NEW YORK — The brilliant lightweight world champion Vasiliy Lomachenko is widely considered the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world despite having just 12 professional fights. He is aiming to add another significant accomplishment to his resume to embellish his argument.
Lomachenko won world titles in three weight classes — featherweight, junior lightweight and lightweight — and is already in the record book, having tied the mark for fewest fights needed to win a world title (three) and setting the record for fewest fights needed to win titles in two divisions (seven) and three divisions (12).
He has always wanted to unify world titles, but he did not get the chance in his previous two divisions because the other titleholders had no interest in tangling with him. Now, at lightweight, he will have that opportunity against the willing Jose Pedraza, known as the “Sniper,” when they meet in the main event of a Top Rank Boxing on ESPN tripleheader on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, with full undercard streaming on ESPN+ beginning at 6 p.m. ET) at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden.
For the second year in a row, Lomachenko will headline an ESPN card in the prime slot immediately following the Heisman Memorial Trophy presentation, also in New York.
“I want to unificate titles. It was my first goal when I come into the pros,” said Lomachenko, who was 396-1 as an amateur (avenging the loss twice) and won back-to-back Olympic gold medals for Ukraine in 2008 and 2012 as perhaps the greatest amateur ever. “I tried to unificate titles at 126, 130. Now I try to unificate titles at 135. Maybe this weight will be lucky for me.”
Pedraza, a former 2008 Puerto Rican Olympian who did not turn pro until 2011, is the heavy underdog but confident in his ability to derail the Lomachenko Express.
“Technically speaking, he has never faced a fighter like me,” Pedraza said through an interpreter. “The fans can expect an even more focused and intelligent Jose Pedraza in the ring. On that night, I will show all my skills.”
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the fight:
How’s your shoulder?
It’s been the most common question posed to Lomachenko for the past seven months.
On May 12, Lomachenko, a southpaw, moved up to the lightweight division, survived a knockdown in the sixth round and knocked out Jorge Linares in the 10th round of an outstanding fight to win the lightweight title in the Madison Square Garden main arena.
However, Lomachenko (11-1, 9 KOs), 30, suffered a torn labrum when he dislocated his right shoulder and popped it back into place during the second round. After the fight, Lomachenko underwent surgery by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who repaired the injury and will be Top Rank promoter Bob Arum’s guest at ringside Saturday night to see how his handiwork worked out.
Lomachenko returned to Ukraine to rehabilitate and was able to return to training and prepare for the fight on the precise timetable the doctor outlined. Lomachenko insists his shoulder is fine as he heads into the fight.
“I had a very interesting camp. I had hard sparring sessions and good preparation for this fight,” Lomachenko said. “I used all of my punches, and I think it will be the same as before [the surgery]. I am 100 percent. I feel good.”
Lomachenko said when the injury occurred the notion of quitting against Linares never crossed his mind.
“When the injury happened, I was mentally prepared to deal with it,” he said. “I still had my feet. I still had another hand. I am very competitive. I feel like when you step in the ring, you need to finish the fight.
“It was the first time I was knocked down as a pro. After the knockdown, I came back and finished the fight. It was a tough fight, but I showed the heart of a champion.”
The silver lining of the injury was that Lomachenko had a few months’ rest, something he had not had for many years given the rigors of his very busy amateur and professional careers.
“It was good for me to rest,” he said. “I have been boxing since I was a child. I had a lot of competition. It was my first rest and first big vacation in my life.”
Asked if he had any concerns about Lomachenko’s shoulder, Arum, who also promotes Pedraza, responded, “Absolutely not.”
Earning the fight
The 29-year-old Pedraza (25-1, 12 KOs) lost his junior lightweight world title by seventh-round knockout to Gervonta Davis in January 2017 and did not fight again for 14 months. But he became a promotional free agent and signed with Top Rank, a move that rejuvenated his career.
Since signing with Top Rank, Pedraza has won three fights in a row: a tune-up eight-rounder against Jose Luis Rodriguez in March, also at the Hulu Theater; a much tougher test against Antonio Moran, whom he outpointed over 10 grueling rounds in June; and a unanimous decision over Raymundo Beltran to win a lightweight world title on Aug. 25.
Pedraza, who, like Lomachenko, will be making his first lightweight title defense, traveled to Beltran’s home region of Glendale, Arizona, and was the underdog when he knocked Beltran down in the 11th round and won the decision to claim the belt.
