Last Saturday night in Las Vegas, Nevada saw Teofimo Lopez defeat Vasiliy Lomachenko to cement his claim as the best lightweight in the world, and enter the top ten of the pound for pound boxing rankings.
The 135 pound division is a talent-rich weight class loaded with young flair. Undefeated youngsters like 21 year old Devin Haney, 22 year old Ryan Garcia and 25 year old Gervonta Davis are all making names for themselves in the sport and have boxing fans salivating at the possibility of potential future matchups.
The kingpin of the lightweight division heading into Saturday night was the 32 year old Lomachenko, as he’d captured all the alphabet soup world titles at 135 pounds with the exception of the IBF title, which belonged to the 23 year old Lopez.
Entering the bout Lopez was viewed as the biggest threat to Lomachenko’s supremacy. After 12 rounds of boxing in a fight that had a completely contrasting second half after the first six rounds, Teofimo “The Takeover” Lopez had done just as his nickname suggests, taken the titles as well as the top spot in the division over the 4-1 favorite Lomachenko.
For a fighter that just turned 23 years old to have unified all of the world titles is an incredible feat. To have done so against a fighter in Loma who was universally ranked as high as number one and as low as third along with Canelo Alvarez and Terrence Crawford on an interchangeable Pound for Pound list is all the more impressive.
Heading into this fight, fans as well as the boxing experts were divided on their pick. For a fight of this magnitude to have such long odds and such a variance amongst supporters of the sport spoke volumes on how competitive things could be.
After 12 rounds of boxing Lopez was awarded a unanimous decision by scores that some considered far too wide a margin. This fight, to me, was more a case of what Lomachenko didn’t do as much as what Lopez did do.
The talent and capabilities of Lopez are evident. He has shown explosive power and very good hand speed. This wasn’t lost on the cerebral Loma heading this fight as he came out extremely cautious the first six rounds Saturday night. How cautious? Caution to the tune of throwing all of 58 punches the first half of the fight with only 20 of those being power punches. On a world class level throwing an average of 9.5 punches a round is not going to put a fighter in the best position for victory over the course of a 12 round fight even if that fighter is a big puncher which Lomachenko is not.
What was the reason for such an uncharacteristic start for Lomachenko? I have a few theories, one of which includes starting slow to really ramp things up the second half of the fight so Loma’s increased offense would be all the more dramatic on the perceived to be inexperienced Lopez. He’d do that in the hopes of slowly drowning the 23 year old in deep waters.
The problem with such a strategy is that one has to inflict a certain amount of damage to slow his opponent down during those first six frames before applying the attack which Loma certainly didn’t do with his poor early punch output. Lopez was as fresh in round seven as he was in round one as he did not absorb any punishment or have to expend himself much from an offensive perspective to win rounds. Lopez was putting money in the bank by Loma handing rounds over with the kind of inactivity that makes it impossible to score in his favor.
Lomachenko’s cautious start also had plenty to do with what Lopez had to offer in that ring. Aside from the explosive power and fast hands Lopez is an intelligent and patient fighter. He is just as reactive as Lomachenko who has made a career out of constantly drawing something out of his opponents with his constant perpetual motion and then exploiting it. He was able to do no such thing with Lopez. This was a mental chess match as much as a physical one and Lopez was able to match Loma psychologically.
Lopez is also a much bigger fighter, who is a natural lightweight on his way up to junior welter, where Lomachenko has not dominated at 135 pounds against bigger, stronger, more durable fighters the same way he did at 126 and 130 pounds. At those lower weights Loma enjoyed a size advantage over most of his opponents and could take more chances as his punches carried more power and inflicted more damage. In return at the lighter weights Lomachenko’s opponents didn’t punch as hard as the bigger guys at lightweight. Although Loma is known as a fighter that doesn’t get hit much this is boxing and when you go swimming you are going to get a little wet.
At lightweight Loma has looked vulnerable to the punches of his bigger opponents in all of his fights with the exception of his early knockout over Anthony Crolla.
Jorge Linares put Lomachenko on the canvas for the first time in his career in the sixth round of a very competitive and even fight on the scorecards before Loma recorded a 10th round KO with a perfectly placed body shot.
Against Jose Pedraza and Luke Campbell, Lomachenko scored late knockdowns in each fight to widen the scorecards and go on to unanimous decision wins in fights that were far more competitive than the scores reflected. At 135 pounds, Loma had clearly reached his ceiling and the days of opponents being dominated so badly and in such one sided fashion that none at 130 pounders ever saw the championship rounds—he was 5-0, 5 KOs with no fight going past the 9th round—were clearly over.
