Vasyl Lomachenko is a gizmo. “Hi-Tech” is a fitting sobriquet for the fighter whose ring style is a dizzying arsenal of bells, whistles, buzzers, beepers, and blinking lights.
There is substance and steel beneath all the gingerbread, though. Lomachenko can fight. Possibly the most celebrated amateur of the last 20 years, he also brings an abundance of confidence to the pros. This confidence borders on hubris at times, which can cost him, as it did in his second professional fight. In that one, he was snookered by the vastly seasoned Orlando Salido, who came in 20 pounds over the division limit—for which he paid a fine—and then beat up Lomachenko for the first half of the fight, which the upstart spent getting his sea legs while being pelted with low blows, head butts, and elbows.
That Lomachenko nearly succeeded in catching up says a lot about both what a quick study and just how tough he is. It is almost unheard of for a beginning pro to be placed in a 12-round bout, and rarer still that he continues to grow stronger as it progresses. Accustomed to going three rounds or less, even the most accomplished amateurs run the risk of flagging if their early fights go much longer than that; the traditional approach is allow them to gradually work their way up to six-, eight-, 10-, and eventually 12-round fights.
Perhaps more remarkable than Lomachenko’s ability to pick up master-class tricks is the way that, in an era where any loss for a fighter on the rise almost certainly spells box office ruin, he will become a superstar if he defeats Guillermo Rigondeaux on December 9th, despite having a less than eye-catching record of 10-1 and not possessing the kind of game-changing one-punch power that resonates with the masses.
Guillermo Rigondeaux, for his part, is a sphinx. Until now, his reward for a 2013 script-ruining deconstruction of reigning fighter of the year Nonito Donaire—a win that earned him the lifelong enmity of promoter Bob Arum—has been banishment from big fights and big money. As an opponent for Lomachenko, however, he has been temporarily welcomed back to the Top Rank fold.
At the business level of boxing where this bout will take place, nothing is set up randomly. This fight was set up in the hope and expectation that Rigondeaux’s will be the highest-profile head Lomachenko has yet put on a stake.
It’s the kind of revenge Arum lives for. Lacking any intuition when it comes to the boxing aspect of boxing and chronically overestimating fighters who are still unproven—he often prematurely compares them favorably to all-time greats—Arum has relied for decades on the nonpareil matchmaking skill of Bruce Trampler to keep his fantasies from becoming career killers for Top Rank’s fighters.
But Rigondeaux was carefully chosen for this fight. He will enter the ring against Lomachenko at Madison Square Garden with marked disadvantages in nearly every category. Rigondeaux is much too small, he’s too old, and he’s been too inactive to fight at this level. His style isn’t fan friendly—read this as judge and TV friendly—enough. You can’t give him rounds when he doesn’t do anything.
That’s the boxing stuff. The size and age part is true. The inactivity is probably true, too. The other things are only true to the extent that they’ve been said to be true, promulgated as the truth, and mutated into the truth as part of an ongoing narrative instigated by promoters who didn’t want the Cuban anywhere near their high-profile fighters, floated along on a river of ink from boxing writers who either don’t know anything about boxing or who look over their shoulders for marching orders, and given loudest voice by the TV commentators, who have either excluded Rigondeaux from discussion or dismissed him as a great fighter whose name is invariably invoked with an asterisk beside it—the “but” part of the equation.
A response sent from Rigondeaux’s Twitter account frames these decisions provocatively:
As Amy Winehouse would have put it, “What kind of fuckery is this?”
It’s fairly standard boxing fuckery, actually. On its own, isolated from everything else happening with Rigondeaux, it would likely require his prompt attention. This is something the fighter is not really in a position to give at the moment, so it’s become additional stone placed on his back. There are many tricks of the trade in boxing designed to throw off the focus of the guy the promoter is hoping will lose. Most are subtle and, if not exactly sporting, exist just inside the lines of fair play. They occasionally stray past this point, reaching their apotheosis in Russia, Germany, South Africa, and Thailand, where opponents coming in from outside have to deal with watching what they eat or drink in case they’ve been tampered with, threats from serious looking men (veiled or otherwise, including the conspicuous presence of guns), and all forms of noise abuse, from knocked-on doors to unending high decibel music played outside their hotel rooms.
