Pound-for-pound king Vasiliy Lomachenko has always been vocal about the kinds of fights he wants: big ones. He wants to win as many belts in as many divisions as he can, and he wants title unification fights.
In just 13 professional bouts, Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine and viewed by many as the greatest amateur boxer in history thanks to a 396-1 record, has already won world titles in three weight classes: featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight.
In his most recent fight, he got a chance to unify two belts, doing so at lightweight with a one-sided decision over Jose Pedraza in a December fight in which he dropped Pedraza twice in the 11th round to punctuate the victory.
Now Lomachenko is set for his third lightweight bout and ready to make his second title defense against former titlist and mandatory challenger Anthony Crolla, whom he will meet in the main event of a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN+ card on Friday (ESPN+, 11 p.m. ET main card, 8 p.m. ET for preliminaries) at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The fight was scheduled to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the debut of ESPN+.
Lomachenko is a huge favorite to defeat Crolla, but that is certainly no knock on Crolla. Lomachenko would be heavily favored to beat anyone in the world at lightweight and below not named fellow lightweight titleholder Mikey Garcia. But a fight with Garcia or another unification bout was not available to Lomachenko for this date, and without a unification fight being possible he was ordered to make the mandatory against Crolla.
"I want to fight the best, but now Crolla is the best choice," Lomachenko said. "He is the mandatory challenger and wanted to fight me. That is why I accepted this fight. I prepare like always and will put on a great performance for my fans in Los Angeles and on ESPN+. I will show everyone my best style and hope everyone enjoys it."
Crolla (34-6-3, 13 KOs), 32, had become one of Lomachenko's mandatory challengers when he won a unanimous decision over Daud Yordan in a title eliminator on Nov. 10 in Manchester, England, Crolla's hometown.
Had Lomachenko not taken the fight, he would have been stripped of one of his belts. Given his tunnel vision of wanting to win all the belts in his division, there was no way he would have allowed that to happen.
So Crolla, who is experienced, hungry and has a dogged determination and belief in himself, gets another title shot.
"It's been a long camp and the hardest of my career, physically and mentally, but I am in a great place and I'm raring to go," Crolla said. "He's seen by many as the best fighter on the planet and I know that I have a huge challenge ahead of me. But these are the kinds of fights that I got into the sport for at the age of 10. I've dreamt about nights like this and it's almost time."
This is your Ringside Seat for the fight:
Crolla, not Commey
Lomachenko (12-1, 9 KOs), a 31-year-old southpaw, had hoped to quench his desire to unify titles by facing fellow 135-pound belt-holder Richard Commey (28-2, 25 KOs).
In fact, Top Rank had in place a deal for the winner of the vacant world title fight between Commey and Isa Chaniev on Feb. 2 to face Lomachenko next. However, when Commey won the title by drilling Chaniev in the second round, he injured his right hand, putting him on the shelf for several weeks and making him unavailable to face Lomachenko on Friday.
That turn of events dropped the bout in Crolla's lap, although if Lomachenko wins he probably will face Commey, who was cleared to return to training last week, later in the year.
Crolla, who will be boxing in the United States for the first time and outside of the United Kingdom for the second time, was happy to get the fight. He has big respect for Lomachenko but is unmoved by the underdog status.
"He's a very unique fighter, his movement is exceptional and he creates great angles," Crolla said about Lomachenko. "You can see what all the praise is about. He's one of the greatest amateurs ever and he's taken that into the pro ranks. It's unbelievable what he's done in a short space of time in the pros, but I am here not just to test myself against the very best but to give it everything I have to shock the world.
"People aren't giving me a chance but that doesn't matter to me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. The motivation to me is attaching my name to one of the biggest upsets in British boxing history without a doubt, and I don't think I'm speaking out of turn there. As a boxing fan and someone that lives and breathes the sport, that's all the motivation I need. I've been the underdog all throughout my career and I know that this is by far the biggest challenge I've faced, but it's one I can't wait to get stuck into."
Underdog or not, Joe Gallagher, Crolla's trainer, said whatever happens, his man will give it everything he has like other fighters he has trained have done when taking on pound-for-pound stars.
Crolla ready to defy odds against Lomachenko
Former titlist Anthony Crolla is no stranger to being an underdog and is now ready to take on reigning champion Vasyl Lomachenko.
"It helps that I've been in this position before," Gallagher told the U.K.'s Sky Sports. "Do I think that [Paul Smith] was disgraced against Andre Ward? No. Was Liam Smith disgraced when he fought [Canelo] Alvarez? Not a chance.
"This is just part of the business when you're going in against guys at the absolute highest level of the sport and I know for an absolute fact that whatever the result when Crolla takes on Lomachenko, he'll give it his all and he won't disgrace himself either."
Common opponent: Linares
The most obvious way to compare Lomachenko and Crolla is based on how each performed against a common opponent in Jorge Linares, the well-respected former three-division world titleholder.
Lomachenko said he is familiar with Crolla only because he fought Linares.
