Two of boxing’s most technically gifted fighters will go head-to-head on Saturday night as two-time Olympic gold medalist Vasyl “Hi-Tech” Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) takes on another two-time gold medalist, Guillermo Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs), at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The fight will take place at 130 pounds, which means “El Chacal” will go up two weight classes to take on Loma for the WBO Super Lightweight title.
Neither boxer may be a household name to the casual crowd, but with the fight taking place on ESPN on a night that doesn’t include competition from any big college football games, it’s an opportunity for an introduction, and a worthy one at that; Lomachenko’s manic brilliance and Rigondeaux’s calculated fluidity were made for each other.
Lomachenko is the A Side of the card and one of boxing’s rising stars. If Gennady “GGG” Golovkin is your fight fan friend’s favorite boxer, “Hi-Tech” is probably a close second. The 29-year-old Ukrainian is a boxing ace who uses next-level movement and some crafty tricks and tactics to drive his opponents up a wall.
There isn’t another boxer like Lomachenko on the planet, and he knows it. He’s unafraid to experiment and have some fun in the ring. He may not be the type of knockout artist we are used to, but he’s an artist nonetheless.
One of the most celebrated amateurs in boxing history, Lomachenko posted a 396-1 record before turning pro four years ago. Ambitious as he is talented, the Ukrainian magician wanted a title fight as soon as he turned pro. After winning his debut, “Loma” fell short in a split-decision to gritty veteran Orlando Salido in his second professional fight. Usually when a prospect loses one of his early fights, his star loses his luster, but Lomachenko is not your run-of-the-mill prospect.
Instead of making excuses, “Hi-Tech” went back to work and began to put on show after show, rattling off eight consecutive wins and collecting a pair of world titles along the way.
Now, Lomachenko is on the verge of entering the pound-for-pound conversation, but there is one significant hurdle he must jump in order to get there.
Like his counterpart, Rigondeaux isn’t without a cult following in the boxing community. Lomachenko’s offensive flair may be poetic, but “Rigo” is the doyen of defensive boxing. Detractors claim he’s a boring showman, but fans of technique and movement are rarely disappointed when the 37-year-old Cuban steps through the ropes.
After posting a 463-12 record as an amateur, Rigondeaux made his professional debut in 2009. While Lomachenko wanted to chop down big trees right away after turning pro, “El Chacal” took a slightly more patient approach at first, collecting wins against journeymen and also-rans until he got the fight he’d been waiting for against reigning BWAA Fighter of the Year Nonito Donaire in April 2013.
Rigondeaux put together a virtuoso performance, keeping the fight at distance and dictating the rhythm through all 12 rounds. Even if the bout left fans disappointed, it was a masterpiece of technical skill.
Since then, Rigondeaux has been a bit of an outlier in the boxing world. His lack of activity and style have caused a lot of fans and boxing pundits to turn on him.
When this fight was announced in September, Lomachenko, fresh off a dominant performance against Miguel Marriaga on ESPN, opened as a clear favorite at -450 with “Rigo” priced at +350. The price stayed in the -450/475 range for much of the buildup, but over the past few days, money has come in on the crafty Cuban, moving the odds to -335 for Lomachenko and +275 for Rigondeaux at BetOnline.* The implied probability of those odds suggests that Lomachenko wins this fight 77 percent of the time.
The over/under has been set at 10.5 rounds, with the over juiced at -150 and the under at +120.
The paths to victory
Handicapping a boxing match requires a bit of imagination. The first thing you need to do, regardless of who you are going to back, is sit down and imagine each fighter winning. How did they get there? How did they expose the weaknesses of their opponent? How did they make sure their weaknesses are not exposed?
Vasyl Lomachenko is a machine. The pace at which he works is hard to believe. You’ll sit there watching him and see what he’s doing, but it takes a few seconds to register. And by the time the audience is done catching up to one flurry, he’s on to his next. It’s beautiful violence.
“Hi-Tech” is the more aesthetically pleasing fighter because he is the more overwhelming fighter. It’s hard to picture “Rigo” closing the show early, but it isn’t hard to see the Ukrainian’s pace and power proving too much for the much older Cuban, who is moving up two weight classes for this payday.
Guillermo Rigondeaux’s got the defensive game to frustrate Lomachenko. At this point in his career, Lomachenko is used to being the smartest man in the square circle. He’s been three steps ahead of his opponents for nearly his whole life because, well, he’s just that good.
But this is different.
On Saturday, he faces someone whose defensive prowess can live up to his offensive savoir-faire.
To win, “Rigo” is going to need to be just about flawless. His lack of volume is not easy on the eyes, and it’s hard to imagine him putting Lomachenko on the floor.
Despite the late steam on Rigondeaux, it’s hard to see him winning this fight without a lucky knockout, which is really hard to imagine since he is the smaller man. Even if he does quell the offense of “Hi-Tech,” he’d need to win over the judges, which isn’t going to be an easy thing to do given the stylistic matchup we have on our hands.
There’s no shame in being a bit off-put by backing a -335 favorite. To get value out of that number, you’d need to be convinced Lomachenko has better than a 78 percent chance of winning this fight, which I think he does. I’ve got “Hi-Tech” coming out on top closer to nine out of every 10 fights, meaning there’s value on the Ukrainian talisman.
Picks: Lomachenko -335
Record to date: 5-1-1, +16.25u
*all odds current as of 12/8 at 9:00 p.m. ET