The version of Vasiliy Lomachenko that ethered Rocky Martinez was something. That uppercut-hook combination, a two-step destruction delivered with the smooth ferocity of a 110 mph serve, how could anyone who appreciates a blood sport not enjoy such a spectacle? That was an inevitable knockout; one salvaged by breathtaking aesthetics.
When he made a quitter of Nicholas Walters, made him choose the quicker, greater of two humiliations—Lomachenko was something that night, too. Alas, Walters’s conduct since then has shown us how to properly appraise what was, at the time, a shockingly dominant victory. Walters never returned to the ring; if he had, he might have done a service to the man who torched him.
To some degree, that’s what Gary Russell Jr. did after being spellbound for twelve rounds by Lomachenko in 2014. Russell, still a part-time fighter at best, took Jhonny Gonzalez’s featherweight title by force two fights later, and has yet to relinquish it. His competition since that title-winning annihilation of Gonzalez, however, is typically Russellesque, ditto his activity level (though one imagines Leo Santa Cruz was happy never to test the man they call “Mister”). It might’ve been something to have doused Russell’s ambition, but it’s only ever smoldered.
When Lomachenko moved to lightweight, however, and found himself on the canvas, looking up at Jorge Linares, gathering himself, and spending the next four rounds earning access to the Venezuelan’s kill switch, he became something better than peerless. Despite training in superhero apparel, Lomachenko was made all-too-human by tempting the scale, and his new vulnerability brought with it the potential for drama. It also made his schtick, that tired boxing “street magic”—punching nails into boards, doing handstands, felinely batting tennis balls, memorizing numbers—tolerable. Because who cares how he prepares provided he is at his best and facing opponents who will punish him for bringing anything less?
Lomachenko didn’t quite face such an opponent on Saturday. A fellow Olympic gold medalist, Luke Campbell had a size advantage, a sound strategy, and the nerve to adhere to it. At lightweight, those attributes in harmony (and at the disposal of greater talent) may one day take down the Ukrainian. Campbell fell well short of the upset, however, losing a unanimous decision to Lomachenko at the O2 Arena in London.
Campbell, 20-3 (16), had nothing for Lomachenko, a reality made obvious as much by the punches he landed as by those he missed. But Campbell forced a determined fight from Lomachenko, who used few of the tricks and much less of the dazzling footwork he’s tormented lesser opponents with. Size and a steady jab were enough to rein in Lomachenko’s virtuosity, and that is for the better. There was no playing with his food, no coasting, no belittling an opponent instead of unmanning him; instead, Lomachenko walked Campbell down and tried to put him away. The pitty-pat combinations? Gone. Lomachenko darted in quickly but threw from the balls of his feet once in range. Moreover, he stayed in the pocket even after firing, a sign of his hurtful intentions, yes, but also of Campbell’s ability to nullify the shorter Lomachenko at range.
He had Campbell reeling in the eighth, however, and might have finished him if he had the time to capitalize on the body shot he landed at round’s end. Yet even then Campbell seemed unconvinced of his impending defeat. In the eleventh, Campbell was dropped by a body shot and, with nearly a minute left in the round, seemed unlikely to survive. But he held until he had his legs, then ran, prompting Lomachenko to throw up his hands in disgust. The fighter with the best footwork in the game couldn’t corral his opponent, and in betraying his frustration confirmed again that the physics of lightweight are against him.
New challenges aside, the division isn’t quite his ceiling—he’s too good for that. Just four fights into his run at 135 pounds, Lomachenko is on the brink of being undisputed; only the WBC title he won against Campbell (on Campbell’s home turf, it’s worth noting) was vacant when Lomachenko took possession of it. There’s little reason to think he won’t own the division should he face the winner of the Richard Commey‒Teofimo Lopez title fight slated for the end of the year. By comparison, stablemate Terence Crawford’s expeditious razing of junior-welterweight took seven fights. The World Boxing Super Series is rightfully celebrated for providing clarity through attrition. Lomachenko is attempting a similar feat on a similar schedule. And while he may be relieving underdogs of their titles, that’s not something Lomachenko can control. There is no frivolity in his conduct at lightweight.
Lomachenko, 14-1 (10), has accomplished much in his fifteen fights, or he hasn’t. Indeed, there may be no more polarizing a fighter in boxing. But let that debate rage elsewhere. Lomachenko is accelerating toward challenges, trying to establish his dominance in the division offering him the greatest threats. He’s already thirty-one, has little time to waste, and therefore isn’t wasting it. That’s a course of action that should be endearing.
The real test, however, is not at lightweight. Oh, it might be in a few years, perhaps, if Lopez proves he is as authentic as he is precocious, if Gervonta Davis ever pursues a real fight earnestly, if Devin Haney harnesses his talent fully. But none of these opponents promise the same danger as one of the champions at junior-welterweight.
Those added pounds are potentially disastrous, to be sure. Jose Ramirez, Regis Prograis, and Josh Taylor each represent the longest night of Lomachenko’s career. But imagine the sunrise were he to triumph.