"I don't know too much about him," Lomachenko said. "I know him from his two fights with Jorge Linares. I do know he is an aggressive fighter, and I like to fight guys who come forward."
Crolla won a lightweight title in 2015 and made one defense before squaring off with Linares in Manchester in September 2016. It was a fantastic fight and highly competitive, but Linares' speed, skills and outstanding body attack gave Crolla problems and he lost the belt by unanimous decision.
They met six months later in an immediate rematch, also in Manchester, and Linares had a much easier time, knocking Crolla down in the seventh round and winning a more decisive decision, after which Crolla won three fights in a row to set up the Lomachenko fight.
Linares would go on to retain the title twice more before defending against Lomachenko, who was moving up from junior lightweight, last May at a raucous Madison Square Garden in New York.
Linares knocks down Lomachenko in sixth
Jorge Linares lands a right hand flush to Vasiliy Lomachenko that sends him to the mat. Lomachenko gets up and survives the round.
Linares dropped Lomachenko in the sixth round of a very competitive fight in which Lomachenko, despite suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder in the second round, rallied for a dramatic body-shot knockout victory in the 10th round to take the title in a fight that was even on the scorecards entering the round.
Although comparing results against a common opponent is not necessarily a predictor of what is to come -- after all, Muhammad Ali lost to Joe Frazier, who lost to George Foreman, who lost to Ali -- it is worth noting that Crolla lost twice to Linares, who was knocked out by an injured Lomachenko.
Face to face
Lomachenko: Making the second defense of the WBA lightweight title, first of WBO lightweight title
Lomachenko: 11-fight win streak dating to June 2014
Lomachenko: 6-1 vs. world titleholders -- only loss came to Orlando Salido in 2014 (split decision in his second fight as a professional). Two-time Olympic gold medalist for Ukraine (2008, 2012)
Lomachenko: Lands 47.7 percent of power punches, according to CompuBox (lightweight average is 36.1 percent). Opponents land 17.2 percent of punches, second lowest, according to CompuBox
Crolla: Has won three straight fights after losing back-to-back fights to Jorge Linares (Linares lost to Lomachenko in 2018)
Crolla: Held WBA lightweight title from 2015-17
Crolla: 2-2-1 in world title fights (2 KO)
Crolla: 49.1 percent of landed punches land on the body, CompuBox average is 28 percent. Lands 38.9 percent of power punches, lightweight average is 35.7 percent, according to CompuBox
Certainly, if Lomachenko wins, the Commey fight remains on the drawing board for later this year. But what else is there for Lomachenko, especially given that a fight with Garcia is so unlikely for several reasons, including questions about whether Garcia will ever even fight at lightweight again?
"I still want that fight, 100 percent, but it is up to Mikey," Lomachenko said. "Can he cut the weight? I don't know. But if he can make 135, I want to fight."
Last month, Garcia lost a shutout decision to Errol Spence Jr. in a welterweight title fight, but Garcia has not decided whether he'll return to lightweight. If he doesn't, that would leave his belt vacant and it's not out of the question that Lomachenko could fight for it or perhaps the winner of that belt.
Lomachenko is not a big lightweight by any means, so he has also said there is a chance that for the right fight he would return to junior lightweight.
"Right now, I am a lightweight, but lightweight is not my ideal weight category," he said. "My goal now is to unify all four titles, and then, we'll see. Maybe I'll move back down to 130 pounds and win world titles there for a second time."
Although this possible fight doesn't fall into the unification category, it would be somewhat of a significant bout: Miguel Berchelt. He holds a junior lightweight belt, and should he defeat former titlist Francisco Vargas in their May 11 rematch, Berchelt and Top Rank have talked about a possible fight with Lomachenko. Of course, maybe Lomachenko would want to return to junior lightweight and challenge him for the belt in that division.
Then there is also one other fight that would surely create huge buzz against 2018 ESPN prospect of the year Teofimo Lopez Jr. (12-0, 10 KOs), an electrifying 21-year-old and 2016 Olympian who has dazzled on Lomachenko undercards and called out for a fight with Lomachenko, something few fighters do.
Lomachenko would have little to gain from the fight unless Lopez could find his way to a title first, but it would be a big promotion, create huge fan interest and is certainly makeable since they are both with Top Rank.
Asked about his interest in that fight, Lomachenko said, "I'm ready for everyone. I need the belts. If you have a belt, you can come in the ring and I'll fight with you. My goal is to unify all the titles. If it's Commey later this year, that would be a great fight. Any champion, I would want to fight. I want to go down in history as a great champion."
Crolla is hoping to render that discussion moot.
"I've boxed at elite level before, I've been boxing at world title level for years and I've earned this shot; it's not been given to me," Crolla said. "I know that I have to pull off something massive, but I do belong at this level and I'll prove it. I won't be in awe. I've worked far too hard to let that happen and I am confident.
"It's just me and him in the ring. Like any sport, you need that little bit of luck, but I have worked immensely hard to get as lucky as I can, but we're going in with a good game plan and I cannot be better prepared."
Rafael's prediction: Lomachenko by wide decision.