Learning Curve: Vasyl Lomachenko proves quality in first pro loss

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Vasyl Lomachenko is just 1-1 as a professional fighter, and though he showed he has some things to learn last night in a loss to Orlando Salido, he also proved that the talent is there to become a special fighter.

Vasyl Lomachenko didn't make history on Saturday night, failing in his bid to win the WBO featherweight title in just his second pro fight. The two-time Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine went a reported 396-1 as an amateur, a legendary mark for what was a legendary amateur career. He came into the pro ranks hungry for a world title. No messing around. He wanted it in fight number one. Promoter Bob Arum made it happen in fight number two.

A few things worked against him. Orlando Salido not making the fight's weight limit of 126 pounds and then rehydrating up to 147 -- compared to Lomachenko's 136 -- could be seen as an issue, but how big of a problem was it? Salido faded late in the fight and gave Lomachenko an opening for a rally, but it fell just short of success. Maligned Texas referee Laurence Cole's performance was roundly and rightly criticized for missing a metric ton of Salido's low blows, which landed on the thighs and hips mainly. And that mattered.

But the biggest problem Lomachenko had on Saturday was simple: he wasn't ready for a savvy, tough, gritty professional fighter like Orlando Salido, who fought a Bernard Hopkins-like fight that took advantage of the younger man's greener pro sensibilities.

So those are the reasons Lomachenko lost. He didn't succeed in his quest for a world title so quickly, and he'll never have a gaudy, undefeated professional record. But what about the long run?

That's another story.

Lomachenko, 26, clearly has a very bright future in boxing. That he went as close to even as he did with Salido last night says quite a bit about his ability. There's a reason, of course, that fighters are promoted the way they are early in their careers. It's not done just out of habit or out of laziness or fear or anything of the sort. Without the proper learning steps, things can go wrong. And when things go wrong, mental strength is tested. And when that gets tested too much, too soon, things can go really wrong.

If Lomachenko isn't mentally bothered much by this loss, there's every chance he'll become the dominant pro fighter that was expected of him after Beijing, let alone London. The entire fight could have been different if he'd opened up his offense earlier, as he all but gave away the first half of the fight with his tentative approach.

That's one of the things that even some routine pro experience could have helped him with. Certainly I'm not saying that he needed 20 fights against guys he likely would have owned -- think Guillermo Rigondeaux, not Gary Russell Jr, and you've got about what, in hindsight, Lomachenko probably should have strived to do. Even five pro fights before facing someone like Salido could have made all the difference.

In the best case, this will be just a temporary setback, more a footnote on a brilliant career than anything else. Years from now, when Lomachenko retires after a decorated professional boxing career, with multiple world titles to his credit, we can look back and remember his second pro fight, an ambitious but ill-fated experiment that went just wrong enough to hand him the loss.

The worst case, of course, is that Lomachenko -- not accustomed to losing -- won't deal well with the loss, and never achieves what he's meant to achieve. But that seems very unlikely. Top prospects do flame out all the time and have forever in this sport (and every other sport, for that matter), but few prospects are truly on Lomachenko's level. The skills are evident. The mindset looks good, for now. It might not be long until we're saying "world champion Vasyl Lomachenko." Saturday just wasn't the night.

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