Rigondeaux hasn’t been persecuted to nearly the extent described above, but the message is still clear: “We’re not bringing you to New York to fuck up our business.”
You’re At The Top As Easy As 1-2-3
It’s hard to picture fighters with fewer than 30 combined fights attaining cult status, yet Rigondeaux and Lomachenko each have coterie followers who are adamant that they are watching the best fighter in the world.
Lomachenko has attained this status while knocking one of the current tried-and-true yardsticks—the undefeated record—on its head. Determined to win a world title in his first professional fight, Lomachenko signed with Top Rank because he believed that Bob Arum could line things up for him.
Through no lack of effort, Arum fell a little short. Problems with commission regulations kept Lomachenko from being allowed to fight for a title in his pro debut, but he was given the green light in his second. Then the unexpected happened, and he lost.
Arum and the Lomachenkos then took a huge risk, bringing the fighter back just three months later to take on the talented, promotionally and managerially hooked-up, undefeated, and significantly more experienced Gary Russell Jr. (yet another fighter, incidentally, trained by his father).
Russell, named prospect of the year in 2011 by Sports Illustrated, Ring Magazine, and ESPN, was no joke. Fast of hand and foot, with better than average power, he had already proved his bona fides in the pros and his self-confidence matched Lomachenko’s.
Top Rank’s gamble paid off, but not without a scare: Lomachenko managed only a majority decision. The decision was not a gift. If anything, the draw scorecard was a “We’ll help keep him viable” thank you to Russell. In winning, Lomachenko, despite his unprepossessing record of 2-1 with one kayo, had established beyond doubt his toughness and his worthiness at the upper levels of his division.
Rather than derailing his career, his loss and majority-decision win had jumpstarted it. There was no longer a reason to put him through the careful, lengthy, and expensive process of building him up. Lomachenko was already exactly where he needed to be.
From there, it became a matter of escalating the high-profile public rhetoric, a task easily accomplished. HBO’s Max Kellerman proclaimed Lomachenko unbeatable at “any weight up to 140” by anyone other than the much bigger Terence Crawford. ESPN’s Teddy Atlas, always eager to publically defend his title as boxing’s most vocal clown, asserted that Lomachenko deserved a top-10 pound-for-pound position after only one professional fight. Maybe Teddy, notorious for jumping the gun, changed his mind after the second fight.
From the Inside: A Forgone Conclusion, or, There’s Only Room For One Hero in This Picture, or, Bob’s Boy
This is what Bob Arum, CEO of Top Rank and promoter of this fight, has to say about Lomachenko: “This is the best fighter I’ve seen since Muhammad Ali. There’s nobody who can do what he can. Nobody. He’s in a class by himself. While he’s performing at his maximum level, I want him to get maximum exposure and for everybody to enjoy it.”
This is a promoter talking here, not a fight historian—even Muhammad Ali himself wasn’t the best fighter of the Muhammad Ali era—but it gives a clear indication where this fight needs to go in order to fulfill the grand design laid out for Lomachenko’s future.
The mountain that Guillermo Rigondeaux will be forced to climb in order to win the fight is nearly impossibly steep, and is also strewn with impediments. Believe me; for this one, even the sherpas are going to send him careening off the cliff if they get half a chance.
Start with judging. Boxing judging is now so entirely a byproduct of promotional exigency that following the money will generally tell you who will win a fight that goes the distance. Unless the action is so one-sided that it makes choosing the house fighter entirely resistant to narrative spin—which is what happened when Rigondeaux routed Top Rank’s Donaire in 2013—weirdly skewed scorecards pop up as often as not in significant fights.
Because judging fights is so subjective, turning in a biased scorecard is the easiest thing to do in boxing. You can always justify it. Barring a knockdown in the round, there’s a case to be made for any style under observation.
“He forced the fight.”
“He made him miss the whole round.”
“He landed the harder punches.”
“He landed the cleaner punches.”
“That big right just before the bell got B’s attention. I think it was enough to give A the round.”
There’s also the shadowy “He showed more ring generalship”—an almost meaningless descriptor used by befuddled hired experts to give them a break from the rigors of having to do concrete analysis.