Going into that fight, Beltran and Pedraza both knew what was at stake besides the world title belt. There was also this shot at Lomachenko for a career-high payday of around $1 million. Both entered the August fight having agreed that the winner would face Lomachenko next.
Lomachenko is a far superior fighter to Beltran, but Pedraza is confident.
“The time is almost here. The desire to win is very high,” Pedraza said. “I have visualized all the possible scenarios. I’ve seen myself winning, I’ve seen myself knocking him out, I’ve seen myself pulling out the victory coming from behind.
“The closer the fight approaches, the more I see myself with my hands held high and with the two titles on my shoulders. I already fulfilled my goal of becoming a world champion, and now I’m going after the goal of unifying titles.”
Pedraza, who figures to have ample crowd support from New York’s sizable Puerto Rican community, carries thoughts of the island with him at all times.
“The titles will return to Puerto Rico with me. I know that it will not be an easy fight.” he said. “I will be facing one of the best fighters in the world. He has tremendous skills, but I know that I also have great skills and the necessary focus to come out with the victory. Puerto Rico deserves a moment of happiness. I’m going to do it for them and my family.”
Arum said he figured Pedraza would defeat Beltran, and while he said he gives Pedraza a chance to hang with Lomachenko, he’s convinced Lomachenko will win.
“Nobody’s going to beat Lomachenko, in my opinion, but [Pedraza] has the best chance of anybody around in the lightweight division, with the possible exception of [world titleholder Mikey] Garcia. That being said, I’m telling you I don’t figure anybody to beat Lomachenko.
“Pedraza is a hell of a fighter and he knows how to fight a southpaw and he moves and he’s a very intelligent fighter.”
If he beats Pedraza, Lomachenko wants to further unify the lightweight division and is not focused on moving up in weight again, because he is a small lightweight.
“I believe I’ll stay at 135 and focus on 135 because when I fought against Linares, I felt like he was bigger than me. So I’ll stay at 135 because I think 135 is not my [ideal] weight category right now. After one or two years, it will be my [ideal] weight.”
What Lomachenko does want is a fight with Garcia, who owns a belt but is scheduled to challenge Errol Spence Jr. for his welterweight world title on March 16 on a Fox pay-per-view fight.
“Seriously, I want a fight with Mikey Garcia,” Lomachenko said, despite the fight being unlikely for reasons that include network and promotional issues. “I hope [it will happen]. We can’t see in the future, because my next fight is against Pedraza. After Pedraza, we can talk about fighting Mikey.”
Lomachenko said a fight with Gervonta Davis, a junior lightweight titlist, would also interest him, although the same network and promotional issues would probably prevent that fight as well. But Lomachenko is ever hopeful.
“I love challenges. That’s what motivates me. I want all the top fighters,” he said. “I’m open to anyone.”
But that “anyone” does not include Manny Pacquiao, a legend and a secondary welterweight titlist, even at a catch weight.
“I’m not disrespecting Pacquiao, but I don’t want to make my name bigger because I beat an old legend,” he said. “I have my own road. There are a lot of good fighters to fight who are comparable to me. He’s old. I think his career is done. I don’t want to become a legend in boxing because of him.”
According to Arum, if Lomachenko wins, there are two probable 2019 opponents waiting in the wings for him, assuming a Garcia fight goes nowhere.
One is Mexico’s Miguel Berchelt (35-1, 31 KOs), 27, a junior lightweight world titlist interested in moving up in weight to challenge him in a fight with no barriers.
The other would give Lomachenko the chance to collect a third lightweight title to move close to being the undisputed champion.
Richard Commey (27-2, 24 KOs), 31, of Ghana, and Isa Chaniev (13-1, 6 KOs), 26, of Russia, are slated to fight for one of the belts Garcia relinquished. Arum said he has a deal in place with promoter Lou DiBella, who promotes Commey and Chaniev, for the fight to be on the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card Feb. 2 at the Ford Center, the Dallas Cowboys practice facility, in Frisco, Texas. That card is headlined by the rematch between light heavyweight titlist Eleider Alvarez and former titlist Sergey Kovalev.
“The winner of that fight has signed to fight Lomachenko,” Arum said. “It’s all signed. We did everything with Lou.”
The winner won’t necessarily face Lomachenko in the next fight, but it could happen as soon as May, Arum said.
“After this fight, a lot of doors will be open,” Lomachenko said. “Title unification fights are good for the sport of boxing.”
Rafael’s prediction: Lomachenko by late knockout.