The hotel was full of hard-looking men in black leather jackets and pouty women wearing slinky outfits. Not the friendliest looking lot, but if you knew the magic word, instant camaraderie and safe passage to your room was assured.
Somebody shouted “Lomachenko,” and the tough guys looked up as one, pumped their fists in the air and replied in kind at the top of their voice, “LO-MA-CHEN-KO!”
Boxing is like that, a zone of tolerance where people of different cultures, united in their love of the sport, sometimes come together in rough-hewn camaraderie. Sometimes is the key word here, but when it works out that way, it’s also a place where stereotypes are confounded and commonality overcomes dissimilarities.
The folks at the hotel weren’t gangsters and their molls. They were the same Ukrainian fans that stuffed the 3,000-seat casino showroom at the MGM National Harbor in Maryland to watch Vasiliy “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko stop Jason Sosa earlier in the evening. They chanted and sang as their countryman took apart brave Sosa, providing a wall of noise worthy of a thundering regiment of Cossack cavalry.
There was an air of festive inevitability about the fight. It has been that way for a long time. When you’ve lost only twice in 407 pro and amateur fights, people get used to you winning. It’s expected.
Although Sosa fought the best he could and lasted nine rounds, he was not considered a serious threat to beat Lomachenko. Neither was Miguel Marriaga, who was stopped in seven rounds in Lomachenko’s most recent fight.
But those were just claw sharpening exercises. The play dates are over. Lomachenko’s junior lightweight title fight with Guillermo “El Chacal” Rigondeaux on Saturday at Madison Square Garden Theater (ESPN/ESPN Deportes, p.m. ET) is the real thing.
Like Lomachenko, Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs) is a special fighter, a product of Cuba’s celebrated amateur program and winner of more than 450 amateur bouts, including gold medals at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. He defected from his homeland in 2009, turned pro the same year and won his first major title in his ninth pro bout.
But more than anything else Rigondeaux is, by far, the best opponent of Lomachenko’s pro career, and vice versa. In terms of pedigree and combined talent, it would be difficult to make another fight of equal merit.
Why, then, is the fight taking place in the Madison Square Garden Theater and not the main arena, which holds almost four times as many people?
You could say that Lomachenko and Rigondeaux’s popularity hasn’t yet caught up with their capacity for greatness. But pedigree and talent alone are seldom enough to fill the big room. There has to be a connection beyond excellence. Boxing is tribal. Our guy verses the other guy.
The Ukrainians at Lomachenko-Sosa were not there chiefly because Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) is such a fantastic fighter, though it certainly ups the ante. They were there because he’s one of them. Their guy.
But how does their guy become our guy or, better yet, everybody’s guy?
An aesthetically pleasing style is a common thread. Without that fun-to-watch foundation, the rest doesn’t matter that much. Personality is also a critical. If an audience can relate to a fighter because of who is, as well as how he fights, it can create a bond beyond borders and native tongues.
Few geographical gatecrashers have done it better than Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello and Julio Cesar Chavez — a Panamanian, a Nicaraguan and a Mexican, respectively. One of they keys to their success with U.S. fans was that each had compelling qualities that helped forge instantly recognizable identities, brands that matched their fighting styles.
Duran, the snarling ruffian with mad skills who fought with measured savagery; Arguello the charming el caballero who turned into an assassin once the bell rang; and Chavez, the reincarnation of the stoic Aztec warrior, noble, proud and lethal.
They were avatars of warrior archetypes to which all cultures could relate. No wonder we didn’t care where they came from or where they hung their hat.
The most recent example of the phenomenon is Manny Pacquiao, one of the most extraordinary rags-to-riches stories in sports history. The Filipino fighter conquered the world with extreme violence and a boyish smile, an irresistible combination that made him an international celebrity and multimillionaire.
In some ways Lomachenko, 22, resembles Pacquiao: Constantly moving, attacking from unexpected angles and almost always punching in combination. Going for the knockout every time out.
But while prime-time Pacquiao was all about raw aggression and reckless abandon, Lomachenko’s attack is like jazz, a creative discipline with infinite variations.
The 29-year-old Ukrainian’s fusion of ingenious footwork and offensive virtuosity is hypnotic. He feints like a fencing master and pivots as if ball bearings are attached to the bottom of his boxing boots — constantly stepping around opponents, changing direction in order to attack from a variety of angles, swiveling one way to unload and then another to escape.
Rigondeaux is a much harder sell.
“The Cuban style is different,” Bob Arum told Boxing News, the British weekly, as his promotion approached. “They pile up points then they stink you out till the end of the fight because all they care about is winning the fight on points.”
It’s hard to argue with Arum’s assessment. Watching Rigondeaux when he doesn’t feel like fighting is a shoot-me-now situation. Boxing fans have long memories, and those painfully lackluster showings made Rigondeaux look like a wallflower in a twerking contest.
The curious part is that when Rigondeaux is in a feisty mood, the results have often been highlight-reel material. The man can take you out with one shot.
Vegas odds-makers have made Rigondeaux a +300 underdog, but if there’s a 130-pounder that can outfox Lomachenko it’s Guillermo. Jackals are often depicted as clever sorcerers in myths and legends, but this “Chacal” will need more than slight of hand on Saturday. He must enter the ring with teeth bared, ready to bite.
Some say that Lomachenko is good enough to make Rigondeaux fight, giving him no choice but to engage. It’s like what Thomas Hearns said when asked why he slugged with Marvin Hagler instead of boxing: “The reason I started out slugging is because I had to.”
Lomachenko-Rigondeaux is for the connoisseurs and fight geeks, but it’s also the next step in search for a new hero. It would be unrealistic of Arum, or anybody else for that matter, to think of Lomachenko as a replacement for Pacquiao. Pac-Man was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. We won’t see the likes of him again.
Nonetheless, Lomachenko is well positioned to be the next man up. First, however, there’s an engagement with a Senor Jackal, who has ideas of his own. The drift of time seems to be in Lomachenko’s favor but Rigondeaux is not your ordinary B-side.
Expectations for Lomachenko are high. He’s got to win this one if he wants to keep up with forerunners like Duran, Arguello and Chavez. The guys in the black leather jackets will always be there. They are of the same blood. But they’re not enough.
What Lomachenko needs now is everybody else. A spectacular performance Saturday would be a perfect invitation.