Rigondeaux vs. Lomachenko is stylistically geared to allow judges favorably disposed to the Ukrainian to justify giving him rounds. Lomachenko is ceaseless in his punching, and those punches are delivered with a lot of visual panache. Rigondeaux never throws many punches, and there have been rounds where he’s thrown nearly none. If you were a competent judge of boxing, you’d understand that he won those rounds nonetheless—and often did tremendous damage in them—but that doesn’t mean anything here. Someone looking for reasons to award rounds to Rigondeaux’s opponent would be given plenty of cover by simply pointing to CompuBox’s punching statistics, ostensibly the objective record of how many punches were thrown, landed, and whether those shots were “power punches.”
These statistics are, in fact, generated by two guys counting punches, making purely human decisions about their accuracy and power, and not factoring the fighters’ strategies into the equation. But don’t be surprised if this simple, inaccurate, and nuance-free yardstick becomes the go-to tool for safeguarding a decision victory for Lomachenko when he fights Rigondeaux.
I Was Standing at the Crossroads
The Rigondeaux-Lomachenko meeting at the crossroads story is, in its most melodramatic version, about opposing trajectories. One points upwards toward a limitless horizon, the other down to an abject and tragic finale. If what’s supposed to happen happens, that this narrative is cinematic and sentimental doesn’t make it untrue; it just makes it reductive in the ways that confine an undue amount of meaning to one specific event.
For good or ill, Vasyl Lomachenko never does one thing when he can do 10. He does all 10 of them—some of which you may never have seen before—breathtakingly well. It’s as if he’s trying to impress his opponent into throwing up his hands in surrender after deciding that, in the face of all this creativity, he doesn’t stand a chance.
And impress them he has. Nicholas Walters, reckoned before their fight to represent Lomachenko’s most formidable opponent, couldn’t have been more awestruck; rendered punchless and motionless, he allowed the whirlwind in front of him to do whatever the fuck he wanted, as his passivity gave way first to sullenness and then capitulation.
Although I remain less than entirely persuaded that Lomachenko’s style will prove effective against a genuinely elite fighter like Rigondeaux, there can be no question that it has served him well to date. In his 10 professional contests, he has never been put in with someone who couldn’t fight, and three of his opponents were top-tier threats at the time he met them. That’s an extraordinarily fast track by any standards.
Like Rigondeaux, Lomachenko is a reflex fighter, but he is less defined by method, trusting in his ability to pick up opportunities on the fly—to incur offensive risk that he is certain his movement and speed can minimize. Where Rigondeaux will improvise dependent on circumstance, Lomachenko uses ongoing improvisation as a basic tenet.
He is in constant motion, with almost no predictable pattern as to where he’ll go. His punches are likewise unpredictable, and are thrown in asymmetrical combinations, landing with admirable accuracy to both head and body. He is not a hard puncher, but his punches are telling, and the damage they do is cumulative; his opponents are seldom prepared for what Lomachenko will throw, and so are often nailed by shots they don’t see coming. Lomachenko’s punches have much the same effect on opponents that the pre-exile Muhammad Ali’s did. Confusion in the ring is often read by the befuddled fighter as pain—I’m getting really beaten up in here—and a less than resolute opponent will lose heart.
Don’t expect to see that response from Guillermo Rigondeaux. All this busyness won’t be effective against him. He will instantly see through the commas, semicolons, parentheses, and brackets right to the declarative sentence in the center, nailing its subject.
If Lomachenko does 10 things when one would serve, Rigondeaux reduces 10 things that could legitimately be done to one clean gesture—boxing in the purest, most effective form possible.
For his many detractors, Rigondeaux’s otherworldly stillness reads as doing nothing in the ring; theirs is an artistic failure to find value in his patience and absence of affect. But no solitary predatory animal traps his victims by setting off flares and blasting their intention through a Marshall amp. When the time is right for Rigondeaux to strike, he does it more effectively than any boxer in recent years. He’s not focused on throwing combinations when he sees the opening he needs; one punch, from either hand, thrown with laser-beam accuracy, accomplishes whatever Rigondeaux wants it to do, whether that means knocking someone out by breaking a body part or just convincing his opponent to stop trying to win the fight.
