Returning to the limelight after a Fight of the Year candidate, plus surgery on a shoulder usually calls for a light touch opponent to ease back into the ebb and flow of ring life. That’s unless you’re Vasyl Lomachenko. For the man who boxed for a world title in only his second pro outing knocking over a human domino was never going to suffice. The WBA ‘Super’ lightweight champion instead opted for a unification bout with WBO holder Jose Pedraza, in New York on Saturday night.
The Puerto Rican co-titlist was not supposed to be the man in the opposite corner. Ray Beltran had been lined up to defend the WBO title successfully against Pedraza in August and move on to effectively hand the strap over to “Loma”. Pedraza failed to read that script. Defeating Beltran on points, Jose rightly took his place as the next sacrificial lamb for the Ukrainian pound-for-pound claimant. And boy did he need every ounce of toughness to withstand a hellacious onslaught in round 11. Pedraza made it through the round, and the fight itself, losing on points with a genuine claim to have won three or maybe four rounds.
Pedraza’s efforts are deserving of praise. Lomachenko’s performance can be reasonably critiqued in the context of a fighter returning off the back of an operation, without it necessarily resulting in the levels of gushing praise heaped upon on him from ESPN. A little balance must be introduced. The Ukrainian wasn’t poor by any stretch; yet he wasn’t at his most masterful, as was occasionally suggested by a broadcaster who wasted little opportunity in replaying slow motion incidents in favour of their man rather than the spirited fellow belt holder.
One thing made glaringly apparent is that Lomachenko is reaching the ceiling of his physical limitations. Punching holes into lightweights is not easy, and scoring highlight reel knockouts will be understandably more difficult as he continues to progress up the weights.
Lomachenko appeared to be working on a few things: planting his feet, staying in range a little more, adding a touch of caution so often missing when he was busy toying with some of the inferior opposition served up at the lower weight class. Pedraza offered an opportunity to shake off the shoulder and see how Lomachenko would fare against straight-up, conventional boxing types like Mikey Garcia.
Pedraza adopted a more safety-first mindset than he had against the brash upstart Gervonta Davis. Standing and trading with Davis -displaying all the commendable traits of a confident champion- played right into Davis’s brutal fists that night, and Pedraza was the perfect fodder for Gervonta’s fast, hard shots.
One interesting side drama that progressed during Saturday night’s fight was the increasing exasperation of Vasyl’s father (and trainer) over his son’s performance. Usually dropping an opponent twice would be a positive mark, but Loma Sr was less than happy in the corner. Rather than being stuck between the amateur and pro styles (as some have suggested) Lomachenko appears to embrace the unorthodox side of boxing. The fleet-footed, matrix moves are part of his identity. His father, conversely, may be behind the transition to a more pro-style, preferring a more thoughtful approach where Lomachenko Jr stands inside more often than we’ve seen in the past.
Despite Lomachenko’s obvious talents it is unlikely we will see him climbing the weight divisions similar to the likes of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. The Pedraza and Linares contests have already offered an indication that there are plenty of star-studded nights ahead for the 30-year-old southpaw, but probably not beyond super-lightweight.