After Lomachenko’s horrendous start, he promptly came out with a different vigor from round seven forward. Clearly realizing he was well behind on the scorecards Loma began to press the action over the next six rounds, increasing his aggressiveness and putting more pressure on Lopez while finally letting his hands go. Suddenly he was mixing offense with defence while adding the constant angles and feints that we are accustomed to seeing from Loma. If his game plan was to jumpstart his offensive output and aggression the second half of the fight then he had plenty of incentive being well behind on the scorecards. Round after round Lomachenko crept his way back into the fight on the scorecards with combination punching and sharp potshots behind ceaseless aggression. The first six rounds of the fight saw Loma losing round after round as much as Lopez was winning each frame.The judges are not going to reward a fighter when he is strictly fighting defensively. Rounds 7-11 could all be scored for Lomachenko as he repeatedly landed clean punches while being the attacker. Loma did his best work in rounds 8 through 11, continuously docking punches on Lopez while blocking and picking off almost all of Teofimo’s onset.
Heading into the 12th and final round all the momentum was in Lomachenko’s favor as he dominated the second half of the fight on a tiring Lopez. If Loma could win the closing round it looked like “The Matrix” could salvage a draw in a fight that had dramatically changed directions. Loma stuck with the same strategy that had turned the fight around for him with come forward pressure, only in this round with the fight seemingly hanging in the balance Lopez made a stand.
Teofimo bit down and fought fire with fire of his own, responding in offensive kind to everything Lomachenko did and had his best overall round of the night. Lopez both threw and landed more punches in the 12th round than in any round of the fight in cementing victory. After 12 spirited rounds the youngster secured his undefeated record as well as dethroned a pound for pound world champion of the sport. Although the scorecards were off the mark the right man was awarded the decision and a new star was born.
Both of these fighters have options.There is certainly interest from a fan perspective in a rematch and team Lomachenko has already stated that they would like another go. Lopez in turn has said he isn’t interested in granting a return match but as we all know money always talks the loudest so time and the economy a few months down the line will tell. Lopez overcame a late Loma rally to get a deserved victory. Lomachenko has to live with knowing that his dreadfully slow start cost him victory and his world titles. The rounds that Lomachenko won were far more decisive than the rounds that Lopez won but Loma gave up too much ground to make up. A rematch could settle things but money and bragging rights might not be the deciding factor.
These are two fighters heading in opposite directions. Lopez is a big kid and at only 23 years old will not be able to make 135 pounds much longer and has already mentioned moving up to 140. Although there are many big fights at lightweight to be made for Lopez the strain he will have to put on his big frame to shrink down to lightweight could hurt more than help in the future. He has already carved out a legacy in this weight class and in a relatively short amount of time having turned pro in November 2016.
Contrary to popular belief in this writer’s opinion the Lopez victory over Lomachenko is not his best win. That win came in his previous fight when he won the IBF title with a second round knockout over Richard Commey in December 2019. Commey like Lopez is a natural lightweight, a huge puncher in his own right and a durable one, having never been stopped prior to the Lopez fight with his only two losses coming via split decisions.
Coupled with his 26 knockouts in 29 wins made this a tall order for a kid going into just his 15th professional fight. Lopez was a betting underdog heading into that bout and there were many whispers of him being overhyped…and no different than this past Saturday he proved the critics wrong.
Lopez is in a great position at 135 or 140 pounds with many options and is an ever improving young fighter.
As for Lomachenko, who was always undersized for the weight, a drop back down to 130 seems a natural, given the size disadvantages he would also encounter against some of the other young guns of the lightweight division. Loma has chased greatness and taken nothing but risks from his professional debut onward.
After dominating at 126 and 130 he went right after the best available competition at 135, never asking for a catch-weight and constantly seeking out the best opposition.
There has been nothing calculated about the risks that Loma has taken at lightweight and many a great fighter before him when moving up a weight class would pick and choose fighters that themselves came up from a lower weight. Even an all time great like Floyd Mayweather maneuvered when moving up in weight. After two warm up fights at his new home Mayweather went around the division’s best fighter in Kostya Tszyu. After the jump from lightweight to junior welter, instead of Tszyu, Mayweather captured his title fighting Arturo Gatti, who himself turned pro at 126 pounds and won his first world title at 130.
Mayweather then leaped right up to 147 pounds, where after a welcome to welter fight with Sharmba Mitchell, a former lightweight, he then captured his welterweight title over Zab Judah, himself a former 140.
Another all-time great, in Roy Jones Jr., did the same when moving up to super middle and light heavy with James Toney and Mike McCallum respectfully, taking calculated risks at higher weights against fighters who themselves originally came up from lower weight classes. This column, from 2001, makes clear that the writer felt Floyd and Roy sometimes steered away from fighters that might present certain challenges.
There are also the cases of guys like Mikey Garcia moving up in weight to challenge Errol Spence only to be shut out in one sided fashion or Amir Khan being nearly decapitated against Canelo Alvarez when stepping up in weight.
Challenging the best the division has to offer when coming from a smaller weight class often does not have favorable results because weight classes exist for a reason.
Loma is too small for this weight and would be best served moving back down a class and I expect that to be the move should a rematch not come to fruition.
These fighters gave the fans the fight they wanted to see, doing so during a pandemic, and that should be applauded. Kudos to Top Rank as well for delivering this non pay per view matchup and doing so in a timely fashion and not letting it marinate.
To produce this match-up during the current climate without a live gate and the money that the bodies in attendance would have generated should be praised.
Last weekend was everything that the sport needed and not a moment too late.