Two-time Olympic gold medalist Vasyl Lomachenko will determine the value of acing the eye test on Saturday night, when he faces featherweight warhorse Orlando Salido at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
It is an intriguing move, matching a fighter with only one professional outing—even a fighter as decorated as Lomachenko—with a veteran like Salido. When the incredulity subsides, however, this matchup begins to make sense. Without the built-in fanbase that Mexican, Puerto Rican, and French-Canadian fighters enjoy, Lomachenko should not be expected to pack houses or sell pay-per-views—at least not without an opponent who can do so. If Lomachenko is going to earn Top Rank an immediate return on its investment, it will be through revenue generated from selling the international rights to his fights.
The pot is further sweetened by Salido’s title. The proliferation of titles has made winning one is as easy as catching a cold at daycare, and TCS is loathe to mention titles or sanctioning bodies for purposes beyond target practice; still, Salido’s WBO belt explains why he was given the call. The sooner Lomachenko wins a title, the sooner Top Rank will be able to demand more money from the global market. On the domestic front, once Lomachenko is a titleholder he should become an HBO staple, with the network then providing the licensing fees for his appearances and thereby guaranteeing a profit for Top Rank. Lomachenko’s formidable amateur credentials are not distinction enough—he need only ask Guillermo Rigondeaux and Andre Ward if people are hypnotized by swaying gold medals before their eyes. No, if Lomachenko is going to maximize his earning potential—and maybe capture an imagination or two in the process—he needs to tuck his medals under his shirt, find the baddest man on the block, and roll him for his gold.
Of course, promotional best intentions mean nothing if Lomachenko comes up short. What then, are the indications that he won’t? For starters, there is his undeniable pedigree. Lomachenko, Marina Del Ray, California, via Ukraine, compiled an unthinkable amateur record of 396-1, hanging two losses on the only man to beat him. A brilliant offensive fighter, one whose style—unlike many of boxing’s best athletes—is predicated on technique, Lomachenko whips fluid combinations to the head and body. He uses excellent footwork to transition between offense and defense and is seemingly never off balance. And despite his long amateur career, the southpaw Lomachenko does not fight like someone looking to score points. With his Olympic experience, Lomachenko will not be overwhelmed by the moment, nor should Salido present Lomachenko with anything he has not encountered in nearly 400 amateur fights.
But even diamonds have imperfections. For all his polish, Lomachenko’s stamina and chin at the professional level remain unproven, and while he looked nearly flawless in his professional debut, Jose Ramirez had some success digging to Lomachenko’s body. Perhaps Lomachenko was less defensively responsible about his body because of his time in the amateurs, where the scoring system discourages bodywork. It may be that Ramirez simply couldn’t hurt him; but against Salido, a fighter who finds uncanny ways to hit you, such concessions have consequences.
Nor should Lomachenko expect Salido, Phoenix, Arizona, by way of Sonora, Mexico, to be easily subdued. A mirror image of Lomachenko, Salido turned professional at the age of 15, honing his craft against the grey muscle and calloused knuckles of grown men. By the time he was Lomachenko’s age, Salido, 40-12-2 (28), had already fought 41 professional fights. Do not be misled by the twelve losses on his ledger: they reflect more the outlay of a harsh apprenticeship than Salido’s limitations as a fighter. A recent tendency to get dropped early is evidence that Saildo may be slipping, but since coming into his own, no one, not Juan Manuel Lopez, not Yuriorkis Gamboa, not Mikey Garcia, has been able to keep him on the canvas. Salido, 33, is hard as cast-iron, and just as comfortable in the fire, augmenting this ruggedness with a grab-bag of nasty tricks he learned on the job. Salido does not number among the elite, but only the elite beat him. Lomachenko should not expect a quick night—even if he finds himself in a neutral corner, watching Salido collect his senses.
As for how the fight might play out: the feeling here is that Top Rank sees a special fighter in Lomachenko, one who, despite his inexperience at the professional level, is already better than the field. They need look no farther than Rigondeaux for proof that generational amateurs are more than equipped to handle the best the professional ranks can throw at them. Expect Lomachenko to build an early lead off sharper technique and superior speed, possibly scoring a flash knockdown or two before he gets on his horse and tries to outrun the storm. Expect the storm. And expect what transpires in that storm’s pursuit to tell us more than any eye test can.