Ability did not equal ambition last night as Vasyl Lomachenko, attempting to win a world title in just his second professional fight, dropped a 12-round split decision to Orlando Salido at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
With two Olympic gold medals and a staggering amateur record of 396-1, Lomachenko—along with his team and promoter Top Rank—believed he had the polish and savvy to the surmount the rugged nuance of the aging Salido. Seven years younger than his opponent, and with far fewer miles on his body, Lomachenko, Marina Del Ray, California, via Ukraine, was expected to exploit his glaring advantages in speed and athleticism. And he did just that, in spurts of varying duration. But unlike the Olympics, where the spirit of friendly global competition is at least supposed to pervade, and unlike the amateurs, where prizes not purses are awarded, the professional ranks are a cutthroat racket filled with men grasping at whatever chances are within reach—and the best of these men die hard. Lomachenko had undoubtedly learned much in his amateur career, but Salido would teach him about desperation.
That lesson began on Friday, when Salido, 128 1/4, weighed in over the featherweight limit, choosing to lose his title on the scales rather than deplete himself making weight. He then rehydrated 19 pounds overnight, and entered the ring a full-blown welterweight. If there is sportsmanship in this tactic, it is well camouflaged. What is manifest in Salido’s tipping the scales to tip the scales, however, is desperation: on the downside of his career, Salido needs to win to remain relevant, and, ever the hardscrabble pro, he gave himself every opportunity to do so.
Nor was Salido, Phoenix, Arizona via Sonora, Mexico, above bending the rules during the fight itself: he landed dozens of low blows, led with his head, held and hit, and employed all the charms that can turn a fight without actually winning it. Referee Laurence Cole, that bumbling bastion of nepotism, did little to enforce the rules. Lomachenko responded to Salido’s castrating agenda by holding excessively, also a foul, but neither cause nor effect moved Cole, who could bungle a game of Solitaire, to action.
Still, it was Salido’s fighting, not his fouling, that won him the rounds. Instead of his typically slow start, Salido pushed the tempo early, pursuing Lomachenko and peppering him to the body. His punches were not particularly hard, but his activity disrupted Lomachenko, who spent many of the early rounds seemingly searching for the perfect (read: consequence free) opportunity to get off. On the inside, Lomachenko was a mess, and Salido—well-versed in closing the distance—used his guile and eleven pound weight advantage to school his befuddled opponent in the trenches. While he had success hitting and turning Salido, and put his quick hands to good use from the outside, Lomachenko was spending too much time skating around the ring while Salido carried the fight.
Lomachenko did not wilt, however. When Salido began to labor—the price he paid for not making weight—Lomachenko went on the offensive, lashing his weary opponent with bursts of leather that had the fading Salido in distress. The consensus before the fight was that Salido would start slowly, but if he survived the early onslaught would torment Lomachenko over the second half. Instead, it was Salido who roared out of the gate and Lomachenko, 125 1/4, who ran out of time. In the twelfth, gassed and badly hurt from a body shot, Salido held on desperately while Lomachenko struggled to twist free and finish the veteran off. Despite closing strongly, Lomachenko came up short: Salido was awarded the victory by scores of 116-112, 115-113, with a third card of 113-115 in Lomachenko’s favor.
The HBO commentary team, smitten with Lomachenko from the start, went into damage control, with Jim Lampley delivering a summary of Salido’s shenanigans to preserve the shine on the Ukrainian star. But really, such apologies are unnecessary, especially when the fighter himself dispenses with them. Yes, the weight disparity and fouls certainly factored into the fight’s outcome, but had Lomachenko acquired the savvy to address them—if, say, he had a better inside game, or if he were open to a purposeful and malicious act of retaliatory gelding—he could have blunted their effect somewhat. Besides, if you designate so many words to praising Lomachenko for his daring, it is hard to criticize him for coming up short—it was the risk that spawned the intrigue. Like any fighter two fights into his professional career, Lomachenko, 1-1 (1), has room to improve, but he will remain ahead of the curve so long as he chooses to; his ability, while falling short of his ambition, still exceeds many of his peers’.
No stranger to early losses himself, Salido, 41-12-2 (28), has managed to preserve his relevance once more. Desperate men indeed die hard.