NEW YORK — On Saturday evening, midtown Manhattan was afflicted by plagues. A snowstorm had turned the crosswalks into slushy lagoons. SantaCon had drawn thousands of drunken Jersey residents dressed as Saint Nick into the city’s streets, where they yelled and WOOOO-ed and eroded the quality of life. And at Madison Square Garden, a Rangers-Devils hockey game drew further legions of detestables. All we needed was the Republican National Convention to make it a world class epicenter of villainy. It would take something really good to draw a reasonable person into that madness. Something special.
Vasyl Lomachenko versus Guillermo Rigondeaux was the best skill fight that it was possible to make on planet Earth. You can make guaranteed action fights and you can make mismatches sure to result in spectacular knockouts, but this was the absolute maximum amount of pure boxing skill that you could put into a ring holding two professional fighters. This was a fight that moved me to sentimentality. For purists, who are always the minority and the most excruciating company in any fan base, this was a borderline holy event. Like foodies trekking to Noma or fundamentalist Christians to Israeli package tours, it was worthy of a pilgrimage. Jimmy’s Corner, the last boxing-themed dive bar in Times Square, was packed to the gills in the hours before the undercard. At a table in back were two 30-something Brits from Bristol, who had flown over. The empty bottles covering the space between them were all part of the pilgrimage. “When I heard Lomachenko-Rigondeaux,” said one, with drunken earnestness, “I’m there!”
For reasons fathomable only to the twisted mind of a boxing promoter, this fight took place in the small room underneath Madison Square Garden, where the crisscrossing light strands across the ceiling induce the feeling of being caught in god’s cast net. Ukrainian Lomachenko fans roamed the lobby in yellow and blue afro wigs and Ukrainian flags wrapped casually around their shoulders. I tried to imagine myself going to a fight in the Ukraine while wearing an American flag like a cape. My imagination failed me.
Three rows back from the ring, I had the feeling of being close to history. These men were considered to be perhaps the two best amateur fighters ever, with more than 800 wins and four Olympic gold medals between them. The only complicating factor was size. Rigondeaux is about the size of a parking meter’s shadow. He had to move up two full divisions to take this fight at 130 pounds. Lomachenko moved down. A year from now, Rigo could be back at 122 pounds, and Lomachenko could be at 140. You see the problem. Still, Rigo’s pure mastery made him a live underdog. His style is defined by technical perfection and the absolute absence of any unnecessary movement. It is what you get when you wring every drop of wasted motion out of boxing. He doesn’t bounce. His feet stay on the ground, and he glides. A typical Rigo fight features him just reading his opponent for several rounds, punching almost never, until the crowd begins to boo, and then, having completed his study, delivering one single precisely timed knockout punch to end it. He knows everything.
Lomachenko, on the other hand, is what happens when you build an entirely new style on top of the frame of that technical mastery. Where Rigondeaux is motionless, Lomachenko is kinetic. His jab hand is like a snake held by the tail, continually poking and striking up and down while the rest of his body seems to be relaxing on its own. His footwork is matchless. He can be anywhere in a 270-degree radius of your face before you can move to meet him. He’s in front—now he’s on your left side. And he’s hitting you body-head-body-head-head before you can tell what’s happening. Lomachenko is constantly skipping back and raising his front foot like a pitcher, then darting to one side or the other, maybe, or not. Even when he is directly in front of you he is unhittable, constantly rolling his shoulders from side to side and darting behind his own gloves like a man peeking out from between two moving pistons. He slips punches with the ease of a grown man pretend-boxing with a toddler. You can’t find him, and if you do you can’t hit him, and the whole time he’s hitting you.
We all knew that Rigondeaux would have to hurt Lomachenko to win. But this is true in most of his fights, and he’s undefeated. It’s what he does. He lays back calmly and waits to fire the assassin’s bullet. He knows how to keep himself unscathed. Because it is illegal to hit someone on the back of the head, Rigo’s signature defensive move—amplified to the extreme in this fight—is to bend his knees and bend his back all the way parallel to the ground and cover the side of his face with one glove and roll back, thereby presenting absolutely no target at all except for the back of his head. This he did over and over in the face of the Lomachenko whirlwind, until Lomachenko was throwing triple uppercuts and taps on top of the skull with the exasperation of an octopus trying to open a clam. Ideally, Rigo can pop up from that low position and throw a sharp straight left or right hook to catch his opponent on the side of the head. He never was able to catch Lomachenko with that, though. So instead, Rigo would grab and hold, with an impressive stickiness. When the ref finally approached to tell him to stop holding he would put his hands straight up in the air in the exaggerated way you would if an angry cop was approaching you. Who, me? Rigo would apologize like Miss Manners, then proceed to grab and hold again. The ref eventually took a point from him for this, but by then it had allowed him to weather five rounds already. You do what you have to do.
Lomachenko, in full cyclone mode, never managed to land a real solid punch on Rigondeaux. Let us pause to acknowledge that this in itself is an accomplishment that no one else has matched. He did, however, land a lot of little punches, and more importantly he threw a lot of punches, and Rigondeaux himself never landed any punches on Lomachenko either. At the end of the sixth, Lomachenko had won every single round. It was just getting really good. The Ukrainian was getting more comfortable every round, flashing more and more of his superheroic moves; at the same time, Rigondeaux, though losing, was still alive, and was still a threat to come up with that single wipeout shot, as he always does. And then...it was over. Between the sixth and seventh rounds, the referee waved off the fight, and we all got that sickening “Watch how boxing will fuck you over now” feeling that is too familiar. (Though usually it doesn’t arrive until the reading of the scorecards.)
Did Rigondeaux quit? Yes, strictly speaking, he quit. Did Lomachenko make him quit? I don’t know. Rigondeaux said he injured his hand early in the fight and couldn’t continue. Bitter as I am, I am inclined to take him at his word. Sometimes in boxing you injure your hand. This happens. The immediate instinct of fans to mock him as a quitter vanquished by a mighty foe does not really comport with the very fact of Rigondeaux’s existence. You don’t win nearly 500 fights by being a quitter. You don’t get to the position of having this fight, which drew us all out into the slushy, Santa-infested night, by being a quitter. Lomachenko, whose style comes to us from the future, may well be unbeatable. But we’ll never quite know for sure. Boxing does not care about fulfilling the dreams of history. It would rather punch those dreams in the face.