Since his loss to Salido, Lomachenko hasn’t met an opponent who could decode his speed and movement. The fighters facing him were so blinded by the constant shifting and flurrying that they were unable to discern the gaps that he leaves between maneuvers, nor were they sophisticated enough to recognize the few patterns that Lomachenko does favor.
For Rigondeaux, these minute ports of entry look big enough to drive a truck into. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone can, in the midst of seemingly frenetic activity, sees things magnified and in slow motion. But that’s what Rigondeaux does.
Rigondeaux will be fighting under a number of major handicaps when he takes on Lomachenko. Obviously the vast difference in their sizes jumps out. And Rigondeaux really has been inactive over the last few years, which is a real problem for a very old (listed at 37, Rigondeaux is believed to be well into his 40s) fighter who is essentially a reflex fighter. Another important factor is that business needs a Lomachenko win, so business interests will exert their pressure to get the right result.
But there are ways Rigondeaux can beat Lomachenko. Vasyl has fallen too much in love with all the things he can do, and seems compelled to constantly trot out every one of his dazzling maneuvers. This excess is the opening for a Rigondeaux win, since the Cuban is the most efficient fighter in the world, and the one against whom any mistake will end things abruptly. In theory, at least, Rigondeaux can time some of Lomachenko’s functionless moves in order to catch him in the middle of a transition. Doing that will unsettle Lomachenko in two important ways: It will hurt in a way he hasn’t been hurt before (and, since he will not have seen the punch, in a way he won’t entirely understand), and it will erode his veneer of confidence, since the source of his pain will have come so quickly and mysteriously. Rigondeaux may have to repeat this process a number of times before it’ll change the tenor of the fight (but he may not have to). If he can pull it off, it becomes his fight.
Behind The Grillwork
Two more things about Guillermo Rigondeaux.
He has a dental grill of gold across his upper front teeth, and he smokes cigarettes.
Make of these facts what you will, but they run so contrary to who Rigondeaux seems to be as a fighter that it’s a struggle to process them. Rigondeaux’s entire mien militates against ornamentation, so it’s a shock, on the rare occasion of him smiling, to see that mouthful of gold.
The cigarette smoking is just as strange. Cuban athletes smoke cigars sometimes, cigars being a national cultural artifact. But cigarette smoking is one of boxing’s deepest taboos, and a habit that has fallen into nearly total disuse. Knowing that the sport’s greatest practitioner—its most finely honed, rigorously disciplined, and impeccably constructed specimen—lights up an unfiltered every chance he gets is like discovering that Mother Theresa liked to booze it up openly between saving souls.
A Public Education, or, The Mysterious Fucking Cycle Of (Boxing) Life
The romantic notion that a boxing match is won or lost solely with a fighters’ two fists at the point when the opening bell rings is theoretically true—true in the way that the business folklore holding that anyone who plays can win the lottery is true. If these things were really true in any meaningful way, boxing and the lottery would both soon go out of business.
Boxers are key players in a process that begins long before they enter the ring, but they’re not the only players, and they’re not even always the most important ones.
A showdown like Rigondeaux vs. Lomachenko is a lengthy, sometimes shadowy (not necessarily in any nefarious way, although it can be, but in the sense that there’s a non-corporeal energy accompanying a fight from its germination until the winner is announced), nuanced, and sinewy journey. Boxing as boxing is never a factor. It never starts as a sporting curiosity about who can beat whom.
The germination of this fight came from two sources, Vasyl Lomachenko and Bob Arum, both ambitious and audacious men.
Public opinion indicates that the better fighter in any given fight is whoever the pundits say is the better fighter. So, although it’s not actually true, Vasyl Lomachenko must be the better fighter in this fight. The experts tell us so.
In its most pared down equation, boxing—for fighters who can become top 10 contenders or champions—only presents two questions: how to move up and how to best monetize and protect oneself once one has begun to move down.
