CAMARILLO, Calif. — Five years ago, when I began interviewing Vasiliy Lomachenko, he explained what he wanted from boxing. It wasn’t money, or to be found atop the pound-for-pound rankings (which, back then, he was). It wasn’t titles — or even that rare recognition that comes with being an undisputed champion in boxing’s four-belt era. It was all of that — and more. Much more.
“History,” he said. “If, in 10 years or 20 or 30 years, you sit down with your friends and talk about boxing, you need to remember my name.”
In other words, he merely sought a place in the game’s history alongside fighters such as Ray Robinson, Jack Dempsey and Muhammad Ali. That’s not a goal so much as a grant of immortality, really, and certainly a bigger task than calling out the next jamoke on Twitter or Instagram.
The following week, he stopped the undefeated Guillermo Rigondeaux, who, like Lomachenko, was a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Rigondeaux opted not to fight beyond the sixth round, becoming the fourth consecutive Lomachenko opponent to quit on his stool, and the basis for his then-new nickname, “No Mas-chenko.” Still, while a great number of boxing cognoscenti had picked Rigondeaux, Lomachenko himself wasn’t much impressed.
Rigondeaux was a smaller man; he needed bigger challenges. Hence, Lomachenko — whose physical contours basically remain that of a short-armed featherweight — moved up to lightweight, a journey that has brought him to this moment, training for the undisputed lightweight champion, Devin Haney. Haney is ascendant: the youngest-ever four-belt champion, still just 24, but already a master boxer and a recent addition to the pound-for-pound lists. They’re both lightweights, yes. It’s just that Haney, with his superhero physique, will rehydrate into a much bigger one when he walks into the ring, shortly after 9 p.m. PT, more than 36 hours after the weigh-in (Haney vs. Loma on ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
And I’m thinking Lomachenko should be very, very happy about this. It’s not just custody of all four belts that are now within his grasp. It’s the matchup himself. After 422 fights going back to the amateurs, he’s finally a 2-1 underdog, giving away 11 years and almost seven inches in reach. He’s also squarely on the wrong side of boxing history, which holds that all things being relatively equal, the good big man beats the good small man, and the aging champion finds himself vanquished by the younger one.
But now Lomachenko has a chance, on a single night, to join the fraternity of immortals — great, aging fighters who beat bigger, younger champions. They include Floyd Mayweather, who at 36 dominated the 23-year-old Canelo Alvarez, already 42-0-1 as a pro; Ali, who famously dispatched George Foreman in 1974; and Roberto Duran, who did it twice — first against Davey Moore, then again versus Iran Barkley.
Still, when we meet at his personal gym on an overcast day earlier this month, Lomachenko seems less than delighted.
“If I win, it’s the will of God,” he says. “And if I lose, it’s the will of God. But if I [don’t] win this fight, life is not canceled. It’s a bonus for me. It’s a second chance.”
Wait. If I lose…?
You never hear fighters say that, especially one as outrageously ambitious as Lomachenko. Where had all that existential arrogance gone?
He has changed.
“When we spoke last time in New York, I said this loss with Teofimo Lopez, it changed me.”
In fact, most of what we spoke of in the lead-up to his last fight in New York — after a long layoff against a tougher than expected Jamaine Ortiz — was about the war in Ukraine, where he served in his local defense battalion. That said, though, his loss to Lopez changed not only the fighter himself, but the perception of him as arguably the best in the world. Lopez didn’t just take his aura of invincibility; perhaps more alarming was the difficulty Lomachenko had in accepting it. I remember him telling me immediately after the fight that he thought he had won.
He did not. He barely threw a punch the first six rounds. “After the second round I had a problem,” he says now, referring to his then-bruised right rotator cuff and the loose bodies of cartilage around the joint. “I feel a very big pain on the shoulder. I was afraid to start fighting because the pain was very, very high.”
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Lomachenko, of all people, understood that a bad shoulder — even one that required surgery, as his did the week after the fight — isn’t any more of an excuse than his natural size. Rather, his denial of defeat was striking. It spoke to that invincible ego. If ego helped make him the best fighter in the world, it also rendered him blind to the obvious. But now — almost two years later — he’s not arguing about the loss anymore. It’s not a matter of acceptance, either; he has embraced it.
“I want to say, ‘Thank you, Teofimo,’ and to his team,” Lomachenko says. “Because I lose this fight, but I won much more.”
“What did you win?” I ask.
“My ego was very, very big,” he says. “I didn’t show it. But it followed me outside of boxing — with my friends, my family, the people around me.”
The loss, I ask: “It broke your ego?”
“It’s not broke,” he rebuts quickly. “When you have a certain goal and you go for it with all your powers” — he’s talking about being an undisputed champion, which, after 422 fights, two Olympic gold medals and titles in three divisions, remains his single unattained goal — “and then it doesn’t work out, you start to question deeper: Why does it happen?”
He’s speaking, in part, of a spiritual deepening. Lomachenko doesn’t think it’s mere coincidence that his transformation began when he was 33, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified. Then there were the monks at the Orthodox Christian monastery in Greece, where he typically cloisters himself before training. But there’s a secular element to his transformation as well. He’s healthy. For the first time in a while, he seems undistracted — by his opponent or the war in Ukraine. His mind seems clear. What’s not clear is whether the now ego-checked Lomachenko will be more dangerous — or less.
“It’s very hard to impress me,” he says of Haney. “His style is slick. It’s a very hard style because after he punches he always holds.”
Then there’s the matter of size. “If he was the same size, the same reach, the same weight, it will be more easy.”
“You asked for it,” I remind him.
“It’s my choice,” he concedes.
That said, as the “B” side here, he also granted a potentially great concession to the Haney camp — a 9 a.m. weigh-in on Friday. That gives Haney — whose move up to 140 pounds is inevitable and expected soon — about 36 hours to rehydrate. By comparison, the Loma-Lopez weigh-in was 2 p.m. For Jamaine Ortiz, it was 3:30. The fight could conceivably be won or lost in those hours.
I remind him that Haney has said, “There’s nothing Loma can do better than me.”
“Just words,” says Lomachenko.
“Haney says he wants to beat you up and send you into retirement.”
Finally, a reaction.
“Haney said. Haney said. Haney said,” he repeats sardonically. “I don’t like it. … It’s not too hard talking about yourself. [It’s] very hard to prove it, to prove your words….
“I want to give all of myself this fight because it’s the last chance.”
“Your last chance to be undisputed?”
“For me, yes,” he says solemnly. “It’s the last chance.”
“So now what do you want people to be saying about you 10, 20, 30 years from now?”
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