Some of his fights start slower than others, Vasyl Lomachenko edging forward with caution, looking and waiting, bending at the waist to avoid punches while occasionally flicking a couple of harmless-looking jabs.
And then it happens. It always does.
Lomachenko finds his opening and lets his hands go. The punches are short and quick, often delivered four or five at a time from a variety of angles as he rapidly pivots from one side of his covered-up opponent to the other.
If physical gifts and refined technique have allowed Lomachenko to win eight world-championship fights in his first 10 professional contests, it’s these crowd-pleasing offensive displays that earned him the nickname “The Matrix” and placed him in line to possibly be boxing’s next pay-per-view attraction.
This instinct to play to the audience is something the 29-year-old Lomachenko could have to temper when defending his 130-pound championship Saturday night in New York.
Defeating ageless 37-year-old challenger Guillermo Rigondeaux could require Lomachenko to go against his nature and do the unthinkable: to put the 5,000-plus fans in Madison Square Garden’s Theater, instead of his opponent, to sleep.
As a matchup between two of the top five fighters in any weight class, the contest has drawn considerable interest from the diehard segment of the sport’s fan base. But Lomachenko (9-1, 7 knockouts) warned potential consumers of what kind of fight they could be watching.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the kind of fight everyone is waiting for,” Lomachenko said in his quickly-improving English.
He added, “You know his style.”
A product of Cuba’s storied amateur program, Rigondeaux is a two-time Olympic gold medalist. He is a champion at 122 pounds, but will be moving up two weight classes to take on Lomachenko.
Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs) is a counterpuncher, meaning he specializes in landing blows when his opponents miss, using their forward momentum to magnify the force of his own strikes. This alone doesn’t make Rigondeaux unique; most quick-fisted fighters are natural counterpunchers, including Lomachenko.
What makes Rigondeaux special — and frustrating to watch — is how disciplined he is in adhering to his own boxing principles. He doesn’t care about what the audience wants.
Like Lomachenko, Rigondeaux fights out of a southpaw stance. He stands with his right shoulder pointed directly at his opponent and torso almost completely sideways, minimizing his opponents’ target.
Rigondeaux has a fairly active jab, but he throws it more to distract his opponent than he does to cause actual harm. Otherwise, he is extremely economical, throwing few, if any, unnecessary power punches. Lomachenko has historically thrown around 60 punches a round; Rigondeaux’s output is about half of that.
However, taking the fight to Rigondeaux can be a health hazard, as Nonito Donaire painfully discovered four years ago. Armed with a paralyzing left hook, Donaire was considered one of the best fighters in the world when he stepped into the ring with Rigondeaux. Donaire forced the action, only for Rigondeaux to punish him every time he overcommitted to an attack. By the middle rounds, Donaire was finished, his face disfigured and his spirit broken. Rigondeaux went on to win a comfortable decision.
Generally speaking, Rigondeaux’s performances are as entertaining as his opponents are willing. If a fighter like Donaire can bring out the best of Rigondeaux, a more cautious combatant can bring out the worst.
“I don’t like it,” Lomachenko said of Rigondeaux’s style, which has made studying video of the Cuban especially tiresome.
Asked if watching video of Rigondeaux was like studying mathematics in school, Lomachenko joked, “I love mathematics.”
Lomachenko made a few more cracks about Rigondeaux’s style and pointed to his inability to fight while moving forward, but history has shown Rigondeaux can’t be angered into abandoning his game plan.
Lomachenko will theoretically have a size advantage, as Rigondeaux will be moving up eight pounds for their fight. However, Lomachenko didn’t sound as if he planned to physically overwhelm Rigondeaux, pointing to how the Cuban looked to be the same size as him when he saw him in person at a recent fight. Lomachenko is listed at 5-foot-6 and Rigondeaux at 5-foot-4, but Rigondeaux’s 68-inch reach is 2½ inches longer than Lomachenko’s.
“I need to chase him,” Lomachenko said. “I need to do this and not forget my defense because he will wait, wait, wait and wait …”
The key for him will be to land punches without positioning himself to be hammered by a hard counter, to deliver combinations without making any extraneous motions that Rigondeaux could exploit.
But does Lomachenko have the patience to not rush into a mistake against the world’s most patient fighter? What if 20 seconds elapse without a single punch thrown?
“I train my patience every training [session],” Lomachenko said.
There’s a possibility Rigondeaux is too old and too small to seriously threaten Lomachenko. Then again, there’s also the possibility that he isn’t. And in that case, the punches aren’t thrown will be as important as the punches that are delivered.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez