Confidence Game: Can Linares Shock “Hi-Tech”?

And so Vasyl Lomachenko will once again fight a top-tier opponent when he faces Jorge Linares on Saturday for lightweight supremacy. Linares undoubtedly deserves that status, having scraped his way to the summit and the WBA lightweight championship. He’s also a courageous boxer, which is important when you’re setting yourself to face a man who has a knack of making elite-level fighters quit on their stools without so much as really hurting them. It’s not hard to imagine though that Linares, brave and competitive as he is, may be out of his league here. Since a close loss to a very dirty Orlando Salido in just his second pro bout, Lomachenko has essentially made easy work of every opponent to come his way.

Painting by Damien Burton.

And let’s keep in mind, we’re not talking about a line-up of stiffs or faded ex-champions. Lomachenko has faced such notables as Gary Russell Jr, Nicholas Walters and Guillermo Rigondeaux, top fighters all. It’s not like, as some argue, “Hi-Tech” hasn’t proven himself. The guy’s proven himself plenty. He’s also proven more than a few things, perhaps, about some of the men he’s bested. So yes, it’s maybe hard to imagine the Ukrainian wunderkind losing when he slips between the ropes this weekend in New York City. Make no mistake, though, just about anything can happen in boxing. After all, even a prime Muhammad Ali had his close calls. In other words, there’s a reason to watch Lomachenko vs Linares and there’s always a chance, slim as it may seem, that Linares can pull off the upset.

After all, he is a talented and experienced boxer. He’s also a world traveler, having lived in Japan after originating from Venezuela, and he isn’t fazed by having to journey to far off locales to prove himself. He also has an effective high-low jab, excellent counter-punching skills, and he’s knocked out over half his opponents. Perhaps most importantly though, Linares now has an undeniable chance to prove to the world that he really is an A-list fighter, one of the sport’s pound-for-pound elite. That’s something that’s been questioned among fight fans when the name Jorge Linares comes up.

Looking over training videos online, Linares shows himself to be fast, crisp punching, and most importantly,  extremely determined. Watching the guy in camp, you get the feeling that he really wants this, that he isn’t afraid, that he strongly believes in himself. Yet it’s self-belief that Lomachenko succeeds in taking from his opponents better than anyone since Floyd Mayweather. Though he does it differently than the boxer they used to call “Pretty Boy.”

At his best, Mayweather could lull his opponents into a kind of trance. Unlike fellow defensive genius Pernell Whitaker who was more frenetic and unpredictable, Floyd had the ability to simply drain an opponent of his confidence and will-to-win in an almost methodical fashion. Conor McGregor might be the most recent, over-hyped example, but what happened to “Mystic Mac” last summer was what essentially happened to most of Mayweather’s previous opponents. He started strong; he grew frustrated; then he simply succumbed, albeit in a fashion more violent than most.

In his last outing, Hi-Tech made easy work of Rigondeaux.

Loma, on the other hand, ruthlessly crushes wills within minutes, robbing his foes of all sense of purpose and conviction. And the more time he has to show off his skills, the more ferocious his psychological domination becomes. In a sense, “Hi-Tech” might be like a scientific version of a prime Mike Tyson, a boxer who essentially won before the fight had even begun. Intimidation and reputation were major factors in “Iron Mike’s” ability to steamroll opponent after opponent, and once that universal fear began to subside, he was a far less potent force in the ring.

On paper at least, there’s not much separating Linares from Loma’s previous opponents in terms of what to expect and the usual pre-fight hype. Linares should represent a serious challenge. But every prospective opponent is essentially the same until the moment of truth approaches and then in that flash of a second when reality sets in and one’s confidence and conviction can evaporate.

Jorge Linares defeats Anthony Crolla.

Can Linares withstand the pressure and then execute in the ring? Certainly he’s going to try and it appears he has the right attitude, something reflected in his declaring a prospective showdown with Mikey Garcia a “more dangerous fight” than what he’s facing on Saturday. “They say [Lomachenko] is pound-for-pound the best,” he went on to say. “But that’s because he hasn’t faced me yet.”

Thus, my sense is Linares has it in his mind that he’s not only preparing to defeat Lomachenko in the ring, but that he’s also got to shut down the guy’s mind games as well. In other words, he’s preparing for two foes: the physical Loma and the psychological chess player who seeks to destroy your focus before the opening bell rings. If that is indeed the case, then maybe Linares has a better chance than many think to perform with confidence and put himself in position to pull off the biggest win of his career.

But even so, those chances are pretty slim to start. Because Lomachenko has been a wonder to watch, a spinning, distracting, fast-punching whirlwind, who triumphs through a combination of dazzle and overwhelming activity. An opponent might not cave mentally, but what about physically? As of yet, a Loma “blueprint” hasn’t been published and who really believes that Linares can be the architect of such a document? There’s those training videos though, that confident athlete landing body shots that you can almost feel from home as they land. It’s plain to see: Linares means business heading into Saturday night.

As, no doubt, does Lomachenko, that most serious of strategists. He knows better than to have anything other than respect for his opponent’s abilities. After all, the boxer the Venezuelans call “El Nino de Oro” is a world champion, is riding a 13 fight win streak, and has 27 knockouts to his credit.

Clearly, off-the-charts self-confidence is a prerequisite to beating Hi-Tech.

But perhaps most significantly, Linares has demonstrated undeniable mental fortitude. Not once, but twice, Linares made the long trip to England to endure all the pressure from those famous British fight fans and emerge victorious in back-to-back battles. If you’ve been through that, how likely is it you’ll fold up and wave a white towel against a guy with only eleven pro fights?  Maybe, just maybe, the boxing world is in for something of a thriller this weekend. And maybe, just maybe, one hell of a surprise.            

— Sean Crose 

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