Boxing
Nigel Collins, ESPN Staff Writer 44d

Vasiliy Lomachenko on a path to join elite, must-see company

Boxing

You've got to hand it to Gus Dorazio. He took it to Joe Louis and went down swinging. When the prohibitive underdog launched a wild left hook in the second round, Louis beat him to the punch with a short right inside the challenger's looping offering. Gus fell face-first and was counted out.

Dorazio had told everybody in his South Philly neighborhood he was going to beat Louis, but Gus was probably the only person who believed it. The odds were 20-1 in the champ's favor, but they might as well have been 100-1. Nobody was going to bet a plugged nickel on the latest member of Louis' Bum of the Month club.

All the same, 15,902 paying customers packed Philadelphia's Convention Hall the night of Feb. 19, 1941, to see a mismatch. Joe Louis was in town. Providing the opponent had two arms and two legs, they wanted to see "The Brown Bomber" do his thing in person.

It was a way to be part of history, something to tell their grandkids about. Louis was more than a boxing champion. He was a cultural icon and a unifying force between the races during almost 12 years as heavyweight champion. Hell, by the time he was done, damn near everybody loved Joe Louis.

Even after television became boxing's chief revenue source, this peculiar dynamic endured. Fifty-five years after Dorazio collapsed at Louis' feet, more than 45,000 turned up at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas, to watch Oscar De La Hoya dispatch a woefully overmatched adversary inside of the three rounds.

Hardly any of those customers had heard of Patrick Charpentier until the Frenchman was selected as the "Golden Boy's" designated victim. It was the height of Oscar Mania and it wouldn't have mattered if Patrick Star were in the other corner.

De La Hoya had it all: speed, power, mad skills, plus the adoration of millions of smitten females, ranging from tweens to grandmothers. It was their ardent support that took him to a new level -- boxer as rock star.

There always has been a select handful of boxers who, for a variety of reasons, have resonated with fans to such a degree it often doesn't matter all that much who they are fighting.

The paying public selects the members of this exclusive group, and it takes more than being a very good or even great fighter to make the cut. Vasiliy Lomachenko, who defends a lightweight title against Jose "Sniper" Pedroza on Saturday, has yet to reach that exalted status despite holding down the top spot in many pound-for-pound ratings.

There's no formula. But all the fighters, past and present, who've reached that plateau had a certain something that that set them apart, an aesthetic quality that powered their ascent.

Sugar Ray Robinson brought poetic grace to the sport that flowed like a river and destroyed like a flash flood. His sugar was sweet but laced with cyanide, an irresistible combination if there ever was one.

Sure, some of his wipeouts win were foregone conclusions, but he fought so many great fighters in his time, just seeing Sugar Ray in the flesh was enough.

Sugar Ray Leonard has been his most successful disciple -- not quite the original, but close enough to put him in the same must-see category.

Muhammad Ali has been called the heavyweight Sugar Ray Robinson, but he was, of course, much more than just a magnificent boxer. His fights were always front-page news. In his prime he was conceivably the most famous man in world and, in death, remains an essential part of the American fabric.

There was nothing sweet about Mike Tyson, but there was a kind brutal magnificence in the way he dispatched his foes with such ferocious aplomb. "Iron Mike" was the personification of what millions thought the heavyweight champion should be -- a badass knockout machine who struck fear in the hearts of his opponents.

His image as the Baddest Man on the Planet was so ingrained in the public's mind, it lingered long after Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield proved otherwise.

Fans adored Roy Jones because they'd never seen anybody quite like him and thought he was invincible. His astonishing reflexes and hand speed dazzled admirers and opponents alike. When he ultimately proved as human as the rest of us, the faithful didn't care. Even today, following his long and depressing goodbye, Roy's admirers regard him as the best they've ever seen.

Floyd Mayweather broke all the rules and ended up the richest boxer ever. When his superb fighting ability proved insignificant to bring the fame and fortune he felt he deserved, he turned heel, a marketing plan that turned him into a superstar.

Most remarkable of all was Mayweather's ability to attracted millions of fans to glory in his often-tedious fights. Apparently, all that mattered was his undefeated record and the size of his bank account. He was a trendsetter who took the pulse of the times and ran with it, as brilliant a move as any he employed inside the ring.

Sometimes where you're from can mean everything. Canelo Alvarez is an elite boxer, but it's his enormous following among Mexican and people of Mexican heritage (the largest growing demographic in the United States) that makes him special. If further proof is needed, the $365 million, five-year contract he recently signed with DAZN is more than sufficient.

If Lomachenko is going to join their ranks, he's going to have to do it strictly on his extraordinary fighting ability.

At this juncture, casual boxing fan sees him as just another Eastern European boxer with a strange name they have trouble pronouncing. But an unfamiliar name didn't stop Manny Pacquiao from becoming an international superstar, and it won't be the deciding factor in Lomachenko's case.

Lomachenko is fighting Pedroza in the 5,600-seat Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, rather than the 20,789-seat main arena. He fought in the big room in his previous fight, an impressive 10th-round knockout of Jorge Linares (arguably his most qualified adversary to date) that attracted 10,429 fans. Not bad but still only half a house.

The Pedroza match will be Lomachenko's fourth consecutive fight on ESPN, which has given him far greater exposure than when he fought on HBO. There's every reason to think his fan base will increase exponentially.

Pedroza (25-1, 12 KOs) is not as accomplished as Linares, but he's a respectable opponent, currently ranked No. 5 in ESPN.com's divisional ratings. That probably won't make a difference at the box office. Not only is the Puerto Rican challenger relatively unknown, Gervonta Davis stopped him last year.

Even so, there's good reason to watch every time Lomachenko (11-1, 9 KOs) fights. You won't see the things he capable of anywhere else. He's a new-age fighter, a "Hi-Tech" athlete with boxing in his blood and mayhem in his heart.

Lomachenko is the undisputed champion of creating punching angles, seemingly always in the right place at the right time. The geometric pattern of his movement creates a maze-like matrix from which is virtually impossible for his adversaries to escape. Nobody has lasted the scheduled distance with him since Suriya Tatakhun in November 2014.

"Vasiliy Lomachenko is technically the best fighter that I have seen since the early Muhammad Ali," Bob Arum said when he signed the Ukrainian to a professional contract.

And you know what? Arum could be correct.

Prologue to Lomachenko's professional success was his splendid 396-1 amateur career that included gold medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games. It was as an amateur that he earned his rep as being both singular and terrifying.

"Thank God there was no Lomachenko in my division at the time," said 1996 Olympic gold medalist Istvan Kovacs. "I never saw a fighter like him before."

And therein lies the key. Lomachenko is unique, an innovator who has perfected a style that is very much his own. That's already more than enough for a lot of fans and it wouldn't be much of a surprise if the Hulu Theater were full to capacity for Lomachenko-Pedroza.

However, the size of TV audience will be a better indication of Lomachenko's growth as an attraction. A sensational knockout would certainly be a step in the right direction.

After all, that's what must-see fighters are supposed to do.

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