Vasiliy Lomachenko unifies lightweight titles at Madison Square Garden

Ukranian adds WBO belt to his WBA title after ruthless finish against José Pedraza

Vasiliy Lomachenko knocks down Jose Pedraza in the eleventh. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty

Vasiliy Lomachenko knocks down Jose Pedraza in the eleventh. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty

 

On a night when Vasiliy Lomachenko did not appear at his imperious best, the sport’s most technically proficient fighter was more than brilliant enough to come through with a sensational finishing kick to unify lightweight titles and bolster an already persuasive claim for the number one spot in boxing’s pound-for-pound pecking order.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-division world champion from Ukraine overcame a somewhat torpid start to overwhelm the game José Pedraza down the stretch, dropping the Puerto Rican veteran twice during a spine-tingling 11th round to secure a unanimous-decision victory that consolidated the WBA and WBO titles before a sellout crowd of 5,312 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The judges at ringside handed down scores of 117-109, 117-109 and 119-107, steeper all than the Guardian’s 116-110 but no less on the money.

Lomachenko (12-1, 9 KOs) was back in action for the first time since May when he moved up in weight and saw off Jorge Linares for the WBA’s version of the lightweight championship in the big room next door, capturing a third world title in as many weight classes in the unprecedented span of 12 professional bouts. Against Linares he’d shown rare vulnerability in suffering his first knockdown at any level in more than a decade, prompting hesitations if not proper doubts over his suitability at the higher weight class and whether 135lbs was a bridge too far. Also in the air entering Saturday’s main event in midtown Manhattan was his fitness after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder less than three weeks after the Linares fight.

Those questions were hardly enough to even concern let alone dissuade the sportsbooks, at least one of which priced Lomachenko as an outrageous 50-1 on favorite in the hours before Saturday’s main event. But they quickly rumbled to the fore in the opening rounds as Lomachenko’s economical punch output afforded Pedraza the opportunities he needed to land shots early and gain a competitive foothold in the affair. The Ukrainian managed to win the first couple of frames with cracking counters and daring left-hand leads, causing a swell under Pedraza’s left eye in the second round, but the Puerto Rican used deft head and upper-body movement to make himself and elusive target and give the ruthless Lomachenko atypical pause.

By the fourth round Pedraza (25-2, 12 KOs), who’d won the WBO title and a seat a Saturday’s table by outpointing Raymundo Beltran in August, was enjoying extended stretches of success as he out-threw and out-landed the favorite while shrewdly alternating orthodox and southpaw looks. The 29-year-old from Caguas was boxing gorgeously, slipping Lomachenko’s punches as the favorite’s measured work rate drew exclusively from the straight left. After six rounds it was too close to call, even if the breathless commentariat (and I’ve been told ESPN’s commentators) gave short shrift to Pedraza’s effective work.

The evenly matched, tactical frames continued into the second half of the fight, but Lomachenko began heating up in the eighth and pushing the pace, landing more punches in combination grounded by the impeccable footwork that’s made one elite challenger after another quit on their stools rather than absorb further punishment. By the ninth he was beating Pedraza to the punch and landing the left hand with consistency, but the Puerto Rican fired back in the 10th, catching Lomachenko on the way in with hooks to the body and a stinging uppercut.

Then came the 11th when Lomachenko hurt Pedraza early on with a body shot, sending his opponent reeling and the audience to their feet. He began opening up with an extended flurry of punches to the head and body thrown at blinding speed as his opponent stubbornly, mystifyingly, refused to clinch. After what felt like nearly a full minute of uninterrupted one-way punishment during which the referee would have been completely in the right to intervene, Pedraza was finally dropped to a knee with a body shot. He beat the count only for Lomachenko to resume the assault and was soon dropped a second time, making it to his feet at nine before he was saved by the bell.

Vasiliy Lomachenko catches Jose Pedraza during their WBA/WBO lightweight unification bout in New York. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty
Vasiliy Lomachenko catches Jose Pedraza during their WBA/WBO lightweight unification bout in New York. Photograph: Al Bello/Getty

“I believe the fight was pretty close until the 11th round,” said Pedraza through a translator. “He’s a fighter who breaks his opponents down little by little and he just caught me with two good punches and he scored two knockdowns.”

From there a competitive fight became a formality but Lomachenko clearly had a taste for the knockout in the final stanza. He picked his punches at will and looked as if he could go another 12 rounds, but Pedranza finished the proceedings upright before it went to the judges.

“I was close to finishing the fight,” Lomachenko said. “I was close to knocking him out.”

He added: “It was an interesting fight. He had a good jab. He prepared very good. Every round he changed his position. He boxed smart. People who like boxing liked this fight.”

Lomachenko, who turned professional after an extraordinary amateur career where he won 396 of 397 fights and Olympic golds at the Beijing and London Games in different weight classes, had already matched the all-time record for fewest bouts to win a world championship when he outclassed Gary Russell Jr for a featherweight title in his third paying fight. He made it two titles in seven outings, another record, when he stopped Rocky Martinez at 130lbs. All four of the junior lightweight challengers he had faced entering the Linares fight – top operators like Nicholas Walters, Jason Sosa, Miguel Marriaga and Guillermo Rigondeaux – retired between rounds rather than endure further humiliation.

Lomachenko said afterward he would like to continue the path toward unification at 135lbs, calling out the undefeated Mikey Garcia by name. Garcia, another claimant to boxing’s nominal pound-for-pound title, holds the WBC title and and owned the IBF strap until recently, when he bypassed the organization’s mandatory challenger for the chance to face Errol Spence Jr in a March blockbuster at AT&T Stadium, the 100,000-seat home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

In the meantime Lomachenko will likely target the winner of the fight for Garcia’s vacated IBF belt, which is expected to be staged between Richard Commey and Isa Chaniev in February. Yet it was clear in Saturday’s aftermath where Lomachenko’s ambitions lie.

“Maybe next year, we can make a fight with Mikey Garcia,” he said. “One name, one belt.”

(Guardian service)

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