By John J. Raspanti
My colleague on The Ringside Boxing Show, Travis Hartman, recently referred to the matchup between WBO junior lightweight champion Vasyl Lomachenk and WBA and IBO super bantamweight titleholder Guillermo Rigondeaux as a “dream match-up for boxing purists.”
Dreamy is right, and in some ways a throwback. The Big Apple hasn’t seen talent like this since “The Ghetto Wizard” and “Will-o’ the Wisp” graced the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden many years ago.
“The Wizard,” aka Benny Leonard, was born in New York City. He engaged in 96 official fights, winning 89. Leonard won titles in two divisions, defeating many former champions. Leonard was adept at using feints, and was blessed with quick hands and feet--and a sharp boxing brain. But he also could crack—scoring 70 knockouts in his distinguished career. Boxing writer Gilbert Odd wrote, “Leonard was coolness itself in the ring, finishing off a beaten opponent with cold fury.”
Eight years after Leonard retired in 1932, Gugliermo Papaleo, famously known as Willie Pep, burst on the boxing scene by winning his first 62 fights in succession. Pep captured the featherweight championship in 1942 by winning a decision over future Hall of Famer Chalky Wright. Pep was a dancer decked out in boxing trunks. His timing was flawless. His footwork was as smooth as silk. One fighter said that fighting Pep was like, “Chasing a moonbean on a wall." Pep broke his back in a horrific plane crash in 1947. He lost his title to Sandy Saddler a year later. Many experts said at the time that he wasn’t the same boxer anymore. Still, Pep beat Sadler in a rematch at Madison Square Garden. Pep retired in 1965 after amassing a record of 229 wins and 11 loses.
This Saturday at The Theater at the Garden, southpaws Vasyl “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko, and Guillermo “The Jackel” Rigondeaux, will settle the debate: Who’s the better fighter?
Lomachenko captured two Olympic gold medals while compiling a scintillating amateur record of 396 wins and a single loss.
Rigondeaux, who also captured a pair of gold medals at the Olympic Games, was victorious in 475 of his 487 amateur bouts.
Lomachenko,29, turned professional four years ago. He’s won 9 of 10 fights, including two world titles. Rigondeaux,37, is undefeated in 17 fights with 11 wins by knockout. Like Lomachenko, he picked up his first championship belt in his third pro fight. Lomachenko will be fighting for the third time in 2017. His matches with contenders Jason Silva and Miguel Marriaga quickly turned into routes. Lomachenko holds victories over Gary Russell Jr. and Nicholas Walters. The Walters fight was supposed to be his personal Waterloo. Instead, Lomachenko boxed Walters’ ears off, forcing “The Ax Man” to quit.
Rigendeaux is something of an enigma to the boxing world. His talent is without question while his fights can be as exciting as listening to a refrigerator hum. But his resume is sound. His most important victory was a dominant win over super bantamweight champion Nonito Donaire at Radio City Music Hall in New York City four years ago. All Rigondeaux did that night was make one of the best fighters in the world look downright amateurish at times. A knockdown suffered late in the fight made no difference.
Lomachenko can also make his opponents look silly. Lately, he’s appeared bored in the ring, torturing his opponents like a cat with a toy. He uses angles beautifully to set up his offense. His defense is also solid, though in his most recent bouts, he’s been taking more chances.
Rigondeaux is slippery as an eel in the squared circle. His technique is subtle but sharp. He rarely makes a mistake. He’s an excellent counterpuncher. Like Lomachenko, Rigondeaux’s power is underrated.
This fight is a potpourri of facts and opinions. Lomachenko is the bigger man, but it’s Rigondeaux who will have the advantage in reach. Lomachenko is the younger fighter by eight years, but will that matter? Probably not. “High-Tech” has been more active in 2017, but Rigondeaux’s most recent fight was six months ago.
Both fighters are confident.
“Yes of course I have a plan in my head,” Lomachenko said last week during a media conference call. “I’m like every fighter—finish the bout before all the rounds are over and get the victory before that. I’m not promising to knock him out, but I will smash him.”
“It’s going to be massacre,” said Rigeondeaux. “People should anticipate a massacre. I’m not worried at all. I’ll be in there and do my job.”
Who wins? I like Lomachenko by decision, though a late stoppage wouldn’t shock me. Many are predicting a chess match, but I think a tad more action will occur at Madison Square Garden that night. As good as they are, Lomachenko and Rigeondeaux haven’t reached the greatness displayed by Leonard and Pep in the ring, but their ability to apply the "sweet" to such a brutal sport would make the two legends proud.