Vulnerable and determined, patient but urgent.
Lightweight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko returns to the boxing ring Saturday night at Madison Square Garden’s theater to meet Puerto Rico’s Jose Pedraza to unify the World Boxing Assn. and World Boxing Organization belts.
Lomachenko (11-1, nine knockouts) has made a quick recovery from rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder following his May victory over then-WBA champion Jorge Linares by 10th-round technical knockout.
It was one thing to break a hand against a pedestrian opponent four years ago in China and coast to a unanimous decision, and quite another to get knocked down for the first time in his career against Linares and find the strength through the shoulder pain to stop the veteran champion.
And at 30, Lomachenko is pausing to reflect on how the years of intense training under his demanding father, Anatoly, have worn on him.
“Maybe, I don’t know … I started pressuring my body in my training at 4 years old. I’ve trained my whole life … and nobody could’ve known about my condition before throwing that right hook because it’s sport,” he said. “But I know I had a lot of work and put a lot of pressure on that muscle.
“That’s why my father has changed my schedule now, eased my preparation for fights. He took away a lot of exercises I do. The shoulder is why. We know that if you want to last in boxing for a very long time, you have to start thinking about that right now.”
Lomachenko is not sure how his shoulder will hold up once the fight begins with Pedraza (25-1, 12 KOs), who wrested the WBO belt from Ray Beltran by unanimous decision in August in Glendale, Ariz.
“We’ll see Saturday … the fight is a different challenge than when you use a sparring partner in a sparring session and you’re more relaxed,” Lomachenko said. “On a fight day, you’re focused and you need to give 100% of your power and speed, with all your condition.”
If he reverts to the same version of the fighter who stood as the 2017 fighter of the year, Lomachenko expects to punish Pedraza, a calculating left-hander whose only loss is to former super-featherweight world champion Gervonta Davis.
“I don’t like [Pedraza’s] style because he’s very defensive and every time he waits for your mistake,” Lomachenko said. “If you come in the ring with me and you want to win, you have to fight me. You need to do something, a lot of work, throw a lot of punches.
“I like pressure fighters. If he fights with me like his last fight or like he did against Davis, he doesn’t have a chance. I don’t think he can keep up. I can help him right now by telling him he needs to be active.”
That’s the type of mentality the Ukrainian three-division champion possesses. He fought for a world title in his second pro fight after winning two Olympic gold medals.
“If you asked me if I want titles or money, I would choose titles,” Lomachenko said.
That’s why Lomachenko is so driven for a 2019 fight against fellow lightweight champion Mikey Garcia (39-0, 30 KOs), who has decided to seek a fifth division belt by taking a March 16 welterweight title fight against unbeaten International Boxing Federation champion Errol Spence Jr. at AT&T Stadium in Texas.
“For me, it’s very important for this fight to happen. I am ready for this fight and I want to fight Mikey,” Lomachenko said.
How it happens will require the type of cooperation and creativity that rival fight men Bob Arum (Lomachenko’s promoter who has a television deal with ESPN) and Al Haymon (Garcia’s advisor for Premier Boxing Champions) have shown only in rare circumstances.
“It’s a big question for our promoters and our TV [representatives]. I don’t care what TV shows me, but it’s not a question for a boxer,” Lomachenko said. “I just know it’s a very good fight for boxing and for people who love boxing.
“I’m not chasing him. I’m working on my career right now, not running after him, but I want all the titles. I want this fight. Boxing needs this fight some day in the future. If I could make the fight on my own, it’d be tomorrow.”
Lomachenko said he’s slightly concerned a victorious Garcia would be swayed to join the talented welterweight ranks — where Manny Pacquiao and unbeaten champion Keith Thurman reside — but he fervently believes the pair can make a massive bout at 135 pounds.
“Mikey’s done a big, very strong move, in a bout with Spence where he can’t lose anything,” Lomachenko said. “If he loses, everyone says, ‘No problem, it’s not his weight.’ If he wins, then the boxing reaction is still that our fight is important. I can’t predict how the fight will end, but I don’t think our fight loses any value if we’re going to be fighting in our weight class and he’s going to be fighting me.”
Should he defeat Pedraza, Lomachenko emphasized, “There’s only one name, Mikey Garcia, who makes sense today. I really want that fight.”
The push is partially due to the entire unification of four cruiserweight belts that Lomachenko’s stablemate and best friend Oleksandr Usyk achieved this year by winning the World Boxing Super Series competition.
Their tight bond “helps in that I want to become unified champion, and now my friend is a unified champion. It gives me more motivation to join him,” Lomachenko said. “I want to be named one of the best, too.”
Usyk listened to the interview at Lomachenko's Camarillo home and smiled.
The pair first met in 2003 at the Ukrainian youth boxing championships when the more somber Usyk admired the effervescent Lomachenko for picking up a Ping-Pong paddle at their hotel lobby for the first time in his life and challenging any boxer in the room to play.
“He liked that — me going for the attention — and we became best friends,” said Lomachenko, who accompanied Usyk to Quebec City last weekend to watch their countryman, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, capture a light-heavyweight belt.
Now, it’s on to New York, on an ESPN card sure to garner big ratings because it follows the network’s coverage of the Heisman Trophy presentation.