14 octubre 2020

Dazzling Vasiliy Lomachenko conditions his mind, and his feet, to fight at the highest level

LAS VEGAS — Every fighter — every last one of them — occasionally causes headaches for his or her promoter. They don’t want to fight this guy. They don’t like where they are on the card. The hotel room isn’t good enough. There is something. Always, always, always, there is something.

And yes, in the eight years that Bob Arum and Vasiliy Lomachenko have worked together, there was something.

Once.

“We had made a fight for him and I can’t even remember why now, but the opponent fell out,” Arum, the founder of Top Rank, told Yahoo Sports. “So we’re all together and we’re trying to figure it out. ‘What do we do to salvage this?’ So I made a few suggestions and threw a couple of names out there.

“This is the only time he ever pushed back at me for anything, for any reason. He gives me this look and he said, ‘Bob, don’t suggest anybody who isn’t going to give me a real challenge. I don’t want to waste my time.’ And that was it.”

On Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the MGM Grand Conference Center, Lomachenko will meet rival Teofimo Lopez Jr. for supremacy at lightweight. Lomachenko, the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medalist, is the WBC franchise champion and holds the WBA and WBO belts. Lopez is the IBF champion.

This is the most significant fight of each of their professional careers. For Lopez, it’s an opportunity to back up all the talk that has primarily come from his father. Teofimo Lopez Sr. once got into Lomachenko’s face in the lobby of a New York hotel two days before a 2018 fight with Jose Pedraza across the street at Madison Square Garden.

The elder Lopez made a throat-slashing gesture. Lomachenko looked impassively as Lopez Sr. ranted and threw out a slew of threats.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 31: Vasily Lomachenko exits the arena after winning the WBA, WBO, WBC Lightweight World Title contest between Vasily Lomachenko and Luke Campbell at The O2 Arena on August 31, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 31: Vasily Lomachenko exits the arena after winning the WBA, WBO, WBC Lightweight World Title contest between Vasily Lomachenko and Luke Campbell at The O2 Arena on August 31, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Vasily Lomachenko is 14-1 as a pro after a stunning 396-1 amateur career. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, Lomachenko claimed not to remember the incident, even though it’s the genesis of Saturday’s bout. He was uncharacteristically late for the interview, which is typical of 99.9 percent of boxers, but highly atypical for Lomachenko, whom many have rated as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the sport.

The reason, though, was not shocking to Arum or anyone who knows him. He was with his sports psychologist, Andriy Kolosov.

<p class="canvas-atom canvas-text Mb(1.0em) Mb(0)–sm Mt(0.8em)–sm" type="text" content="Fighters have entourages, often numbering as many as 25 people. Lomachenko’s group is tiny and includes his father/trainer, Anatoly, and always, always, Kolosov.» data-reactid=»41″>Fighters have entourages, often numbering as many as 25 people. Lomachenko’s group is tiny and includes his father/trainer, Anatoly, and always, always, Kolosov.

Every day without fail, after Lomachenko has concluded his workout, he meets with his sports psychologist for hours. 

What they do is largely a secret, however, Arum said Lomachenko shared something with him once.

“If Vasiliy has emotions, and I assume he does, he never shares them,” Arum said. “He never lets his emotions take over, whether it is a personal conversation, a business discussion or a fight. He works with this sports psychologist and brings the guy with him everywhere, so that alone should tell you how important he believes it is for him. Two hours after every workout, they’re in a room together talking, and God knows what kind of magic goes on in that period.

“He told me one time the guy brought a piece of paper and wrote down a series of 30 random numbers. His task was to repeat those numbers in order.”

Now, whether that will help him deal with a powerful straight right or a sizzling left hook from the heavy-handed Lopez is open for debate. Long-time boxing people scoff at that sort of thing.

But Lomachenko’s never done things according to convention. When he was growing up in the Ukraine and wanted to box, his father put him into dance classes.

