Sunday, December 10, 2017


 Whether it was punk rock, pop art, disco, or hip-hop, Manhattan has always embraced the new and the novel. In boxing terms, the newest and most novel is Ukraine's Vasyl Lomachenko, a fighter who trains by catching quarters in mid air and holding his breath for three and four minutes at a time, and whose footwork combines the fleetness of Willie Pep with the rhythms of Ukrainian folk dancers. Inside The Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, Lomachenko took on the highly regarded Guillermo Rigondeaux and showed that his unique, frenetic style creates hell for even the best fighters. Rigondeaux, undefeated since 2003, shocked the crowd of 5,102 by quitting after the sixth round.

Don't misunderstand: it's not as if Rigondeaux took a brutal beating. He was, at age 37,  with two Olympic gold medals to his credit and an undefeated professional record, savvy enough to survive by clinching and fouling. Ultimately, though, he chose to follow the template of Lomachenko's three previous opponents and retire on his stool.

When Lomachenko, who has won 10 of 11 pro bouts (with nearly 400 amateur wins and two of his own gold medals) started unloading in the third - he astonished observers with a triple right uppercut - it seemed as if Rigondeaux  might get an opportunity to lure the Ukrainian into one of his own stunning left hand shots. But rather than patiently wait for Lomachenko to get cocky and walk into something, Rigondeaux came unglued. He began to behave like a frustrated rookie, holding and stalling. Lomachenko, meanwhile, looked like a young country boy enjoying his first barn dance, at one point grabbing Rigondeaux by the neck and pirouetting around him. After Rigondeaux had landed one too many cheap shots, Lomechenko answered with a stiff right to the jaw, long after the bell ending round five. Even if you cheat, he seemed to say, I've got your number. 

"I lost, no excuses," Rigondeaux said after the bout. Then he gave an excuse. "I injured the top of my left hand in the second round." Though he'd come up a weight class for the bout, he didn't blame the loss on being smaller than Lomachenko. "The weight was not a factor in this fight. It was the injury to my hand."

Not many were buying Rigondeaux' story. He was jeered by the crowd, and also by several hyperventilating television commentators, as if he'd done something akin to treason. Perhaps it's easier to speak badly of a fighter for quitting than it is to praise a fighter like Lomachenko, whose greatness is difficult to measure by any existing yardstick. There were moments in the bout when Rigondeaux looked like a homeless man stumbling through bad weather, wondering how life could've left him in such circumstances. He had no answers for the merry trickster in front of him, and the hopelessness in his eyes was poignant, particularly in the sixth when referee Steve Willis penalized him one point for a foul. At that moment, the fight slipping away beyond his reach, Rigondeaux looked like the loneliest man in New York. Faced with an opponent whose feet move quicker than the average man can think, Rigondeaux decided that jettisoning his undefeated record was better than taking any more of Lomachenko's strange abuse, which must feel like being poked by a circus clown long after the joke has worn off. 

Rigondeaux' back may not have hit the canvas, but his spirit was certainly knocked out.

It would've been interesting to see how Lomachenko responded to one of Rigondeaux' powerhouse lefts, for Rigondeaux is a certified jawbreaker. But anytime Rigondeaux tried to land something, Lomachenko would suddenly be behind him, or at his side, or peppering him with punches, or nimbly shifting around, giving Rigoneaux angles not usually seen in a boxing ring. Lomachenko is boxing's equivalent of the knuckleball, never where you expect him to be. Keep in mind, we once spoke of Roy Jones Jr. this way, and he turned out to be painfully mortal. For now, Lomachenko is bright and new, and at age 29 he's in prime form. He also understands that beating an older, smaller fighter will not exactly punch his ticket to Valhalla.

"This is not his weight, so it's not a big win for me," Lomachenko said. "But he's a good fighter. He's got great skills. I adjusted to his style, low blows and all."

If Lomachenko was humble, promoter Bob Arum didn't hesitate to put some extra shine on the moment. "You are all seeing something special," Arum said, comparing Lomachenko to the greats of the past, including Muhammad Ali and Ray Leonard, plus contemporary icons like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Lomachenko, Arum crowed, is "the most unbeatable fighter I've ever had."

Hype aside, Lomachenko is a young man with an impressive style, and a dedication to being perfect in the ring. For now it's fun for him. He's like a brilliant teenage chess prodigy who casually beats masters twice his age and acts as if it's all easy, a joke that only he understands.

But Lomachenko wasn't the only one smiling. After the bout was stopped and Rigondeaux announced his hand was bothering him, Lomachenko's father and trainer, Anatoly, started removing his son's gloves. "Is this OK?" the older man said, setting up his own punchline. "How is your hand?" Father and son shared a laugh.

How great it must be, and how novel, to have figured out the secret of invincibility.

- Don Stradley

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