Thursday, April 6, 2017

Lomachenko -- Is "Great" Good Enough?

By any measure, Vasyl Lomachenko is one of the most talented fighters in contemporary boxing. He amassed two gold medals for Ukraine in the Olympics and an amateur record of 396-1 (that's not a typo). In just eight professional fights, he's won titles in two different weight classes. He almost captured a belt in his second pro fight, losing via a split decision with the deck stacked against him (Orlando Salido badly missed weight and the ref failed to penalize Salido for repeated, egregious low blows). In only his third professional contest, he successfully won a championship belt against undefeated Gary Russell, Jr. 

And that's where the facts end and the superlatives begin. More than a few boxing historians rate him as one of the best amateurs of all time. Bob Arum, Lomachenko's promoter, has proclaimed him the best fighter since Ali. Roy Jones, the former pound-for-pound champ and current HBO commentator, believes that Lomachenko is the top fighter in boxing. Almost all credible ranking organizations rate Lomachenko among the best in the sport. 

Top Rank, Arum's company, has accelerated Lomachenko’s development far beyond its standard operating procedure. The company secured a title shot for him in just his second fight (unheard of in modern boxing) and placed him on the Mayweather-Pacquiao card, the highest-profile boxing event of the century to this point. He was also further exposed on a Pacquiao pay per view in Macau. By Lomachenko's seventh fight, he was already headlining a card on HBO. He's now become one of the network's core fighters.

Lomachenko has enraptured many hardcore boxing fans with his dazzling display of athleticism, footwork, punch placement and creativity. He finds angles to land shots that few could even imagine, let alone attempt and execute to perfection. His footwork astounds. He can spin an opponent and come from behind his foe to land a legal shot (a personal favorite). He seemingly works both sides of an opponent simultaneously, using quick lateral movement to initiate offense as he chooses. He's also an extremely talented combination puncher, throwing every punch in the book with frightening accuracy and hand speed. And he's not just a pitty-pat puncher. His knockout of multi-divisional champ Roman Martinez was truly devastating. 

On Saturday, Lomachenko will fight Jason Sosa in another HBO headlining appearance. The bout will take place at the MGM National Harbor outside of Washington, D.C. The venue seats only 3,000 or so but the card was a virtual sell-out within a week of tickets going on sale. 

Although it's clear that Lomachenko has a base of support, the question must be asked if it will grow, or will he remain just a cult-like figure among the sport's aficionados? Does he have the ability to expand his fan base beyond boxing most devout supporters? Will he ever fill large arenas? Might he one day become a pay per view star or one of the top draws in boxing? 

HBO and Top Rank have clearly been ahead of the general boxing public when it comes to Lomachenko. Through this point in his career, Lomachenko has drawn middling TV ratings and he's yet to become a top ticket seller. And while he is supremely talented, are HBO and Top Rank force-feeding him to the boxing public, or might they see their investment pay off with repeated exposure?

Unfortunately for Top Rank and HBO, both organizations face significant hurdles in their plans to make a star out of Lomachenko. As for Top Rank, after Sosa, they have pretty much run out of potential opponents from their own promotional stable (they co-promote Sosa with Peltz Boxing). They have given Lomachenko a crack at Salido, Martinez and Nicholas Walters – all good fighters but none that are elite. And the current landscape at junior lightweight lacks a truly worthy test of Lomachenko. 

The opponents that may be able to take Lomachenko to the next level of popularity are a division above, at lightweight (Jorge Linares, Mikey Garcia), and are signed to/aligned with other promoters. Linares could be a possibility in that Arum will work with Golden Boy Promotions but Mikey Garcia, who is aligned with Richard Schaefer, seems far less likely. (Garcia sued Top Rank to gain his promotional independence). Top Rank also rarely works with Al Haymon and his stable of fighters, which includes current 135-lb. champ Robert Easter, Jr. 

