Amid the rubble of war, Vasiliy Lomachenko's dream survives

Lomachenko returns to the ring (1:52)

Get ready for the return of boxing star Vasiliy Lomachenko, who is fighting for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine. (1:52)

CAMARILLO, Calif. -- Fights are often compared to wars, though it's no longer a metaphor Vasiliy Lomachenko cares to indulge. Not anymore. Not after seeing the real thing.

With respect to war, Ukraine's two-time gold medalist, considered for several consecutive years to be the greatest fighter in the world, has something in common with the average American. "Before, I saw war only on TV," he said, through a translator. "I had no idea: Buildings get destroyed, cities get wiped off the map, people get killed. I didn't take it personally before because it didn't happen to me. It happened somewhere else to someone else."

For some reason, it's a missile strike that stays with him. It hit a popular vacation spot on the Black Sea coast, maybe half a mile away from where he was staying, perhaps less, but left more than several buildings in rubble. "I'll remember that moment forever because my whole family was there," Lomachenko said. "I don't mean only my parents and my children, but my entire family."

One can only imagine the adrenalized emotions a strike like that might stir, even in one as single-minded, driven and preternaturally composed as Lomachenko: fright, rage, panic, confusion. But then, maybe most perversely mirthful of all, luck! The arc of Lomachenko's career is unlike any in the history of a very old sport: 396 wins against a single defeat (avenged, of course) in the amateurs, the aforementioned gold medals, a title in just his third pro fight and belts in three divisions. None of it -- none -- was left to chance.

Yes, with a 35th birthday looming in February, the war cost him a shot at the last thing he really wanted from boxing -- "my dream," he calls it -- an undisputed lightweight title, all four major belts.

But ... so what? The entire family wasn't wiped out in a missile strike. Besides, he's still in the hunt. He's fighting Jamaine Ortiz, the WBC's eighth-ranked lightweight at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+). Turns out, he's still in play for undisputed, not considered a likely outcome back in February.

When Vladimir Putin's army invaded Ukraine, Lomachenko was in an Orthodox monastery in Greece. His Lithuanian manager, Egis Klimas -- bound only to protect his fighter's interest -- advised Loma to get his family and proceed directly to Camarillo, where he maintains a home and a training facility. After all, it was thought that the war would be brutal and short, a fait accompli. Loma was a fighter -- with an all-but-done deal to fight George Kambosos Jr. for all the lightweight belts -- not a war hero.

"How could I ever do that?" Lomachenko said this week. "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. I wouldn't be able to get on with my life if I did that, if I fled. ... The enemy has invaded our country. Civilians are being killed. Women and children are dying. Any man in my position, any true man, would stay to protect his home."

The last image most people saw of Loma dated to last February when he enlisted in his local defense battalion. He is seen in combat fatigues, a rifle slung over his back.

You never know what a fighter is really feeling, but this wasn't a fight. So he came clean: "Fear and confusion," he said, unaccustomed emotions for the great Lomachenko. "I was trying to understand what was happening and what was going to happen."

What was your day-to-day like? I wonder.

"I wasn't in the frontline or on the battlefield," he's quick to say. "I haven't been in combat."

Again, lucky guy.

"The first days went by quickly because things would change really fast," he said. "Our group was tasked with patrolling the town after curfew. Curfew began at 10 p.m. That was the time we would start policing the streets. To spot a person who is not supposed to be outside, or a car that is not supposed to be on the road. You have to be as alert as during a fight."

So the great Lomachenko got the night shift. Wonder how he slept.

"I slept well," he said. "I was exhausted."

Especially after they let him start training. "Four times a week," he said. "I had a special schedule in a military [facility]. They gave me time to train because they understood my dream."

For all the talk of his dream, however, he never questioned his decision not to fight Kambosos for all the belts. Instead, the shot went to the greatly gifted young star, Devin Haney.

"No regrets," he said. "None. Nyet."

Still, you wonder what was going through Lomachenko's mind watching it?

"I didn't see it," he said. "I was asleep."

Lomachenko will allow that the first fight back in June wasn't what he anticipated: "I thought it would be fought at close range with Kambosos winning." As for the rematch, he's cagey in his appraisal of Haney: "He was good. He was smart. He showed why he was better than George Kambosos."

You weren't impressed?

"I don't get impressed easily."

Haney's 23. The kid traveled 8,000 miles, fought in front of a hostile stadium crowd, came back months later and did it again, pitching another shutout, or damn close to it.

"I wouldn't refer to it as a heroic feat," Lomachenko said. "It's something we all do. ... He made a trip to another country; he won the fight and went back. It's common practice."

There's an end game here. Just as Ukraine has survived, so has this Ukrainian's dream. One way or another, to make good on it he's got to get through Haney.

Would you give him the same concessions during negotiations he gave Kambosos? I ask.

"You know my answer," he said. "Of course. It's my goal. It's my dream. If I can get one more chance, I will take it. I'm willing to do whatever it takes."

And if Haney wants to fight in his hometown, Oakland? Or his adopted hometown, Las Vegas?

"I don't care about the place," Lomachenko said. "I don't care. I will go there as long as the belts are at stake."

What if he says, 'I want a rematch clause'?

"Absolutely. I will be ready for any of his conditions."

A lot of fighters say this stuff. Most of them, actually. And most of them are lying, else the sport wouldn't be in the constipated state it's in. I don't believe Lomachenko is lying, though. Never about this.

None of the arrows are trending for him. He's coming off a long layoff where training has been far from typical. He's 11 years older than Haney. He's tiny for the division, while Haney's busting at the seams. What's more, Lomachenko lost his aura of invincibility more than two years ago when Teofimo Lopez beat him. But here is the truly remarkable admission, at least for a fighter:

"Let me explain," Lomachenko said. "He's an undisputed champion. He is the A side. I need this moment more than he does. Now that he's undisputed, he can say 'Hey, I don't need Loma. I can fight with [Gervonta] Davis or [Ryan] Garcia or Shakur [Stevenson]."

We can't really argue with that. In the meantime, however, there's Jamaine Ortiz, who -- while no Haney -- is, like most prospective of Lomachenko's opponents, bigger and younger and longer.

So why Ortiz?

"Because he is young and undefeated, and a technically skilled boxer. I sparred with him before" -- for Lomachenko's unanimous decision over Richard Commey -- "and it was not easy."

Lomachenko wasn't among those, like myself, who found themselves surprised that Ortiz beat Jamel Herring.

"I understand what Ortiz can do: good combinations, very fast. He felt the distance and worked on his feet very good. He understands boxing."

That's Lomachenko's highest compliment, that a fighter knows the game. It means comprehending fundamental elements of distance, timing, mental fortitude. It means understanding combat as a sport, not a war.