentary. “He joked about it up until he was probably 65. ‘Wouldn’t it be something? We’ll shake up the world! I’ll come back and take that title back!’”
We never give up on our desire to see one last, miraculous, magic comeback in our lives.
In my book of wishes, the Comeback Kid takes to the skies once more, and flies one last mission to make a perfect version of my most cherished memories come to life once again before disappearing into the night of time.
A frightened paw scratches my front door, and it’s Lobo. An eight year-old me embraces him, and we’re neither afraid nor cold anymore. I hold my mom’s hand once again, and instead of the pale, unanimated limb that lingers in my most painful memory, I find the same vibrant, warm, loving hand that steered my childhood into manhood.
In the book of wishes of the people that he touched through his passage in this world, Muhammad Ali, terror of bicycle thieves worldwide, vanquisher of Superman, poet , loudmouth, soldier of peace and warrior of the ring, suddenly sheds the spell of his heinous malady to stop trembling, and he stands up upright and firmly once again on those two long and wide legs, with his voice un-slurring away from his illness and back into coherence, to explode in another fearless, brilliant, poetic rant that destroys and silences every warmongering politician, every hater, every boxing challenger and every doubter and naysayer in the world.
The last flight of the Comeback Kid will never take off. A long shot worthy of his destiny-defying prowess will remain unattainable. An unfinished rhyme will forever echo in the square circle that he turned into his preaching stand, his soap box, his dancing floor, his battleground and his springboard to immortality. His last challenge will remain unmet, open to all of us to pick up where he left off, should we ever dare.
“He has always defied impossible odds by doing the seemingly impossible”, said Hana, ”and proving to himself and to the world that he could accomplish it.”
We could try to summarize Ali’s mission on Earth more succinctly.
But in fact, not even Muhammad Ali could muster a comeback for that.
Seldom has a defending champion been a bigger underdog than WBO super featherweight titlist Roman Martinez against WBO featherweight king (and two-time Olympic gold medalist) Vasyl Lomachenko. Odds range from 10-to-1 to 14-to-1 against Martinez, who will face a similar circumstance as then-WBA welterweight champ Paulie Malignaggi, who was as much as a 15-to-1 underdog against Adrien Broner, who went on to win a 12-round decision as well as his third divisional title in a six-fight span. Will Martinez defy the odds or will "Hi-Tech" confirm them?
A Common Foe: Both have fought Orlando Salido and both were troubled by him. Lomachenko's only defeat as a pro came against "Siri," who lost the WBO featherweight title on the scales, then used his bulk (and fouling tactics) to gain a points advantage. Despite Salido's bullying, it was Lomachenko who was stronger at the end of his first-ever 12-round fight as he out-landed Salido 58-26 overall, 13-1 jabs and 45-25 power in the final six minutes to earn connect leads of 164-142 overall and 59-5 jabs. Salido's 137-105 lead in landed power shots trumped Lomachenko's accuracy (37%-22% overall, 29%-5% jabs, 44%-25% power) but the decision favoring Salido was only split.
Martinez met Salido twice and both were 12-round thrillers that vied for 2015 Fight of the Year honors. In fight one Martinez dropped Salido in rounds three and five, then was helped by a low-blow point penalty in the 11th. Salido threw many more punches (81.7 per round to 56.8 for Martinez) but Martinez's accuracy (33%-23% overall, 39%-26% power) helped him forge a narrow 224-221 lead in overall connects (Salido led 197-184 power, Martinez 40-24 jabs). The rematch, however, was more problematic for Martinez as he was out-landed 285-189 overall, 36-20 jabs and 249-169 power, was more accurate in two categories (27.5%-27.4% overall, 17%-13% jabs), out-landed Martinez in nine of 12 rounds overall (including eight of the final nine rounds) as well as producing an 8-3-1 split in power connects. But judge Patricia Morse-Jarman saw Martinez a 115-113 winner while Glenn Feldman turned in a 114-114 card that trumped Burt Clements' 115-113 card for Salido, turning what should have been a Salido win into a draw.