Why Lomachenko’s footwork will be critical vs. Lopez

Anatoly Lomachenko wasn’t concerned if he could punch hard. He didn’t care at the time if Vasiliy understood how to slip a punch or control the distance. He wanted Vasiliy to understand foot movement so that later he could set up combinations and slide out of danger.

In more than a half-century of promoting boxing, Arum has seen many fighters with fabulous feet. Floyd Mayweather Jr., he said, had remarkable footwork. He brought up Alexis Arguello and Wilfred Benitez, as well. Muhammad Ali has been the standard.

“The younger Ali, from the time he beat [Sonny] Liston until [he was stripped of his title in 1967], you couldn’t hit him,” Arum said. “In my years in boxing, there was nothing else like it. His footwork was just unbelievable. Lomachenko’s footwork is the best in boxing that I have seen since Ali.”

Lomachenko’s footwork will be critical against Lopez. Lomachenko is a lightweight who admits that if there were an opponent who meant big money at featherweight, he could easily make 126 pounds.

Lopez is a knockout artist who is young and growing.

Lomachenko has worked for years at making sure his feet carry him to safety and set himself up to counter.

“Loma has learned and perfected a style where he has learned to frustrate and dissect a bigger man and having the bigger man looking like the smaller man at the end of the fight,” said former world champion Andre Ward, who will be doing analysis for the ESPN broadcast of the bout. “But [Lopez’s power] is also a concern. The size advantage that he has over Loma will be more prevalent in the first six rounds. That’s when Teo is going to be his most dangerous and that’s when Loma is obviously going to have to be on his Ps and Qs.

“But Loma knows how to drain a fighter mentally and physically. He knows how to take some of the steam out of the punches and then when that happens, you see him pressing forward. You see him being more physical on the inside. It seems as if he’s the bigger man.”

Arum: Lomachenko had wrong mindset vs. Salido

Lomachenko is 14-1 as a pro after a stunning 396-1 amateur career. He lost his second professional fight, which was for a world title, to Orlando Salido.

Salido was a tough, hard-nosed guy who never was particularly skilled but who was as gritty as could be and never stopped moving forward and putting on pressure.

They fought for the WBO featherweight title in San Antonio on March 1, 2014. Salido, who missed weight and could not win the title, pressured Lomachenko from the outset. Lomachenko was uncharacteristically inactive early.

Salido won a split decision, though he had to hold off a late Lomachenko charge.

“I knew his potential but I was focused on not letting him work or think,” Salido, who is running for mayor in his hometown of Obregon, Mexico, told Yahoo Sports. “I wanted to be on top of him all the time and that’s how I was able to neutralize the great skills he has.”

Salido joked that he didn’t watch video of Lomachenko before the fight. 

“If I did, I might have been scared and wouldn’t have shown up,” he said.

But Arum said that when he climbed into the ring that night, he learned that Lomachenko’s mindset had been wrong. Instead of focusing on winning, he was concerned with conserving energy early so he could go 12 rounds. In the amateurs, it had been three rounds and in the World Series of Boxing, it was five.

The fight ended and Arum knew it would be close. But when Lomachenko and manager Egis Klimas approached him, he was stunned by what they said.

“The first thing Egis said to me was, ‘See, we proved we could go 12 rounds,’ ” Arum said. “They were focused on conserving energy. They would have been better off instead of trying to fight for a title like that right away, going to eight or 10-round fights and getting used to the distance.

“Because in his next fight, he fought Gary Russell and he knew at that point that he could go 12 rounds. I thought he won that fight pretty easily because he didn’t have that concern.”

Lomachenko has pretty much romped to victory in every fight since. In Lopez, he’s probably facing the most dangerous opponent he’s fought as a pro.

But Salido said there is no reason to worry.

“He has very good footwork, very good head movement and he’s very smart,” Salido said. “He’s going to be hard for anyone to defeat because of how smart he is and what he knows he can do.”

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