Vasiliy “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko (14-1) has dazzled fans with sublime footwork, mesmerizing combination punching, and Matrix-like movement since he burst onto the pro scene in 2013 after winning two Olympic gold medals. The Ukrainian phenom used his only blemish, a loss to Orlando Salido in his second pro bout, to fuel his tear through three divisions, a remarkable run featuring impressive stoppages of Roman Martinez, Nicholas Walters, Guillermo Rigondeaux, and Jorge Linares. But we saw the first chink in Loma’s armor when Linares gave him his first trip to the canvas. Combine that with decision wins over Jose Pedraza and Luke Campbell, and pundits wondered if, at 32 years of age and fighting above his natural weight, Lomachenko was slipping.
What better way to find out than by matching the Ukranian ring magician with a young, explosive, and supremely confident champion? Enter Teofimo Lopez, 23, 15-0, the Brooklynite sensation with numerous highlight-reel finishes in his rise through the lightweight ranks. Lopez’s only hiccup was a lackluster decision win over unheralded Masayoshi Nakatani, but “The Takeover” made everyone forget that sluggish performance when he obliterated Richard Commey with a devastating right hand in December. The victory earned him the IBF title and with it, the chance to dethrone the best fighter on the planet. Lomachenko vs Lopez was on.
As if we needed anything more to whet our appetites for this showdown, some genuine bad blood between the two camps only adds to the intrigue. The grudge stems from a chance encounter in a New York hotel lobby between Lopez’s father, Teofimo Sr., and Lomachenko. Having felt slighted and disrespected during that brief exchange, Teofimo Sr. has been on a verbal tirade ever since, belittling the Ukranian’s skills at every opportunity.
Although Team Lopez’s trash talk helped market the fight, what mattered more was that Lomachenko vs Lopez was a matchup between the two best lightweights on the planet. Fight fans needed to find out if Loma could fend off the challenge of his most dangerous opponent to date, or if the brash and unintimidated Lopez could use his youth, power, and athleticism to propel him to an earth-shattering win.
Lomachenko vs Lopez proved to be a tale of two fights. Despite predictions that Lopez would come out blasting away, looking to unleash his vaunted power and catch the typically slow-starting Lomachenko, the American started the match calculated and efficient with a steely focus in his eyes. While Lopez was determined to be the boss and stalk his shorter opponent, Lomachenko focused on defense and lateral movement as he attempted to get a read on Lopez’s rhythm. The problem for Loma was that his paltry punch output remained for the first half of the bout. It’s not as if Lopez was lighting up Compubox himself, but he was busier, and he was demonstrating ring generalship by dictating the range of the fight. He kept Vasyl at the end of his punches using a stiff jab and he dug hooks to the body to tire Lomachenko out.
But if it appeared that Lopez was heading toward a shutout, Lomachenko finally began to open up and show his trademark combination punching. In the seventh round, Loma got inside and began chipping away with consistent offense. It was clear that Lopez wasn’t as comfortable or effective when backing up, and that’s when Loma found success.
Knowing he was behind on the scorecards, Vasiliy wisely started to pick up the pace. If he was going to win this fight, he had to risk getting hit by heavy artillery in order to get inside and land his own telling blows. And fans were lucky he did because the dramatic second half featured numerous exchanges between the two proud champions. While Lomachenko’s shots didn’t carry nearly the same pop as Lopez’s, they were sharp and accurate, and they were getting Lopez’s attention. Loma had his best round in the eleventh as he landed rapid-fire flurries on the fatigued Lopez, who appeared on the verge of wilting.
But just when you thought that Lopez was slipping and he had let Lomachenko take command, he showed the heart and determination of a true champion. Teofimo came out aggressively in the final round, knowing the fight could be up for grabs, and he whipped in several vicious body blows that hurt the pound-for-pound king.
Lopez explained his reasoning for fighting the last round as aggressively as he did: “I’m a fighter; I got to dig in deep. I knew he was coming. I can’t give him that; I don’t know if they got him up on the scorecards or not. And I love to fight. I can bang too. I don’t care man. I’ll take one to give one. That’s what a true champion does. I come out there and I find a way to win.”
When the announcer read out the scorecards, it was “The Takeover” who rightfully earned a unanimous decision victory. In doing so, Lopez notched a major upset, put himself in the thick of the “pound-for-pound” debate, and established himself as the newest star of the sport.
Teofimo Lopez proved that he is much more than a heavy puncher, as he demonstrated patience and fundamentals that the world hadn’t yet seen from him. He stayed composed throughout the contest, never once getting reckless in search of the knockout. Instead, he stuck to his game-plan of constant pressure and steady sharpshooting to disrupt Lomachenko’s rhythm. And when “Hi-Tech” finally did get on track, it was too little, too late. After losing the first seven rounds on all three judges’ scorecards, Loma could not overcome that deficit despite his thrilling second-half performance.
Teofimo emphatically proved many people wrong, including myself, who thought he was biting off more than he could chew at this stage in his career. He sought out the most daunting challenge possible because he believed in himself and then he went out and backed up his brazen pre-fight words. He defeated the man most regarded as the best in the sport, pound-for-pound, and has earned our respect and praise.
So where does Lopez go from here? He mentioned Devin Haney in his post-fight interview, another one of boxing’s emerging stars, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the powers that be waited to let that fight marinate and build into a much bigger event down the road.
If it were up to me, I would like to see Lomachenko vs Lopez II. “Hi-Tech” knows he made a crucial mistake in starting too late, and he paid the price, but in my opinion he deserves a chance to get his revenge. But if Teofimo and his team decide to go in another direction, he will undoubtedly have many more eyes on him because of the virtuoso performance he put on last night. And he deserves all of them. — Jamie Rebner