Lomachenko's Surge: Since losing to Salido Lomachenko has won four straight, and the numbers are spectacular. In beating Gary Russell Jr. (now the WBC featherweight titlist), Thai veteran Chonlatarn Piriyapinyo, Gamalier Rodriguez and Romulo Koasicha, Lomachenko averaged 67.6 punches per round and 9.1 landed jabs per round, created massive percentage gaps (38%-14% overall, 26%-6% jabs, 51%-20% power) and logged 18.8 more connects per round than his opponents (25.9 vs. 7.1). His last outing against Koasicha was a statistical tour de force as he landed 47% overall, 32% jabs and 64% power, rolled up connect leads of 334-75 overall, 121-20 jabs and 213-55 power. His 12.1 jab connects per round nearly tripled the 4.4 featherweight average and he reached or surpassed 30 total connects per round in rounds 3-10. To cap it off, Lomachenko ended the fight with a triple hook to the ribs. It was as good as it gets. In his last five fights, Lomachenko landed 8.2 jabs per round (nearly double wgt. class avg.) and 50.2% of his power punches in his last 5 fights. Opponents landed just 8.2 total punches per round (half the wgt. class avg.).
Prediction: For the third straight fight Lomachenko is coming off a career-long layoff but if his last two fights are an indicator ring rust won't be much of a factor. Plus, Lomachenko won his second gold at 132 so he's used to the weight. Lomachenko by lopsided decision.
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.
By Eric Raskin
This piece originally appeared in Slate. It is republished here with the permission of the author and the publication.
Muhammad Ali was so much more than just a boxer. “I came to love Ali,” two-time foe Floyd Patterson told David Remnick for his book King of the World. “I came to see that I was a fighter and he was history.” Ali was a political, social, and religious activist, as divisive a figure as any celebrity during the turbulent 1960s. He was the godfather of trash talk. He was a master media manipulator. He was, simply, the most famous man on the planet. Then he became the public face of Parkinson’s and perhaps the most convincing argument for future generations of kids not to pursue boxing. He was, until the end on Friday night, as widely beloved a human as the world knew.
It can be hard for those of us who grew up after Ali’s career ended to appreciate his legacy, to understand just how large he was relative to life itself, to grasp how transcendent a figure he was before his communication skills diminished. Appreciating his skills as a boxer, on the other hand? That’s easy. All you need are YouTube and BoxRec to wrap your mind around what he could do and the unparalleled caliber of heavyweight opposition he did it against. Ali declared himself “the greatest of all time” before it was true. But then he made it true. He convinced us, and no heavyweight since has come close to unconvincing us.
Ali was a middleweight and a light heavyweight in the amateur ranks before he grew into his heavyweight frame (he didn’t crack 200 pounds until his 16th pro fight), and that informed his distinct fighting style. At heavyweight, he was a self-styled butterfly in a land of caterpillars. He bounced on his toes with the grace of a smaller man, circling, shuffling, hopping, dipping, ducking, feinting, jitterbugging. He pumped out jabs and combinations with a speed approximating his pugilistic heroes, welterweight/middleweight icon Sugar Ray Robinson and the less iconic but more directly influential light heavyweight Willie Pastrano. If his offense was unorthodox, his defense was downright absurd. Ali did so many things technically wrong but had the otherworldly reflexes to get away with all of it. He held his hands low, he pulled his head straight back exactly as every boxer is instructed not to do, but he made opponents miss by an inch or two and left them off balance and open for his counters.
His 1966 bout with Cleveland Williams is so widely cited as peak Ali that it’s clichéd to call it peak Ali, but damn if it isn’t boxing perfection.
They say the goal in boxing is to hit and not get hit. Williams hardly landed a punch in eight minutes. Ali hardly missed one. It was a full minute into the fight before Ali threw his first punch—such was his patience in measuring his man and his desire to show off his defensive mastery. Then the jabs unfurled. Then some hooks. Then a lead right. The hook off the jab, followed by an Ali Shuffle. Then more jabs, snapping back the head of the “Big Cat.”
If you’re under the impression that Ali had no pop in his mitts, the brutalization that began in Round 2 will set you straight. Williams followed Ali around the ring hopelessly, handcuffed by the champion’s speed. With 40 seconds to go in the round, Williams walked directly into a blinding right hand, a clear-as-day version of the so-called “phantom punch” that felled Sonny Liston in 1965. Williams went down, then rose, but the fight was as good as over. An onslaught of rights and lefts produced knockdown No. 2 just a few seconds later. Just before the bell could save Williams, a searing left hook, left hook, right cross combination put him flat on his back. Instead of the bell saving him, it prolonged his beating, as Williams’ cornermen were allowed to enter the ring, walk him back to his stool, and get him ready to take more punishment. Round 3 began, and there were more shuffles, more combinations, and a straight right to put Williams down a fourth time. A right to the ear nearly knocked a bloody Williams down again, and finally, belatedly, referee Harry Kessler stopped the massacre after one minute and eight seconds of the third round.
