The gift of the truly great megafight comes around roughly as often as Halley’s Comet, a once-in-a-lifetime galactic event — an almost-spiritual happening that, for those of us inclined toward these things, helps us better understand the human experience and ground our presence within the cosmos.
But there’s a hard truth that’s compulsively forgotten, again and again, during the long stretches between brief glimpses of history flashing before our eyes: The best fights don’t always make the biggest fights, and the biggest fights don’t always make the best. In fact, they are almost never one and the same.
Which is why Saturday’s lightweight title unification fight between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez Jr., staged in the Bubble at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, may not have registered as an all-time remember-where-I-was moment, but felt more like gazing mindlessly at a dirty snowball melting in the void of space. The particulars of the fight — a first-half failure to launch from Lomachenko, a late loss of footing for Lopez and more oddball scorecards from the usual suspects — felt like a letdown to many. It’s also why Lopez (16-0), after grinding out a unanimous decision against an opponent whom some considered the best fighter on the planet, was so put off by the characterization that Lomachenko (14-2) had simply given the fight away. Perspective is everything. Whether you’re watching a faraway speck in the night sky or a matchup of elite-caliber fighters, true appreciation requires a keen eye: In short, you have to know what the fuck you’re looking at.
It’s true, in retrospect, that Lomachenko made a critical strategic error in slow-playing Lopez early in the fight. The Ukrainian has made a habit of taking ponderous measure of his opponents, especially as he has moved up the ladder to lightweight, and against tougher foes. But according to CompuBox numbers, Lomachenko failed to throw double-digit punches in three of the first five rounds against Lopez, and he landed just 31 punches through seven — making it nearly impossible to find a round for him more than halfway through the fight. But Lopez wasn’t simply a passive observer to these circumstances. He was the cause of them.
With a reach advantage, exceptional power in both hands and a naturally bigger frame, Lopez was always going to be a puzzle for Lomachenko to solve. But the Brooklyn native’s athleticism, deep punch arsenal and brilliant fight plan raised the stakes, presenting a challenge that was as unanticipated as it was dangerous for Loma: You say you can finish the New York Times crossword? Cool. Now do it riding a rhino bareback inside an active volcano.
While Lomachenko waited for an opening, Lopez responded less like the cocky 23-year-old kid who had talked untold amounts of shit in the lead-up to the fight and more like a veteran who understood exactly the sort of fight he was in: more jabs, fewer lunging lead right hands, a heady mix of patience and tactical aggressiveness. Lopez worked Loma’s body, kept his hands readied to counter and commanded the ring to keep his slippery opponent from getting his feet in place for the angular barrages that have slashed so many other men to shreds. If Lomachenko waited too long to put himself in harm’s way against Lopez, it was only because that harm was more violent and certain than any the Ukrainian had faced before.
To his credit, Lomachenko eventually stepped into the fire. By the 8th round, clearly sensing the fight slipping from his grasp, he closed distance and began ripping off combination bursts, accepting Lopez’s return fire as the cost of doing business. An accidental clash of heads seemed to faze the younger fighter more than the southpaw Lomachenko, who increasingly swarmed Lopez and broke through with clean left hands. He may never have been in danger of leaving his feet, but for the first time Lopez was made to feel uncomfortable, the fight wrested from his control.
Lomachenko banked his best rounds over the next several minutes, and in the 11th he brought all of his power (more of a hornet swarm than a sledgehammer swing) to bear. This wasn’t inconsequential on the scorecards, but it is important to note: The onslaught didn‘t break Lopez. In the second half of the fight, whenever it appeared Lomachenko might turn a corner — figuratively and literally — Lopez turned with him, keeping the Ukranian squared up and in his sights, landing a counter uppercut or a sweeping right hand that would force Lomachenko off his spot or halt his flurrying hands. Lopez wasn’t helpless. He was a young, burgeoning powerhouse taking his lessons in his first challenge of a savvy, seasoned, transcendent talent.
And in the final round, the critical moment in what amounted to a death-defying leap at this point in his career arc, Lopez stuck the landing. With Lomachenko almost certainly in need of a knockout or the round notched in his favor on the cards, he pressed forward. Lopez responded by outmaneuvering his opponent, a classically trained dancer — dipping away, staying off the ropes and fighting off the back foot at genius levels. Then, with 40 seconds left and the outcome still not yet sealed, Lopez lashed a screaming left hook across Lomachenko’s temple to buzz him. Lopez followed with a big right hand and another glancing left hook. He bodied and bounced his man, and even a gash that Lomachenko opened up over Lopez’s right eye with another butt in the closing moments had no effect. Lopez, though bloodied, was still inarguably unbeaten.
To frame this fight as evidence of Lomachenko’s overinflated reputation disregards his boogeyman-like thrill-kill campaign across three divisions, as well as Lopez’s pitch-perfect performance and blue-sky potential. Not every matchup of titans is a lock to yield a titanic fight. But for those who watched Saturday and saw a washed-up or falsely hyped paper champion, or who witnessed a young man in over his head once the real action started, I’d recommend a reexamination with a keener eye. It’s certainly possible to have no earthly idea what it looks like when a couple of boxing’s distinctly extraordinary stars come streaking into the same orbit. That doesn’t mean it didn’t just happen.
(Teofimo Lopez connects against Vasiliy Lomachenko; photo by Mikey Williams, Top Rank)