THIS time last year Vasiliy Lomachenko was considered untouchable. Then he lost a fight to Teofimo Lopez in October and it’s almost as if all that came before, the many years of work that made him untouchable, never happened. But this is boxing, a fickle world when it comes to defeat.
Now, few people talk about Loma’s brilliant amateur career, the breakneck progress he made as a professional, the awe-inspiring beatdowns of some quality opposition and the wizardry he exhibited along the way. It’s all about that one loss and how, at 33 years old, Lomachenko is on the way down.
On Saturday night the Ukrainian makes his return against Masayoshi Nakatani, a 32-year-old opponent whose reputation was also once tarnished – but later elevated – by the very same Teofimo Lopez. The Japanese fighter went the full 12 with the future world lightweight king before losing widely on the cards in 2019 but it wasn’t that he failed to win that hurt his standing, it was the critics’ reaction to his opponent’s performance. The thinking back then was that if Lopez was forced to go 12 against someone like Nakatani then he might struggle against the elite. Not exactly a glowing reference for the Asian’s own hopes at the top level. But when Lopez then beat Lomachenko in a huge shock, Nakatani saw his own stock rise considerably as a consequence.
He backed up the newfound faith two months later when, in December 2020, he twice rose from the canvas to defeat former can’t miss prospect Felix Verdejo in nine thrilling rounds. So Nakatini is robust, game and can certainly fight. He appears the perfect comeback opponent: A genuine contender but not a formidable one. But at this level, only an impressive Loma win will do.
Modern history tells us that fighters of Lomachenko’s lofty standing can struggle after suffering humbling defeat. Though he did go on to win an alphabet title at 154lbs, Donald Curry was not the same after losing the welterweight championship to Lloyd Honeyghan in 1986. Mike Tyson was never Mike Tyson, not really, after he was upset by James “Buster” Douglas four years later. The Roy Jones Jnr we knew and loved was gone forever after being wrecked by Antonio Tarver in 2004. More recently, Roman Gonzalez, though there has been a subsequent rejuvenation of sorts, followed a surprise points defeat to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai with an altogether more convincing KO defeat to the same fighter in his next bout.
Throw in evidence of slippage that was forming prior to Lopez beating him, fair and square it must be said, and it’s easy to conclude that the best of Lomachenko is gone: The long amateur career that surely took a toll; the build-up of injuries; the struggle he endured with Luke Campbell; the better performances taking place down at super-featherweight; the slowly eroding reflexes and an apparent desire to retire to a simpler life.
Yet to write off someone like Lomachenko right now would be grossly unfair. For every Roy Jones you will find a Manny Pacquiao, one who adapted his tools to the rigours of age to breathe new life into what many presumed to be a faltering career following a reverse. The special ones, the really special ones, thrive in such reinvention. As well as Pacquiao, the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson, Bernard Hopkins, Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield and Roberto Duran all successfully rebuilt in different ways at times when they were being written off.
One suspects that Nakatani is not equipped to give us a definitive answer about Lomachenko’s future, unless of course he wins. To do so he’ll have to hope the shoulder injury that Lomachenko underwent an operation to repair immediately after losing to Lopez remains problematic. Hope, too, that the tools he has at his own disposal will not be embarrassed by those Loma can still draw upon. At a splinter under six-feet, Nakatani is tall and awkward and his long limbs can make trying to get past them frustrating, at least when he fights long. But Verdejo had success by bursting inside and firing blows up close. Lopez, too, countered effectively with the overarm right and, maybe Loma’s key to victory here, scored regularly to Nakatani’s long and slender body.
Yet it’s easy to envision the sheer size of Nakatani causing problems to the Ukrainian, who at 5ft 7ins, will give away around five inches in height and six inches in reach. Even against Lopez – an inch taller with a three-inch advantage in wingspan – Lomachenko’s dimensions were severely challenged and reaffirmed beliefs that he’s simply not big enough for the lightweight division. But Lopez is a special fighter and Nakatani, though unquestionably competent at world level, is simply not in that league.
Lomachenko may be forced to go the full 12 rounds but a lopsided points victory looks the likeliest outcome. There will surely be flashes where we’ll be reminded of the Loma we’ve all forgotten about, but they may not be sustained enough to roll out the red carpet and welcome back the invincible man of old. Whether that is down to the ageing process, or simply the sheer doggedness of his opponent, only time will tell. Regardless, expect Nakatani to again prove himself to be a tricky fighter to beat.
Also on the Top Rank show at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas is an intriguing crossroads middleweight contest. Revered Kazak starlet Janibek Alimkhanuly, the 2013 amateur world champion and 2016 Olympic quarter-finalist (where he beat Anthony Fowler in the first round), takes on 30-year-old Rob Brant.
Brant, 26-2 (18), has only lost to Ryota Murata in 2019 (via a second round stoppage that came after Brant beat him on points the year before) and Juergen Braehmer (on the cards after 12 super-middleweight rounds in the World Boxing Super Series in 2017). Decent names he’s defeated, aside from Murata, include Khasan Baysangurov and, in his most recent contest last August, Vitalii Kopylenko.
Alimkhanuly, at just 9-0 (5), is taking a step up but far from an insurmountable one. The southpaw, in a nod to his pedigree, hasn’t been matched easy so far; all of his opponents came with winning records and Top Rank clearly expect him to win this one too.
Brant will come with ambition but we also predict the 28-year-old to emerge victorious, perhaps even via a stoppage in the second half of the scheduled 10-rounder.
The Verdict Lomachenko should get back to winning ways against the awkward Nakatani.