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By Oliver Goldstein
Vasyl Lomachenko returns to action Saturday night in pursuit of his second title belt in as many weight classes when he meets Roman Martinez at Madison Square Garden on HBO Boxing After Dark at 10 PM ET/PT. Fed up of waiting on a much-mooted bout with Nicholas Walters, Lomachenko has taken what might now be called the Golovkin route: if someone won’t fight you, win as many belts as possible until they do.
Unlike Golovkin, though, Lomachenko is blessed with a welter of plausible opponents if Walters doesn’t want to dally. Martinez (29-2-3, 17 KOs) is a seasoned pro with a raft of solid names on his record, including none other than Lomachenko’s one conqueror to date in Orlando Salido. Having lost to Ricky Burns after coming out perhaps too strong in the first round in 2010, Martinez has refused to let his career fizzle out. Even a knockout loss in 2013 to Mikey Garcia, who has all but disappeared since, has failed to derail him: Martinez came back to claim a third super featherweight title by knocking Salido down twice in May 2015 to win a decision.
Indeed where a lack of willing competition has forced Golovkin to plunge the depths of the middleweight division in search of a rightful opponent, Lomachenko is fortunate here. After all, if the Ukrainian is to be the star his talent suggests, he needs to face what all good non-American lower weight fighters need: either guys with similar talent, or guys that are willing to slug. At present the one fighter Golovkin could face with potentially both those credentials is prepared to wait on him. But while the absence of a suitable challenger has thus forced GGG to fight the likes of Dominic Wade, Walters’ avoidance of Lomachenko is certainly nowhere near so costly. Though Martinez isn’t even a third as refined a boxer as Lomachenko, much more a bruiser than anything, he’s a thoroughly genuine opponent with legitimate credentials of his own. And he might not necessarily need to be a world-class boxer either: Salido, very much a bruiser himself, was able to offset Lomachenko enough to eke a decision in the Ukrainian’s second fight.
Still, by the final rounds of their bout Salido had increasingly become the canvas for Lomachenko’s artwork many expected him to be. And even if Salido, fighting well overweight, did escape with the decision, Lomachenko still showed quite how much hurting his variety of pugilistic refinement can produce: while Salido was disproportionately bigger than Lomachenko on the night, his face in the aftermath, red and swollen, painted its own distinctive picture. Against a much smaller man with one previous professional bout on his record, the Mexican was taken to the deep end.
But if a split-decision loss to a 41-12-2 veteran of the sport didn’t entirely demonstrate Lomachenko’s talent, his next fight might have gestured more fully to its sheer extent. Then, against the much-hyped Gary Russell, Jr., the Ukrainian managed to secure his first title belt in just his third bout. In turn he was able to hint at the depth of his capabilities, lulling Russell about the ring, in complete control of its geography, and rending his opponent’s rumored devastating speed merely decorative. Even in rounds where Lomachenko seemed to withdraw into himself, as though calculating silently exactly how much effort would need to be exerted, and where, and how, the few moments of action he provided were almost always enough: in the sixth, which saw Russell thrashing combinations into vacant space, one particularly emphatic jab was enough to take it. Lomachenko was surgical.