Sure, it was a post-prime, made-to-order Williams on the receiving end of Ali’s brilliance. But still. What heavyweight before or since has ever put on a clinic quite like that?
The sports world should have seen several more years of that Ali, opening jaws and bloodying lips, but two fights later, his 1,314 days in exile began. The Ali we see in the Williams fight—this is the fighter we missed out on because he objected to the Vietnam War before it was fashionable to do so. After those 1,314 days, Ali was never the same in the ring. He was great, but in a different way. He couldn’t avoid as many of his opponents’ punches. So he sat down a little more on his own. When he couldn’t easily outbox them, he outfought ’em and outthought ’em. He forged a classic trilogy with Joe Frazier through will as much as skill, with ego grabbing hold of his steering wheel and anger pushing down on the gas pedal. He beat the monster that was 1974 George Foreman the only way he could have: with his brain. (And a little chin, heart, and balls mixed in.)
He became the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion at age 36 pretty much through muscle memory, craft, and desire.
Combine what made 1960s Ali great with what made 1970s Ali great, and you would have had the absolute perfect heavyweight. Sometime between March 22, 1967, and Oct. 26, 1970, he probably would have become that fighter.
But even without those 1,314 days of his absolute prime, Ali did enough to establish himself as what he said he was: the greatest. There’s only one other name even to consider for that distinction among heavyweights, and it’s a debate that raged for decades: Ali or Joe Louis?
To a certain extent, it’s a generational thing. But now the generation that grew up with Louis on the radio is mostly gone. Maybe it’s not fair to declare Ali the winner now, when memory of Louis has faded. But looking at it objectively, as a child of neither generation, it doesn’t seem such a hard choice. Louis had a longer uninterrupted reign, made more title defenses, was a far more destructive puncher. But look at Ali’s quality of opposition. He shook up the world against Liston, then did it again. He shocked the world against Foreman. He won two out of three against Frazier. Same against Ken Norton. He beat Patterson twice. The also-rans on Ali’s record—Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Zora Folley, Oscar Bonavena, Bob Foster, Ernie Terrell—were as good as all but two or three opponents Louis beat during his historic reign. Match them up head to head, and the case for Ali is hard to deny: Ali fought and beat a few fighters who approximated the style and abilities of Louis; Louis never fought and beat anyone like Ali, because until Ali came along, there wasn’t anyone like Ali—at least not at heavyweight.
In my childhood and young adulthood, the conversation shifted, at least among casual boxing observers. It became a question of Ali vs. Mike Tyson. To those who truly understood the sport, it was almost laughable. And that’s no knock on Tyson, who was a force of nature during his brief prime. But the Ali we saw against Williams would have more or less toyed with Tyson, and the Ali who warred with Frazier would have found a way to win too. Tyson, as serious a boxing historian as you’ll find, has admitted as much, without hesitation. “Nobody beats Ali,” he said when asked if he’d have beaten him, prime against prime. And he explains that those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and perceived Tyson as the winner just because he hit harder and had bigger muscles let themselves be fooled by Ali’s physical appearance. “Ali is a fuckin’ animal,” Tyson said. “He looks more like a model than a fighter, but what he is, he’s like a Tyrannosaurus rex with a pretty face.”
There’s been a tendency over the last several decades to sugarcoat Ali’s flaws as a person—the unforgivable things he said to Frazier, the brutality he inflicted upon Patterson, the likelihood that some of his religious and political stands were as selfish as they were selfless. There’s a similar tendency to paint over his imperfections in the ring. He had major scares early in his career against Doug Jones and Henry Cooper. He won a few dubious decisions in his later years. He had no body-punching game whatsoever.
But Muhammad Ali never said he was perfect. He simply said he was the greatest. He was right. And you don’t need to have lived through his prime, his exile, or any of his comebacks to know it.