Vasiliy Lomachenko scored a unanimous-decision victory over Jamaine Ortiz in a fight that was far tougher than expected for him Saturday night at New York's Hulu Theater at MSG.
The win sets Lomachenko (17-2, 11 KO) up for a potential meeting next year with undisputed lightweight champion Devin Haney.
Ortiz (16-1-1, 8 KO), a major underdog, was in control over the first half of the 135-pound bout on the strength of his athleticism, superior size and jab, but Lomachenko rallied down the stretch to win a tightly contested bout.
The judges scored it 115-113, 116-112 and 117-111.
Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former three-division champion, was fighting for the first time in 10 months. The 34-year-old former pound-for-pound king agreed to a deal to travel to Australia for a June fight with then-lightweight champion George Kambosos but elected to remain in war-torn Ukraine with his family.
In Lomachenko's place, Haney struck a deal for two fights with Kambosos in Melbourne and emerged with all four lightweight titles. Haney, a 23-year-old from Las Vegas, was at ringside to witness the return of Lomachenko, who struggled over the first six rounds.
"I think it wasn't the best performance," said Haney, who entered the ring afterward for an interview alongside Lomachenko. "I hope we can get it on."
"I will be ready," said Lomachenko, who sported a swollen face with a large welt under his right eye.
For at least the first half of the fight, the prospect of a summit meeting between Haney and Lomachenko appeared to be slipping away. Ortiz, a little-known 26-year-old from Worcester, Mass., scored a decision victory over Jamel Herring in May and parlayed the upset win into the biggest opportunity of his career.
Ortiz (16-1-1, 8 KOs) set a torrid pace from the opening bell, doubling and tripling up on the jab to keep Lomachenko at bay. With the lead hand disrupting his rhythm, Lomachenko wasn't able to create the sort of punching angles that carried him to the top of the sport.
They continued to fight furiously, and oftentimes when Lomachenko did find an opening, Ortiz dissuaded him by digging a right hand to the body. But as he usually does, Lomachenko found a second gear over the second half of the fight, just as Ortiz was slowing down in his first 12-round bout.
Lomachenko (17-2, 11 KOs) began to find a home for his lightning-quick combinations and busted up Ortiz's face with sharp right hooks and sweeping lefts. Lomachenko won the final six rounds on two of three scorecards to secure the victory in a bout that featured several frames that were difficult to score.
"I thought I won the fight," Ortiz said. "Decision is what it is. I thought this was gonna be my night."
But it wasn't, even though Ortiz undoubtedly improved his stock in defeat. He wasn't expected to threaten to win and surely secured himself another meaningful fight next year.
Lomachenko, meanwhile, admitted he must be more active if he's going to be at his best. The fight was his first since a decision win over Richard Commey in December 2021, a layoff caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February.
If Lomachenko is going to contend with Haney -- another larger, athletic boxer with perhaps the sport's best jab -- he'll have to fight at another level entirely. On Saturday, he did just enough to maintain his position and head toward the negotiating table for a fight that could achieve his dream of finally becoming undisputed champion.
"The fight to make in the lightweight division is Haney vs. Lomachenko, and we will do everything we can to make the undisputed championship showdown that all fight fans want to see," Top Rank chairman Bob Arum said. "They are the world's premier lightweights, and it would be a fantastic battle."