The Pugilist

Can Lomachenko win a world title in only his second pro fight?

The Pugilist

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The big card in Las Vegas at the weekend had plenty of newsworthy qualities to it.

Headlining were Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez, the two welterweights who defeated Manny Pacquiao last year. Their wins over ‘Pac-Man’ were extremely different, and defending WBO champion Bradley had points to prove. Prove them he did, in a classy cerebral display.

On top of that, Orlando Cruz – a decent enough boxer who had made almost as many headlines as the world’s very best over the last 12 months by becoming the first active fighter to come out of the closet – looked to become the first openly gay world champion, only to be outclassed by the impressive Orlando Salido.

Under the radar of these two big stories, however, waves were made on the undercard by a promising talent making his professional debut.

Vasyl Lomachenko, a 25-year-old featherweight from Ukraine, has been widely regarded as the finest pound-for-pound amateur boxer for the last few years.

He won two Olympic gold medals (he has the London and Beijing 'Olympic rings' logos tattooed on each bicep), two world amateur championships and one European championship.

When he made the decision in the summer to turn professional with Bob Arum’s Top Rank, Lomachenko drew a line under an amateur record which read 396-1. And even that one solitary defeat was later avenged. Twice.

While the heroes of Team GB’s boxing squadron were justifiably courted by Britain’s top promoters and debuted as pros to much fanfare in the wake of London 2012, and highly-decorated Olympic flyweight Zou Shiming was immediately placed front and centre of Top Rank’s attempts to build a healthy market in China, Lomachenko has something on them all, in terms of pure in-ring talent.

I was present at much of the Olympic boxing coverage at London’s ExCel last year. Lomachenko and his compatriot, heavyweight Oleksandr Usyk, stood out in claiming their respective golds.

I also had the privilege of watching the two take a baby step towards turning pro when they arrived back in London on March 1 to represent the Ukraine Otamans in a ‘World Series of Boxing’ victory over the British Lionhearts.

Fought over five rounds without headgear, the competition provides an enjoyable bridge between the purist-friendly amateurs and the big time of professional competition. And at the famed York Hall in Bethnal Green, Lomachenko and Usyk once again showed just how good they are.

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The duo beat Sam Maxwell and Joe Joyce – two very capable and promising British prospects who enhanced their own reputations in defeat but ultimately suffered the same fate as so many before them.

Though Ukraine narrowly lost the two-legged 2012/13 final to Kazakhstan side Astana Arlans, the big upshot for them was that their two stars were ready for the bright lights, cash and controversy of professional boxing.

Usyk was set to join Lomachenko at Top Rank, but last month did a U-Turn and signed with Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko’s K2 Promotions instead.

"We thought we had to sign Usyk to get Lomachenko and he, luckily for us, got a good offer from K2, so that's how it worked out," Arum told ESPN.

Lomachenko stuck to his original plan, on the other hand, and made a typically-emphatic introduction to his new scenery with a winning debut over Mexico’s Jose Luis Ramirez.

This was unlike most professional debuts, too – even the high-profile ones such as that of Brits Luke Campbell, Anthony Ogogo and friends, and even that of Shiming in China.

‘Hi-Tech’ Lomachenko was placed in a 10-round contest, rather than a gentle four- or six-round starter, at the Thomas & Mack Center. Ramirez, also 25, entered the bout with a record of 25-3 (15 KOs) and had, prior to his encounter with the Ukrainian, never been stopped inside the distance.

In addition, Ramirez was defending the WBO international featherweight title against Lomachenko. While not exactly a championship of monumental prestige, you do not often see debutants do battle for the first time against anyone of even that sort of level.

In other words, faith was high in Lomachenko making a fast start. And he justified that faith in a dominant display, flooring Ramirez in the first and fourth rounds with a devastating assault on his midsection seldom seen so early on in a pro fighter’s journey.

The latter knockdown ended the contest.

But if you think that was a fast start, Arum’s plans for Lomachenko’s second pro fight will leave you feeling like Roadrunner has just sped by.

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Top Rank, according to multiple Stateside reports, appear set to put their hot property in the ring with Salido – who regained his previously-vacant WBO featherweight strap shortly after Lomachenko’s debut by stopping Cruz – at Madison Square Garden on January 25.

After breaking all kinds of records as an amateur, Lomachenko could be months away from becoming the first man to become a world boxing champion after just two professional bouts.

It won’t come easy, even considering his remarkable talent, as multi-time world champion Salido has 40 professional wins, 28 of which came by knockout. Though he has 12 defeats to his name, eight came before he had turned 21 and some came as a 15-year-old, when he made his debut in 1996.

“I saw the fight [with Ramirez],” Salido said regarding the prospect of the historic bout.

“Lomachenko is a good fighter, he moves well, but he's nothing special. What can I say about him? He is a winner. I am ready for anyone and it's going to be a war in every fight.”

Lomachenko, meanwhile, is already thinking about what next if he does indeed become a 2-0 world champion. Namely, one of the world’s very best today (and a two-time former Olympic gold medallist in his own right) Guillermo Rigondeaux, the WBA and WBO super-bantamweight king.

"I have a great deal of respect for Rigondeaux," said Lomachenko. "But I need a few more fights before I'm ready for him."

At least there are some goals the fast-rising star concedes will take some time to achieve…

Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter

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