Fathers And Sons
Vasyl Lomachenko is trained by his father Anatoly, which puts them in boxing’s long and often troubled lineage of fathers training their sons. A partial list from the past twenty years would include Roy Jones Sr. and Jr., Angel and Danny Garcia, Ruben and Robert Guerrero, Jack and Shane Mosley, Paul and Demetrius Andrade, Enzo and Joe Calzaghe, and Floyd Mayweather Sr. and Jr.
Leaving Anatoly out of the conversation for the moment, Mayweather is the only father in the group who is anywhere close to an elite boxing trainer. The rest range from abysmal to mediocre, with a kind of asterisk next to Enzo Calzaghe’s name. Aside from Mayweather, none had notable success training any fighters other than their sons. And Guerrero, Mosley, and Andrade all managed to undermine their sons’ in-ring potential.
I’m wary of “evolved” or high-tech training methods for boxing, so have my doubts as to whether Anatoly’s programs will be as effective with Oleksandr Usyk and Oleksandr Gvozdyk, two hotshot fellow Ukrainian fighters, as they are with Vasyl. Boxing has had guru trainers in the past; none have ever been any good at anything other than motivation (if that). From Cus D’Amato to Teddy Atlas to Virgil Hunter to—God help us—Tim Lane, boxing’s eccentric trainers are devoid of basic fundamental knowledge of the game, substituting personality, ego, and homegrown theories for technical soundness.
If these trainers’ advice works—and it sometimes does—it does so only when they are working with championship-caliber fighters with whom they’ve established a personal bond. Good abecedarian counsel from the corner would work even better.
The exception here might be Enzo Calzaghe, who, with no background in the sport, somehow envisioned a mode of boxing that was perfect for his son Joe. Its logic had a lot of gaps—fighting with the head held stationary and not tucked in, and often squaring up on offense—that Joe paid for, but overall it managed to incorporate the best of his attributes to maximize what he was able to do in the ring. Enzo understood that Joe would be in better condition than anyone he fought. He knew that his son could throw punches endlessly, and that those shots could come from any angle. If Joe’s bad hands forced him to slap most of the time, there was the shared knowledge that, if things came down to do or die, he would endure any necessary pain in order to really put something on selected punches. Finally, there was the lagniappe of Calzaghe having an upper body appearance that belied his ungodly physical strength.
Enzo Calzaghe cobbled together a modus operandi for Joe that worked beautifully, but that couldn’t have been transposed to any other fighter. It was based solely on the specificities of his son’s inherent attributes.
Anatoly Lomachenko seems to understand his son in much the same way that Enzo Calzaghe understood his. He has geared Vasyl’s style to his extraordinary natural gifts. Because Anatoly has a background in training boxers, it’s largely taken on faith that he knows what he’s doing. But, as Enzo Calzaghe’s lack of formal boxing education caused him to miss teaching Joe some fundamentals, Anatoly Lomachenko’s autodidactic theories have kept him from recognizing flaws in his son’s game. That may prove to be a telling factor on December 9th.
The Calzaghes always wondered if they were good enough. The Lomachenkos assume they’re too good.
Another Madison Square Garden, Another Great Cuban Fighter
The first live fight card I ever saw at Madison Square Garden also featured an extraordinary Cuban exile in the main event. Unlike Guillermo Rigondeaux, Luis Rodríguez was expected to win his fight. His opponent was a talented but hard luck fighter named Gene “Ace” Armstrong, whose management didn’t understand that a brutal loss to a top fighter shouldn’t be followed by an immediate brutal matchup with another top fighter.
Armstrong lost only four fights, but three of those were to the relentlessly damaging Dick Tiger and the last was to Rodríguez. The final two were by knockout—the only ones he suffered—and these back-to-back losses ended his career. You have to wonder about the rationale for matching a fighter this heartlessly—if there was any business reason to cash out a 17-0 prospect, or to throw him in three times with someone he clearly was incapable of beating. Even between his four losses, Armstrong had to take on three really tough guys, including the estimable Henry Hank, whom he decisioned with relative ease.
Even though I had bought a ticket, I was too young to be legally allowed into the Garden, but a five-dollar bribe to an usher got me in and put just a few rows from the ring.
