One of the most intriguing bouts of 2017 takes place on Saturday at the Theater at Madison Square Garden between two-weight champion (126, 130) Vasyl Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) and junior featherweight (122) titleholder Guillermo Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs, 1 No-Contest). The fight, contested at the junior lightweight limit of 130 lbs., features the first professional boxing match between two-time Olympic gold medalists. After more than a year of back-and-forth between the two southpaws (and their respective representatives), the fight has finally come to fruition.
For fans of boxing skill and foot work, Lomachenko-Rigondeaux contains multitudes. Lomachenko has some of the fastest feet in the sport. His supreme athleticism is matched by an irrepressible attack, pinpoint punch placement and creative combinations. Rigondeaux is surgical with his straight left hand and can detonate it on an unsuspecting foe at any juncture. Unlike Lomachenko, Rigondeaux's particular brand of genius is defensive. Using his feet to evade trouble and his limbs as shields, Rigondeaux makes it exceedingly difficult to land cleanly on him.
Although this matchup might not necessarily produce consistent fireworks in the ring, the fight should be a fascinating duel between two of the best pure boxers in the sport. It's amateur powerhouses Cuba (Rigondeaux) vs. Ukraine (Lomachenko), with the winning fighter ascending to the higher echelons of the sport. Below are the keys to the fight. My prediction is at the end of the article.
1. Punch Volume.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of success on Saturday night will be the number of punches thrown per round. Lomachenko swarms foes with a relentless attack while Rigondeaux neutralizes his opponents' offense. If Lomachenko throws 60 punches per round, there's a good chance that he will be winning the fight. However, if his punch volume is closer to 35 per frame, then it's quite possible that Rigondeaux will have been more successful in the all-important ring generalship battle. Lomachenko-Rigondeaux features perhaps the clearest demarcation between offensive and defensive-minded fighters that we'll see in 2017. In the trenches, the boxer who can impose his preferred style in the ring will most likely be the one who ends the night victorious.
2. Rigo's straight left hand.
One way to render punch volume moot is to knock the other guy out. Rigo's straight left is one of the best punches in the sport. It's fair to say that Lomachenko has yet to face this kind of weapon as a professional. Rigo's left breaks jaws, sends opponents to the canvas and dissuades foes from coming forward. If Rigondeaux can land his best punch – and it significantly affects Lomachenko – then he may have found a clear formula for winning the fight.
Lomachenko can neutralize Rigo's left in two ways: By swarming Rigondeaux, he can close the distance that the Cuban needs to throw the punch. In addition, Lomachenko's superior movement can restrict Rigo from throwing and landing his left. Expect to see Lomachenko circling a lot to his left, which will limit opportunities for Rigo to unfurl his best punch. In this scenario, it will be up to Rigondeaux to make the necessary adjustments so that he can connect with his left.
3. An old fighter?
Rigondeaux is listed at 37 but whispers throughout the boxing community suggest that he might even be older. In addition, Rigondeaux has experienced several periods of inactivity throughout his professional career. During the last two years, he's only fought three rounds; in the same stretch, Lomachenko has had 28. Although Rigondeaux always seems to be in great condition, reflexes and agility certainly can atrophy as boxers get to advanced ages in the ring.
Often, fighters turn old overnight and it's certainly possible that Rigondeaux meets Father Time on Saturday. Even if Rigo starts the bout energetically, does he still have the agility to go 12 hard rounds against a top opponent? At 29, Lomachenko is in the prime of his career. By pushing Rigondeaux early in the fight, he can adequately test Rigondeaux's older legs.
A number of fight observers like to pooh-pooh the weight difference between the two fighters. Yes, a few years ago Lomachenko was at 126 lbs., which is much closer to Rigo's 122-lb. division. However, weight classes do matter and Lomachenko has demonstrated that he can physically impose himself on top-10 130-lb. fighters. Although there is a second-day weigh in for this fight at 138 lbs. (meaning, neither fighter can be above 138 the day of the match), it's still clear that there's a significant weight advantage for Lomachenko.
This difference could manifest itself in another manner. Let's say Rigondeaux is able to land his best left hand – the one that destroys guys at 122. If Lomachenko can shrug off the punch, it certainly could be possible that the weight disparity could lead to a big advantage for him during the match. In addition, Rigo will need to exert more energy to keep the naturally bigger Lomachenko off him; this could lead to fatigue as the fight progresses.
For such a reputed defensive master, Rigondeaux certainly isn't a stranger to the canvas. Down four times in his career and hurt on other occasions, Rigo can be vulnerable in the ring. He might not get hit a lot but when he does, trouble follows. Interestingly, Rigo has been knocked down from straight right hands and left hooks – two punches that Lomachenko, a southpaw, doesn't feature in his arsenal. Are Rigondeaux's chin issues the product of specific-angled shots from orthodox fighters or do they reflect poor punch resistance?
Rigondeaux will be the best puncher that Lomachenko has faced as a professional (with apologies to Gary Russell Jr.). Through this point in his career, we've yet to see Loma really hurt by a head shot. In the one fight that he lost, to Orlando Salido, it was Salido's body work that gave him the most trouble. It's certainly possible that Rigondeaux will test Lomachenko's chin, but it's also likely that Lomachenko may just have a superior beard. The truth could also be somewhere in the middle.
6. Tricks of the trade.
Salido famously landed dozens of low blows against Lomachenko. Those (illegal) punches certainly helped to rein in Loma's movement early in that fight. Yes, that bout was just Loma's second as a professional, and certainly he's developed a better understanding of professional boxing since the Salido fight, but it's worth remembering that he and his trainer/father were unable to adjust to Salido's tactics until the second half of the match.
Rigo brings a motley assortment of illegal tactics and techniques into the ring. In his tool belt are holding-and-hitting, low blows, hitting on the break, hitting after the bell, rabbit punches, illegally using his forearms, and all sorts of other goodies. Rigondeaux's considerable speed and veteran instincts often mask these fouls; however, he will inevitably turn to them. Lomachenko fell victim to his own naiveté against Salido and he can't afford to make that mistake twice. He's going to need to respond appropriately – milking fouls for the ref's attention, fighting fire with fire, or using his body control to avoid many of these illegal maneuvers. Rigo is a proud veteran who will do what needs to be done to get the best chance of winning. Can we say the same about Lomachenko?
Don't expect a Fight of the Year. Lomachenko wins on account of a more consistent offensive attack and a higher punch volume. I don't think that there will be tons of clean, landed blows, but the gap in work rate between the two will be significant. I expect Rigo to have intermittent success landing single power shots, but it's unlikely that he will have periods of sustained dominance. The fight will be tense and intriguing as the two technicians attempt to gain the upper hand; however, the contest will feature more gamesmanship than compelling action. In the end, Lomachenko's offensive temperament and fresher legs will be more than enough to win a comfortable unanimous decision.