Top Rank promoter Bob Arum is in his 50th year as a boxing promoter, about to stage the 2,000th fight card of his Hall of Fame career and has worked with numerous all-time greats. Arum knows boxing.
So when Arum speaks of junior lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko in reverential tones, one must pay attention.
"Vasyl Lomachenko is technically the best fighter that I have seen since the early Muhammad Ali," Arum said in a comment that might be mind-blowing to some, but he has been saying it for years, so it does not come off sounding as though he is just trying to hype his fighter. "There is nobody that I have seen, and there have been a lot of great technical fighters that I have seen -- Alexis Arguello was one, Floyd Mayweather certainly, Manny Pacquiao -- but there has been nobody with the skills that Vasyl Lomachenko has."
Arum promoted each of those all-time greats he mentioned, including 27 Ali fights, so his coronation of Lomachenko is based on firsthand experience.
Lomachenko is indeed a special fighter. Considered among the greatest amateur boxers in history, he was 396-1 in the unpaid ranks (with the single loss avenged multiple times), winning two Olympic gold medals for Ukraine (2008 and 2012) and two world amateur championships (2009 and 2011).
He turned professional in 2013 and won a featherweight world title in just his third fight, tying the record for fewest bouts needed to win a title. He made three successful defenses and in June scored a knockout of the year contender against Roman "Rocky" Martinez, drilling him in the fifth round to win a junior lightweight belt and setting a record for winning world titles in two weight classes in the fewest number of fights by accomplishing it in his seventh bout.
"Vasyl Lomachenko is technically the best fighter that I have seen since the early Muhammad Ali..." Bob Arum, Top Rank promoter
As Lomachenko prepares for what most view as an extremely dangerous first defense against former featherweight titlist Nicholas "Axe Man" Walters on Saturday (HBO, 10:35 p.m. ET/PT) at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, he is appreciative of Arum's high praise.
"It will give me another motivation because a lot of people may look at that or hear that and think that maybe it's not true," Lomachenko said through translator and manager Egis Klimas. "When I hear that it gives me a lot of motivation to make me work harder in my training to prove that what Bob is saying. I don't have the chance to make any mistakes. I have to prove that Bob is right."
The broadcast will open with a replay of Saturday's HBO PPV headliner, Andre Ward's controversial decision victory over Sergey Kovalev to claim three light heavyweight world title belts.
The 28-year-old Lomachenko (6-1, 4 KOs) and Walters (26-0-1, 21 KOs), 30, of Jamaica, have been circling each other for nearly two years. Arum hoped to match them in a featherweight title unification fight in late 2015, but Walters got stripped of his title for failing to make weight before a June defense against Miguel Marriaga. Without a title, Lomachenko lost some interest in the match.
Then Arum tried to make the fight this past June 11, but when Walters dramatically priced himself out of the fight, Arum made Lomachenko-Martinez instead and Walters sat on the sidelines, having not fought since an outrageous draw with Jason Sosa in December in a fight most thought Walters won easily.
Now, with Lomachenko's interest rekindled and HBO having more money available to make the fight, it's on. Lomachenko has wanted to face the best opponents possible since day one, so it did not take much persuasion for him to revisit facing Walters.
"This is a very important bout for me because many boxing experts and many people in boxing rank Walters as the highest-rated fighter in our division," Lomachenko said. "He is a very hard puncher and a very good boxer, and for me it's a very important thing to me to fight the best, and it's very important for me because everyone says he is a very good fighter."
A fight with Walters is exactly the kind of match Lomachenko wanted to be involved in when he signed with Top Rank and turned pro in October 2013. If Lomachenko had his way, he would have boxed for a world title in his pro debut.
It was that kind of drive, along with the talent, that made Arum his biggest fan.
"From the first day I met him, when he sat down with me and we discussed his future, I was concerned because people were offering him large signing bonuses," Arum said. "He told me that he didn't want a signing bonus; he wanted to earn his own money. All he wanted was challenges that I would present to him. That's what I am going to do. He doesn't want any gimmes. He wants every fight to be a challenge.
"So at 130 pounds, who is more of a challenge than Nicholas Walters? I am not going to slow him down. He knows his ability a lot more than I do. And you have to give his father [trainer Anatoly Lomachenko] credit. His father is probably the best trainer in boxing today, and I say that without any question because look what the father produced from the Ukrainian Olympic team in London: [gold medalist] Oleksandr Usyk, who is now a cruiserweight champion, [bronze medalist] Oleksandr Gvozdyk, a light heavyweight, who you saw last week on the Ward-Kovalev pay-per-view, who is a future champion. They were all trained by Vasyl's father. So he has a lot going for him."
In Walters, Lomachenko will be facing the best opponent of his brief pro career in a fight many expect to be explosive and competitive.
"They call Walters the 'Axe Man' for a reason -- he searches and destroys," Arum said. "He is a tremendous puncher and he is in with a technician who has enormous talent in boxing not only defensively but offensively, so this is a can't-miss fight, and I want the people to realize that not only do I believe that it will be a fight of the year candidate, I believe that if Vasyl Lomachenko is successful, he should be right up there for consideration for fighter of the year."
"He told me that he didn't want a signing bonus; he wanted to earn his own money. All he wanted was challenges that I would present to him. That's what I am going to do. He doesn't want any gimmes. He wants every fight to be a challenge." Bob Arum, Top Rank promoter
Lomachenko is not expecting an easy night.
"I think it is going to be very, very hard for me in the first four rounds, then after that I will be trying to terminate the bout," he said.
Walters sounded as if he had the utmost confidence and was not at all awed by Lomachenko's considerable accomplishments or Arum's praise.
"The achievement is good for him and Bob knows what he is talking about since he has been in the business for 50 years," Walters said, before offering a reminder. "Even Muhammad Ali lost fights. I don't think this is a different Lomachenko from the guy that lost to [Orlando] Salido [by close decision in his second pro bout, for a world title]. He is the same Lomachenko. They say a leopard cannot change his spots right? Since he did lose to Salido, he can be as technical all he wants, but I am in the hurt business.
"This is a gladiator sport and I fight all of my fights like that. I fight like a gladiator. He can come in with his technical fight on Saturday and I am going to be up for it and put on a helluva show. I am not even worried, so to speak. But I know that he has learned and is a better fighter from that loss. But it is still a blemish on his record that he lost. With that in mind he has tasted defeat and I have never tasted defeat. We have stayed undefeated and we are going to keep it that way this Saturday. This victory is going to put the 'Axe Man' to where I want to be and, hopefully, next year I start making over $1 million per fight. That's what we are aiming at."
But if Lomachenko wins, Arum has big plans for him, including a possible showdown with the great Manny Pacquiao. The welterweight titleholder makes the 147-pound limit easily, and Arum said he would have no problem moving down to meet Lomachenko in the 138-pound area and that Lomachenko could work his way up from the 130-pound division.
"Yes, of course I would like to fight Pacquiao, but not in the next fight," Lomachenko said.
Arum would love to put on the fight next year.
"Lomachenko has a huge upside," Arum said. "This is the second world title in as many divisions in seven professional fights. That has never happened before, and he is going to win more world titles as he goes up in weight and there are going to be very interesting guys for him to fight.
"It is not beyond the realm of possibility that he and Manny could fight sometime next year. Lomachenko wants challenges, and he is a tremendous talent. His upside is enormous and a lot of people are watching him."