Junior lightweight world champion Vasiliy Lomachenko, the new No. 1 fighter in the world, pound-for-pound, according to our ESPN panel vote of boxing experts, cemented his status with a surprisingly easy and totally non-competitive sixth-round stoppage of Guillermo Rigondeaux on Saturday night at the sold-out Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It was a typically brilliant performance from Lomachenko, already a two-division world titleholder in only 11 pro fights. He made Rigondeaux, who had been ranked on the pound-for-pound list and dominant in his own right, meekly quit on his stool after the sixth round.
Lauded by many as a pound-for-pound talent, Rigondeaux moved up two weight classes for the first-ever showdown between two-time Olympic gold medalists but had no answers for anything -- and then claimed a broken left hand. It turned out it was merely bruised, an unacceptable reason for a supposed prize fighter to quit. Lomachenko more likely broke his spirit by playing with him so easily to hand him his first defeat since a 2003 amateur bout.
Rigondeaux was hopeless and bewildered, unable to do anything with the superior Lomachenko (10-1, 8 KOs), a professional for only four years who now counts several excellent victories on his record, including Rigondeaux, Nicholas Walters, Roman "Rocky" Martinez and Gary Russell Jr.
Ukraine's Lomachenko toyed with them all and has now made his last four opponents (Rigondeaux, Miguel Marriaga, Jason Sosa and Walters) quit, bringing about a change in nickname from "High-Tech" to "No Mas 'Chenko."
He is a supremely talented fighter and at 29 just seems to be entering his prime. He is now statistically No. 1 according to CompuBox's defensive numbers. He is fun to watch. He has begun to open up and show some personality and he has displayed ever-improving English in his interviews. And he will continue to get tremendous exposure by fighting on ESPN as part of Top Rank's long-term deal with the network.
Lomachenko has everything it takes to be a star, so much so that Top Rank promoter Bob Arum and Madison Square Garden officials are already making plans for his next fight to move into the main arena for the first time.
All Lomachenko needs are big-time opponents. So what is next and what is the path to stardom? Let me check my crystal ball.
First off, Lomachenko figures to return in the spring on ESPN. I suspect it will be for another junior lightweight title defense against the best opponent Top Rank can find. Lomachenko is one of the few fighters who when he says he will fight anyone is to be believed. Just look at the caliber of opposition he has faced in 11 fights. It's proof.
A unification fight with Miguel Berchelt would be interesting and is doable given the close relationship between Top Rank and Berchelt promoter Zanfer Promotions' Fernando Beltran. It's the fight Top Rank vice president Carl Moretti named at the post-fight news conference Saturday when asked what might be next.
But would Berchelt want to risk his title in a fight for which he would be a huge underdog? It's possible. He's a proud Mexican fighter and would earn more money than he has ever made.
I have my doubts about unification bouts against the other two titleholders. Japan's Kenichi Ogawa won a vacant title belt by controversial decision over Tevin Farmer on Saturday night in Las Vegas on an HBO card on opposite the Loma-Rigo card. Would he be willing to face Lomachenko in a unification fight in his first defense? I tend to doubt it but never say never especially if Top Rank wants to overpay him in order to get Lomachenko another belt, which the fighter says is his objective. The same goes for Puerto Rico's Alberto Machado, who has a belt but his promotional deal with Top Rank rival Golden Boy complicates matters. And let's be honest -- other than the carrot of the belts Lomachenko fights with Ogawa or Machado are not very interesting and would both almost certainly be one-sided wins.
"If we can fight Berchelt and unify, or (fight) one of the other champions - I can't see a fight with Machado really selling," Moretti said. "You know, the Japanese fighter won (Saturday night), too. You know, if we can't make the fight at 130, we'll have to move up to 135."
Maybe Lomachenko will move up for his spring fight. But if he doesn't I am quite confident he will for a summer fight, especially for a crack at another world title. Lomachenko won a featherweight belt in his third fight, tying the record for fewest fights needed to do that. He won a junior lightweight title in his seventh fight, the record for fewest fights to win titles in two weight classes. He'd love nothing more than to win a third title and set the record for fewest fights to do that as well.
"If my next fight (we can make) with some champion in my weight category, I stay in my weight category," Lomachenko said at his post-fight news conference. "But if not, if (Arum) gives me some interesting fight at 135, I'll move up to 135."
On Feb. 16 (ESPN), the plan is for Raymundo Beltran and Paulus Moses to fight for the lightweight belt recently vacated by Terry Flanagan. I believe the winner of that fight will defend against Lomachenko in the summer.
And since a big part of Top Rank's ESPN deal is the ability to have its top fighters fight more than just twice a year, Lomachenko will be back in the fall as well. At that point, maybe, just maybe Top Rank can arrange a major fight for Lomachenko against either Mikey Garcia or Jorge Linares, the top two lightweights in the world, both of whom have titles.
Top Rank and ESPN plan to do at least two pay-per-view cards in 2018 and Lomachenko surely will be featured on one of them. Lomachenko facing Garcia in a lightweight unification fight would fit the bill, especially because that is a very costly fight that would require pay-per-view revenue to meet the demands of the fighters, especially Garcia's.
A Lomachenko win in that fight would be huge and dramatically increase his star power (and likewise for Garcia, should he win).
"He'll take anybody. He'll go to 135 pounds and he'll make a joke of Linares. He'll make a joke of Garcia," Arum said at ringside after Saturday's fight. "They're really good fighters but this guy is super special. You've never seen anything like this. Maybe he'll go to 140, I don't know. He's going to do this to everybody. We'll be able to make the fight. With ESPN behind us we have plenty of money to offer for big fights. ESPN wants the best and this guy is the best."
But if a big lightweight fight for Lomachenko fails to materialize, what other way could Lomachenko's star power increase? How about a move up to junior welterweight for a showdown late next year with the one and only Manny Pacquiao, who has always said he could still make 140 pounds even though he has been at 147 for years (and often come in under the weight). That's a pay-per-view fight, obviously.
I know Top Rank would like to match Pacquiao with the outstanding Terence Crawford, but Pacquiao has not wanted to take it. But he might be able to be convinced to face Lomachenko, a much smaller man.
"I want a big fight," Lomachenko said. "I want a big name. But, you know, guys, I'm ready for anybody. I'm ready."
Whomever Lomachenko faces, he is going to be kept busy and, it says here, he will continue to win. It's only a matter of who will be willing to step in the ring with boxing's master.