If Bob Arum has grand designs on growing Lomachenko in the sport, he's most likely going to have to hold his nose and make deals with those whom he doesn't like. I guess it's possible that Terence Crawford (a Top Rank fighter) could fight Lomachenko at 140, but Crawford has already talked about moving up to 147 and it's unlikely that the money would be available for that matchup (more on that in a little). In short, Bob needs to deal with Richard or Al if he really wants Lomachenko to develop into a larger attraction. This could mean contentious negotiations, network disagreements, venue disputes and media battles; he's going to have to cede some control. 

At 85, Arum has lived a full life and has made his millions. But at 29, and in the prime of his career, Lomachenko has yet to earn big money. If Arum thinks that Lomachenko is a generational talent, what's stopping him from matching his fighter tougher? Why not give Lomachenko the chance to earn more?

HBO has a different set of issues. The network hasn't exactly been breaking the bank in 2017. HBO has continued a trend to move more fights to pay per view, away from their monthly boxing subscribers. The network couldn't afford to put Golovkin-Jacobs on its HBO Championship Boxing platform even though the purse for the main event was less than $5M (for instance, Taylor-Wright was on HBO and that had a similar price tag). In actual dollars, HBO's boxing budget is not what it was in previous decades and this disparity is even more striking when accounting for inflation. Furthermore, AT&T is in the process of attempting to acquire Time Warner (the corporate parent of HBO). There's no certainly that the deal goes through or how the potential new owners will regard boxing. From the outside, it seems that HBO Boxing has refused to make bold or expensive moves during this period of uncertainty. 

All of this matters because it's unclear if HBO will even have the largess to support Lomachenko in more substantial boxing endeavors. As Golovkin-Jacobs and Kovalev-Ward proved, the pay per view market isn't exactly on fire right now. And each of those fights would seem to do better on paper than any matchup that Lomachenko might be involved in (a fight against a cashed-out Manny Pacquiao notwithstanding). 

Lomachenko needs to be on a network and if HBO can't shell out real dollars for bigger opponents, Lomachenko's growth in the sport may plateau. Top Rank could always dig into its war chest to help defray HBO's costs for a fight or two, but ultimately, Top Rank is in business to make money. Established network starts aren't loss leaders; that's what prospects are for. Veteran boxers should be net-positive for a promotional company (or neutral, at worst); that's how the model has always worked. 

With all of these external factors acting as potential headwinds for his growth in the sport, Lomachenko has to do his part to create demand. Lomachenko has had few competitive fights. Sometimes he starts off aggressively (Roman Martinez) but there are other times where he seems content to get rounds in (Romulo Koasicha, Gamalier Rodriguez). Lomachenko can help himself by laying waste to lesser talents in quick fashion – like Golovkin and Kovalev did. Let's face it, fast knockouts are sexy. They leave fans wanting more. And it isn't like Lomachenko doesn't have the power or ability to do that; however, it may be a question of temperament for him. 

As Lomachenko readies for his 2017 debut, he enters the ring as an HBO headliner and one of Top Rank's featured fighters. But will he end the year as something more? Will his in-ring exploits lead to headlining positions in larger venues? Will he face even tougher competition? Will Top Rank and HBO pony up to ensure that better fights happen? Will Lomachenko endear himself to more casual boxing fans? 

It isn't easy to create boxing stars in the U.S. market. The sport has helped marginalize itself with some bad decision making. Even excepting boxing's self-inflicted wounds, ad-supported TV networks don't like to trouble themselves selling the sport to its sponsors, despite boxing often doing better ratings than other network programming. (Unfortunately, not enough suits believe that boxing can be a valuable part of a larger sports and entertainment portfolio.)

With the potential roadblocks facing Top Rank and HBO, Lomachenko, foreign-born and not a traditional one-punch knockout artist, will most likely have difficulty making the jump to the next level of visibility in boxing, to say nothing of the larger sporting world. He may very well wind up being the singular fighter of his era, but how many will notice? 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder/head writer of
He's a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
@snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.

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