<
>

All eyes on Vasyl Lomachenko in fight against Miguel Marriaga

play
Lomachenko could be boxing's next superstar (3:49)

Joe Tessitore explains why Vasyl Lomachenko is a "phenom" and could become the biggest star in boxing. (3:49)

LOS ANGELES -- From the day Vasyl Lomachenko turned professional in 2013 following perhaps the greatest amateur boxing career in history, a run that included a 396-1 record (loss avenged) and Olympic gold medals for Ukraine in 2008 and 2012, his biggest motivation was to make boxing history.

To Lomachenko, that meant collecting as many titles in as many weight classes as quickly as he could, and earning recognition as the pound-for-pound king.

He won a vacant featherweight world title in his third professional fight with a masterpiece decision against Gary Russell Jr. to tie the record for fewest fights needed to win a world title. In pro fight No. 7, he made more history, spectacularly knocking out Roman "Rocky" Martinez in the fifth round 14 months ago to win a junior lightweight title. That set the record for fewest bouts needed to win belts in two weight divisions.

The man they call "Hi-Tech" is all about boxing history. Now he has his eyes on becoming the pound-for-pound king.

"I want to fight top, top fighters in the weight class that I am now fighting in. That is my biggest goal," Lomachenko said through a translator and manager Egis Klimas. "Then maybe it is different weight classes.

"Most important for me is to fight the best, where the fight means something and fans want it, people want to see it. I want to be on top of the list."

"I want to be in the history book of boxing. I want my name to be mentioned when people talk about the history of boxing."

Vasyl Lomachenko

Some already consider him the best, but he has stiff competition from unified light heavyweight titleholder Andre Ward and unified middleweight world champion Gennady Golovkin.

In order to get that recognition, Lomachenko knows he needs the top opponents to fight him so he can earn it. Getting them to face him is difficult, and given the kind of all-around skills, power, speed and defenses he possesses, it's likely not going to get any easier.

For now, Lomachenko bides his time. He hopes the other titleholders (Gervonta Davis, Jezreel Corrales and Miguel Berchelt) will step up for unification fights, though that seems unlikely for the time being. He also knows an eventual move to lightweight beckons, where there has already been a drum beat for a possible fight with world titleholder Mikey Garcia.

On Saturday, Lomachenko will have to settle for the best available opponent willing to fight him. Step right up, Miguel Marriaga (25-2, 21 KOs), 30, a former two-time featherweight title challenger from Colombia, who is moving up in weight.

Lomachenko (8-1, 6 KOs) will make the third defense of his 130-pound world title against Marriaga at the at the Microsoft Theater at LA Live in Los Angeles, in the main event of a card that will air live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes, and stream live on the ESPN app, beginning at 10 p.m. ET.


Don't have ESPN? Click here to subscribe today and get instant access


In the co-feature, lightweight contender Ray Beltran (33-7-1, 21 KOs), 36, of Phoenix, will face former interim junior lightweight titlist Bryan Vasquez (35-2, 19 KOs), 29, of Costa Rica, in a scheduled 10-round bout. Beltran is closing in on a mandatory world title opportunity.

Lomachenko, 29, is a heavy favorite against Marriaga, though he would be a heavy favorite against anybody in his weight division. Still, he gave credit to Marriaga for at least accepting the fight, which comes just 3½ months after Marriaga lost a decision challenging featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez in an exciting fight on April 22.

"Marriaga has heart. He has the courage to get into the ring and fight. I respect that a lot," Lomachenko said. "I did see his bout against Oscar Valdez and what can I tell you about him? He is strong and his conditioning is good. He has skills. I don't think it is going to be easy for me."

Marriaga wasn't the first choice for Lomachenko's next opponent. Initially, Top Rank hoped to make a rematch between Lomachenko and Orlando Salido, who was stripped of his featherweight title for being overweight when he won a split decision against Lomachenko in Lomachenko's second pro fight. Ultimately, Salido turned down the rematch, opening the door for Marriaga.

"Of course, I would like to fight Salido [again]," Lomachenko said. "He will be welcomed into Lomachenko University. I would like to fight Salido, but probably within a one-year period. If it is longer than that, I am not going to be interested in fighting him because that bout wouldn't mean anything. But in general, I would like to get back in the ring with him to see how much better I can be in the second bout."

Top Rank president Todd duBoef said they were not going to wait around for Salido with the ESPN date looming and went with Marriaga.

"We were getting representation that [Salido] was going to take a tuneup fight in May and then Lomachenko, but they kind of dragged this out and then said he had a hurt hand, he couldn't make the weight," duBoef said.

"Listen, our business model is a little different than what our business model has been in the past, when we had to wait on fighters to make fights to stay active. So what we did, we said listen, Vasyl is a commercially incredible fighter that we want the public to see. He is not going to be held up by an opponent or a situation. We are going to make him available so that millions of people can watch him on ESPN and can see his story and can see his brilliance, and that's why we pivoted to Marriaga.

"If Salido comes back and says, 'I am ready for the fight and I'm sorry about all of this stuff, I am healthy now, let's go,' then I talk to Vasyl and Egis and we are all in. We are here to make good matches and to give the public what they want."

Marriaga was happy to get the call and didn't hesitate taking a fight few give him a chance to win.

"I had been training for three weeks in Colombia when I got a phone call about this fight," Marriaga said through a translator. "I immediately said yes. I didn't hesitate because I want to fight the best, and who is better than Lomachenko? [But] no fighter is unbeatable. No one. I have a game plan and an area on him to attack and slow him down. I have studied video of Lomachenko and took a long look at his fight against Salido.

"Lomachenko is great, special and is an action fighter, but no one can tell me a fight cannot be won. I'm going for it."

He will be going for it against a fighter many believe is special.

"For me to talk about how great somebody is -- I have only been in the business 25 years, but I always talk to our esteemed matchmaker, Bruce Trampler, and I say, 'Bruce how great is he?'" duBoef recalled. "Vasyl is one of the only fighters where Bruce will say, 'He is something very special.'"

Besides the records he already owns, Lomachenko is also statistically special. He connects on 50.8 percent of his power punches, according to CompuBox. That is No. 2 behind light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson (55 percent) among active championship-level fighters. Lomachenko also ranks second in plus/minus rating (+20.7), second only to Floyd Mayweather when it comes to the difference in punches he lands per round and the number he gets hit with.

Lomachenko is also exciting in the way he goes about it, because he averages 61.6 punches per round, also second-most among championship-level fighters.

He may continue to set records, churn out eye-catching statistics and pile up belts, but he has his eye on pound-for-pound status.

"Being recognized as the pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter is my ultimate dream," he said. "To get there I need to fight champions and unify titles. That is what pound-for-pound champions do. While growing up, my dream and my goal was to win an Olympic gold medal. I did that and both times they were the proudest moments in my amateur career.

"Now my professional goal is to be recognized as pound-for-pound the world's best fighter. To do this I must defeat Marriaga, and then to be recognized as the pound-for-pound best I must fight champions and unify world titles."