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Vasiliy Lomachenko returns to the ring but still is waiting for a worthy rival to emerge

Vasiliy Lomachenko returns to the ring but still is waiting for a worthy rival to emerge
Vasiliy Lomachenko and Anthony Crolla pose for photos after the press conference ahead of their world lightweight championship fight at Staples Center on Wednesday (Yong Teck Lim / Getty Images)

The enthusiasm Vasiliy Lomachenko has brought to boxing in establishing himself as a rare talent vanished at the mention of England’s Anthony Crolla, his Friday night opponent at Staples Center.

“He is my mandatory. I don’t have a choice,” Lomachenko said. “I need to fight him to keep my [World Boxing Assn. lightweight] title and get to my next goal.”

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A case can be made that a Lomachenko fight is a spectacle. The former two-time Olympic gold medalist from the Ukraine, who’ll wear a walk-in robe valued at $200,000 to further spice up the occasion, calls Southern California his second home since he trains in Ventura County and has built his fan base here with featherweight and super-featherweight title victories in Carson and L.A. Live’s Microsoft Theater.

“Now I have more experience,” Lomachenko said. “I’ve grown up to be like a master professional boxer. It is a new ‘Loma,’ better than who I was.”

Promoter Bob Arum said the attraction of fight fans to Lomachenko has helped ESPN build its ESPN Plus streaming service to more than 3 million subscribers in what will be his fifth fight on the network. As a result, Arum said, Lomachenko is “being compensated very well — his pay is a lot more than when he started.”

But as Lomachenko, 31, scours the landscape of the lightweight division, in which he wears two world-title belts, the void of talent necessary to provide him his ultimate bout seems alarmingly lacking beyond Crolla (34-6-3, 13 knockouts).

“It’s very important to me,” Lomachenko (12-1, nine KOs) said of finding his next rival . “People respect and know the long history of this sport … that’s why I want to do this. I have two Olympic gold medals. I like putting my name in history. Now, I need a good fighter who’s very famous in the world, so I will wait for it.”

For the last two years, it appeared that man would be Oxnard-raised four-division champion Mikey Garcia, who wears the World Boxing Council lightweight belt.

But Garcia turned away from doing business with Arum following their contentious contractual breakup and moved up two divisions to land his longed-for pay-per-view fight, in which he was dominated last month in Texas by unbeaten welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr.

That outcome damaged Garcia’s brand, perhaps left him gone from the lightweight division for good and showed Lomachenko the peril of moving up too far in weight.

“I don’t think he can make 135 now. … I want this fight with Mikey, but not at 140. This weight is too much for me now … my opponents [including Crolla] are all bigger, wider, taller than me,” Lomachenko said.

Like his close friend and unified, unbeaten cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, WBA and World Boxing Organization 135-pound champion Lomachenko said his pursuit of “history” is focused on wearing all four belts in his division.

“I want big names. I want big challenges. I’m ready for anybody. I want to fight the top fighters,” he said.

After 18-to-1 underdog Crolla, however, a delayed unification fight with little-known International Boxing Federation lightweight champion Richard Commey awaits, and by then, Garcia’s future plans should materialize.

“That’s a fight I would love to happen, but I don’t know what Mikey’s going to do,” Garcia’s brother-trainer, Robert, said Wednesday. “Business is business, and it needs to happen.”

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Arum said he can foresee his top prospect, unbeaten lightweight Teofimo Lopez, 21, someday emerging as a Lomachenko challenger, but it’s a mismatch for now.

Arum also promotes WBC super-featherweight champion Miguel Berchelt (35-1, 31 KOs) of Mexico, who defends his belt May 11 in Arizona and could create an interestingmatchup.

Another candidate is unbeaten WBA super-featherweight champion Gervonta Davis, from Baltimore, but he’s promoted by Arum rival Al Haymon of Premier Boxing Champions and Arum said he’s not convinced Davis is a national draw.

Although the divisions Lomachenko has won belts in were occupied by a slew of greats like Manny Pacquiao, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera and Juan Manuel Marquez only 15 years ago, Arum balked at considering the what-ifs and said “every great fighter” has struggled to land a defining foe at some point.

“So the only thing you can do is get the best available guy for him to fight. He will always be known as the greatest in the history of amateur boxing, as a pro who came in and fought right at the top, and has fought everybody … a sure first-rounder in the Hall of Fame and one of the great technical fighters we’ve ever seen. That’s his legacy. Everything else is noise.”

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