Here’s what I remember. It was hot in New York City on the night I saw Armstrong fight Rodriguez, and stifling at ringside. The Garden was packed, with lots of Cubans loudly cheering for Rodríguez, whom they good naturedly called “Feo,” an affectionate jibe that the fighter accepted with a face splitting smile of great equanimity. There was a conspicuous haze of smoke—as much from cigars as cigarettes— caught in the lights above the ring, along with a vigorous competition of men’s colognes and hair products.
At the Garden, Ace Armstrong put on a good show, but he was dropped in the 4th. From that point his demise was inevitable; Luis Rodríguez, an all-time great who knew every trick of the trade, adroitly beat him up, wore him down, and finally stopped him in the 8th round.
I’ve been to thousands of fights since then, including many much more important ones—as the Rigondeaux vs. Lomachenko one will be—and I’ve been in the corner of fighters I’ve managed another thousand times, but in the 55 years that have passed since Luis Rodríguez knocked out Gene “Ace” Armstrong, I’ve never again had the feeling that I got that night at Madison Square Garden.
It’s unlikely that the Rigondeaux vs. Lomachenko fight will return to me the life-changing sense of possibility I experienced at Madison Square Garden back in 1962—I hadn’t turned 11 yet, and hadn’t experienced much of anything. Still, my expectations for being a small part of an elevated atmosphere at ringside are high. This is not just another good fight. And, although it’s not a superfight, it holds the grip and more of a superfight. It’s a fight where fans’ differences of opinions are intensely personal. People care that the fighter they’re siding with wins for reasons that aren’t exclusively fistic. Each faction thinks their fighter is the best in the world, and part of this thinking is based on their chosen fighter refuting the meaning—stylistically, systemically, boxing-politically, iconographically—of the other.
There’s a lot of identity at stake here. “Have faith my friend.” Jesus Fucking Christ.
The Fight Itself
One way or the other, Vasyl Lomachenko will make the fight, and Guillermo Rigondeaux will respond to whatever Lomachenko does. That’s the fight.
A lot has been made of Rigondeaux’s being a southpaw. The talk is about giving angles, throwing punches the trajectory of which Lomachenko will not be prepared for. Don’t buy it. Lomachenko has long since solved the mystery of southpaws. If Rigondeaux catches Lomachenko with punches that he’s not prepared for, his being a southpaw will be parenthetical at most.
The fine points of what takes place will stem from which adjustments both fighters come into the fight expecting to make in order to be effective. We must assume that, for all their confidence, each knows that the other represents by far the biggest challenge of their professional life.
For Lomachenko, the adjustments will come in the form of using weight and strength as methods of tiring his smaller, older opponent. This will be a stylistic shift from what he’s done in previous fights. It means he’ll be more likely to use his upper body more, his legs less than usual. He might try to lean on Rigondeaux on the inside.
Lomachenko will also be less daring than is his custom when coming forward to flurry, understanding that Rigondeaux is boxing’s prime counterpuncher. Expect him to move back out with more deliberation than in his other fights for the same reason. This added caution doesn’t come from any kind of self-doubt. It’s a matter of the way intelligent men—and Vasyl and Anatoly are decidedly intelligent men—will let their brains take precedence even over what have been to date successful habits.
Guillermo Rigondeaux is stuck, if that’s the right word for it, holding closer to his standard operating procedure that Lomachenko is to his. He still has to rely mostly on seeing and reacting to opportunities made through Lomachenko’s mistakes. In Rigondeaux’s professional fights, this approach has been enough to keep him undefeated. It won’t be enough here, and he knows it.
Don’t expect to see a reckless assault; don’t even expect a radical shift in the tactics that have always served Rigondeaux so well. What he’ll need to add this time are impressive sequences of punches. The judges will give him no breaks in the scoring, so Rigondeaux will have to exaggerate the things he does best—he’ll need to play to the rafters, to get people on his side a little bit.
Realistically, though, Rigondeaux will probably need a knockout to win. Most likely, he knows this. How to get it is a highly challenging puzzle. Generally, his knockouts have come by way of unseen single shots—punches that break what they hit, and devastate the person whose parts are being broken. Rigondeaux’s tendency to allow wounded prey to live, assuming they behave themselves and remain docile, won’t show up on December 9th. He understands that letting things go to the cards will cost him dearly. And Vasyl Lomachenko is nobody’s prey. Even if he’s getting outclassed, he’s not going to roll over.
