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Preview: Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Teofimo Lopez, the most anticipated boxing fight of the year

It’s must-see TV this Saturday on ESPN.

Vasiliy Lomachenko v Luke Campbell - WBC, WBA, WBO and Ring Magazine Lightweight World Title Fight Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

“You know, my father said to me when I was a kid, ‘If you are strong, show your weakness, but if you are weak, show your strength.’ In this situation, objectively as well as subjectively, it’s clear that they are trying to show their strength.

“The strong person is never going to shout about it, they are never going to try to insult somebody. That person is just going to silently do the thing and prove it with their actions and not words.”

That’s what Vasiliy Lomachenko said about Teofimo Lopez way back in April 2019, long before the two had ever signed to fight. The Lomachenko-Lopez buzz was building even then. Lopez, a young, hotshot power puncher, hadn’t even won his first world title. But he was calling on Lomachenko. There was already a genuine dislike between the two.

Lomachenko, to whom English is a second language, isn’t hugely outspoken in interviews in that language, understandably, and even what he means to say often doesn’t come out as concise or clear as he might like. But in his native tongue, he was quite clear about Lopez.

“I’m going to hold him accountable in that fight for every word that has been said.”

Eight months later, Lopez claimed the IBF title with a second round knockout of Richard Commey, a tough and tested veteran. And now, 10 months after that, the fight is on. On Saturday, Oct. 17 (ESPN, 10 pm ET), Lomachenko and Lopez meet with three world titles on the line.

Loma-Lopez was meant to happen in the spring, though it never got officially signed before the COVID-19 pandemic shut the sport down from mid-March to mid-June. And there were issues in the negotiations, but none of that much matters now. The bottom line is the fight is happening. It’s the sort of matchup we always want to see more of in boxing.

From a fan standpoint, this is probably the most highly-anticipated fight of 2020. Maybe it doesn’t have the general mainstream appeal of a fight like Wilder-Fury 2 in February, but it also won’t be on pay-per-view, which will mean easier exposure, and the fight has been heavily promoted by ESPN. It’s a big fight, and it does have some casual/mainstream appeal.

It’s also just an easy sell as an attraction. The top lightweight in the world, a wizard of a fighter both offensively and defensively, 32 years old and still in his prime, but maybe at the end of it soon. He also happens to be the overall consensus pick for No. 1 in the world pound-for-pound, and he’s got two Olympic gold medals as one of the best amateur fighters of all time. And he faces a 23-year-old powerhouse, with speed and skills and a big personality.

How to Watch Lomachenko vs Lopez

Date: Saturday, Oct. 17 | Start Time: 10:00 pm ET (Main Card) / 7:30 pm ET (Prelims)
Location: MGM Top Rank Bubble, Las Vegas, NV
TV: ESPN (Main Card) | Stream: ESPN+ (Prelims)

When Lomachenko turned pro in in Oct. 2013, he did so with a lot of hype and buzz, and he didn’t come in fighting a scrub, either. Jose Luis Ramirez was no star, but he had a 25-3 pro record and was coming off of a decent win against Rey Bautista.

Lomachenko beat him in four, and claimed a minor WBO featherweight belt, which meant a high WBO ranking, which meant the Ukrainian could go for his real goal: a world title in his second pro fight. He got the chance, facing rugged veteran Orlando Salido in March 2014. Salido missed weight (by a lot), but the fight went on.

Salido gave Lomachenko some valuable lessons in that fight. As great a talent as Lomachenko was and is, the pro game is not the amateur game, and Salido (41-12-2 at the time, and better than the record) was able to rough Loma up and do some effective “dirty” work. Lomachenko did hang in the fight and made some adjustments, but he still dropped a fair split decision.

It changed Loma a bit, though, and for the better as a fighter. He went out three months later and fought Gary Russell Jr for the now-vacant belt that Salido lost on the scales, and beat a terrific fighter by decision. Since then, almost every fight has been all Lomachenko. He was dominating guys so badly at 126 that he had to move up to 130 to find good fights. He did the same at that weight, and in 2018 made the move to 135.

Jorge Linares gave Lomachenko a stern test and even dropped in in May 2018 when Loma went to lightweight, but in the end Lomachenko was too good again, stopping the skillful Venezuelan in 10. Jose Pedraza had some moments, but Lomachenko was too much for him, too, and he followed that with two 2019 wins over Anthony Crolla and Luke Campbell. He blitzed an over-matched fan favorite in Crolla, and out-boxed Campbell on the road in London.

Skill-wise, arguably no one in boxing is on Lomachenko’s level, and I think certainly nobody at lightweight is, including Teofimo Lopez.

But it’s not always going to come down to just skills, either. Teofimo Lopez has some advantages on paper.

Terence Crawford v Egidijus Kavaliauskas Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

As mentioned, Lopez is nine years Lomachenko’s junior — young, but not so young that he’s too green, or at least that’s his team’s hope. There have been comparisons to the 2013 fight where Floyd Mayweather took on Canelo Alvarez, and while Lopez obviously rejects that, it’s not an unreasonable thought to have up front.

Mayweather was 36 when he fought the 23-year-old Canelo. Floyd was unbeaten at 44-0, but he was fighting a skilled, strong younger man, who was also a bit naturally bigger in the body. Alvarez was far more suited to the 154-pound division (actually a 152-pound catchweight) than Mayweather, but it was a big fight to make, and they made it happen.

Despite the fighting coming back a majority decision for Mayweather, it was a clear win for Floyd. Alvarez had some moments, but even a lot of those felt more like Mayweather giving a little slack to figure some things out. Alvarez and his team made the rather strange decision to try and out-box Mayweather, which obviously did not work out, and was never going to work out. Canelo was and is a good boxer, and has gotten better with it all since losing to Floyd, but Mayweather was a master.

If Lopez tries to out-think or out-maneuver Lomachenko, it’s probably a really bad idea. That’s not to say he can’t try to set him up for stuff, try to bait him, try to box with him at times, but it can’t be Plan A, and if it is for some reason, there better be a really, really good Plan B. And maybe C and D, too.

Lopez, like Canelo, isn’t some crude brawler or anything. He has boxing ability, he has hand speed, he times his punches well, he sets things up pretty well. But he just isn’t going to out-box Lomachenko.

What he may try to do is box with Lomachenko enough to set up his expected large advantage: pure, raw power. If he can get Lomachenko into trades, he might find a home for something huge. Lomachenko is not a natural lightweight. He is legitimately small at 135 pounds, and it’s reasonable enough to question if he can consistently take power shots from Lopez, a serious puncher at this weight.

Lopez, the No. 2 man at 135 right now, wants the crown. He wants to be that top guy, that superstar, he wants to be the guy to dethrone a king. Personally, I have the sense that Lopez’s ego — a healthy thing for any fighter or any pro athlete to have, at least to a degree — is too big for him to, for instance, accept around the eighth or ninth round that he can’t beat this guy, if things are going badly, and phone in the rest of the fight. If he has the sense that things are urgent, I would expect Lopez to lay it all on the line.

This is must-see boxing, must-see sports, must-see TV. This sort of matchup, really no matter how it winds up turning out, is the sort of thing that elevates boxing again, if only for a weekend, the sort of “big” that this sport does better than any other when it gets it all right every now and again.

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