There’s no question that what others have seen as bewildering footwork, movement, and combination punching from Lomachenko, Rigondeaux will read as opportunity. It’s possible that the exact methods Lomachenko relies on to win his fights will be the ones that he least benefit him here.
Rigondeaux must get Lomachenko to walk into a trap. Lomachenko already understands this, and Rigondeaux understands that Lomachenko understands. Somehow Rigondeaux has to make Lomachenko believe that the coast is clear for him to start his signature moves. At the highest level of competition, this can only be done by luring in an opponent through repeatedly implying that it’s safe to come in. The best example in ring history is this:
Ray Robinson had set the stage for Gene Fullmer by using his right hand repeatedly, allowing it to either fall short or to land harmlessly to the body, after which Ray would clinch. Fullmer, initially wary of Robinson’s powerful right, walks forward after each unsuccessful shot, gradually gaining total confidence as he comes to expect Robinson’s right, which he watches. Once Fullmer has become fixated on the right, Robinson steps in with the shortest, most natural left hook imaginable, knocking Gene senseless.
It may look like the easiest maneuver in the world, but it can only be executed by a genius.
Gene Fullmer, the victim of Ray Robinson’s sophisticated ploy, was a far less cerebral fighter than Vasyl Lomachenko, but the theory of misdirection that worked for Ray could conceivably work for Guillermo Rigondeaux. It appears that Lomachenko has a solid chin, and the Salido fight established that he takes a good body shot, but anyone can be knocked out, to either the head or body, if they don’t see what hit them. Fullmer had never been stopped before taking Robinson’s left hook. Virgil Hill had never been stopped before being blindsided by a left, then leveled by Jones’s right just north of the beltline.
In both instances, the knockout occurred during moments when little was happening, and where the victim had been lulled into feeling safe. Of course, these types of endings can take place when the guy pulling the trigger knows that he only needs to fire one shot.
The odds for the fight make Lomachenko the clear favorite. There are places where you can get four dollars for every one you bet on Rigondeaux, which would classify him as a big underdog. Those numbers seem too high to me, although I understand the reasons why bettors so strongly favor Lomachenko.
It hurts me to pick Lomachenko to win. Rigondeaux is the better fighter by far, and he deserves to once again upset the odds in a fight he’s not supposed to win. At his age, jumping up two weight divisions to take on the promotion’s biggest star is a Durán-esque move—one that will instantly enter boxing folklore if it succeeds. But Roberto Durán was a fighter who took fights. His means of doing it was so visually emphatic that it didn’t require translation from those watching.
Rigondeaux’s sensibilities aren’t like Durán’s. Durán was every bit the artist that Rigondeaux is. He was as rhythmic and sophisticated, but he wasn’t a minimalist. He constantly beat the fuck out of anyone unlucky enough to be in the ring with him in a way that couldn’t be misinterpreted.
The Cuban is so economical that it is nearly impossible for anyone other than an advanced student of boxing to decode the process that uses to win fights. Boxing judges too are seldom advanced students of boxing, and they also are alert to whose side they should be on if they want to keep getting assignments. So, as the rounds tick by, they are likely to be sending them to Lomachenko.
Rigondeaux never appears to fight with urgency. This is largely a matter of confidence and natural demeanor. It is a matter of personal grace. If Lomachenko proves to be able to accommodate the single lightning hooks and crosses suddenly unleashed on him from thin air—punches meant to end things then and there—the question becomes whether or not Rigondeaux can alter his essential character enough to sway things to his favor. If his kayo shots don’t work, he needs to find a way to make at least two of the judges (and he’d nearly have to kill Lomachenko to get more than two of them) move over to his side.
I think it’s asking too much of him.
Charles Farrell has spent most of his professional life moving between music and boxing (with a few detours along the way). He has managed five world champion boxers and has 30 CDs listed under his name. His essay “Why I Fixed Fights” is included in the boxing anthology The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside, edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra, and published by the University of Chicago Press. He is featured in the 2016 film Dirty Games, directed by Benjamin Best.