'I am 100 percent': All systems go for Vasiliy Lomachenko heading into unification bout vs. José Pedraza

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Vasiliy Lomachenko (11-1, 9 KOs) was forced to step away from boxing after suffering a partially torn labrum in his May fight vs. Jorge Linares. (Getty Images)
Vasiliy Lomachenko (11-1, 9 KOs) was forced to step away from boxing after suffering a partially torn labrum in his May fight vs. Jorge Linares. (Getty Images)

Vasiliy Lomachenko has long been one of the world’s finest fighting machines. After a 396-1 amateur career that included two Olympic gold medals, Lomachenko was one of professional boxing’s best on the day he turned pro.

And despite a controversial loss to Orlando Salido in his second fight and a knockdown by Jorge Linares in his last outing, Lomachenko has only gotten better.

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Lomachenko is coming off an impressive 10th round stoppage of Linares on May 12 in New York in which he lifted the WBA lightweight title from Linares. He pulled it off despite being dropped in the sixth.

What few knew in that fight was the extent of the injury Lomachenko suffered early. He had a 75 percent tear of the labrum in his right shoulder, yet he managed to complete the fight and score a knockout. His pain tolerance had to be off the charts.

He underwent surgery on May 30 in Los Angeles. At the time, surgeon Neal ElAttrache predicted Lomachenko would be able to return to training in October and competition in December.

The timeline has held true. On Saturday at Madison Square Garden, Lomachenko will face WBO champion José Pedraza in a WBA-WBO unification bout that will be the main event of an ESPN card.

It will be Lomachenko’s first time testing the injured shoulder in a fight. He insists he has no concerns about it and that it will be business as usual when the first bell rings.

What makes him great is the way he regarded the injury. A lot of fighters would have said, not without plenty of justification, they could not continue. They wouldn’t have wanted to further injure the shoulder and put their careers at risk.

Lomachenko never considered it. Winning was paramount. His career came next. So he took care of business against the best fighter he’d faced, then he got his shoulder fixed.

He says he’s back to normal, so he should be just as fearsome as ever.

“I am 100 percent,” Lomachenko said. “I feel good. When the injury happened, I was mentally prepared to deal with it. I still had my feet. I still had another hand. I am very competitive. I feel like when you step in the ring, you need to finish the fight.”

Vasiliy Lomachenko got the better of Jorge Linares on May 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York despite suffering a shoulder injury early in the fight. (AP Photo)
Vasiliy Lomachenko got the better of Jorge Linares on May 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York despite suffering a shoulder injury early in the fight. (AP Photo)

The surgery proved to be a blessing in another way. Though Lomachenko doesn’t have a lot of professional fights, he’s been in an incredibly high number of amateur bouts. Add on all the sparring that is required and he’s done a lot of fighting in his young life.

The surgery forced him to step away from the sport for a few months, which he probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. But he recognizes now the benefits of resting, even if only for a short while.

All systems are go as he readies for Pedraza.

“It was good for me to rest,” Lomachenko said. “I have been boxing since I was a child. I had a lot of competition. It was my first rest and first big vacation in my life.”

Despite the surgery, bettors haven’t shied away from Lomachenko, and he’s a 40-1 favorite to defeat Pedraza. Bigger favorites have fallen — Mike Tyson was a 42-1 favorite over Buster Douglas in 1990 — but it’s not likely.

Still, even though Pedraza knows what he is up against, he remains confident. He doesn’t seem to have the speed to keep up with the lightning fast Lomachenko, who scores an A or A-plus in just about every physical category in which a boxer is rated, but he is undaunted.

“I have visualized all the possible scenarios,” Pedraza said. “I’ve seen myself winning. I’ve seen myself knocking him out. I’ve seen myself pulling out the victory coming from behind. The closer the fight approaches, the more I see myself with my hands held high and with the two titles on my shoulders. I already fulfilled my goal of becoming a world champion, and now I’m going after the goal of unifying titles.”

More likely, though, is that Lomachenko will be the one returning home with both titles on his shoulders. The hope early was that a victory in December would lead Lomachenko to a dream unification fight in 2019 against Mikey Garcia, who has the IBF and WBC lightweight titles.

Garcia, who has long been at odds with Lomachenko promoter Top Rank, signed to fight Errol Spence Jr. in a welterweight title fight in Dallas in March. That pulls him from the list of potential Lomachenko opponents, especially for the first part of 2019, and leaves Lomachenko without a marquee name to face when he returns.

Top Rank president Todd duBoef said that Lomachenko is a small lightweight and that the company could look to super featherweight or even featherweight for his next opponent if, as expected, he gets past Pedraza.

“I think sometimes we get stuck with it in our minds that, ‘Oh, we need the big name. We need the big fight,’” duBoef said. “The reality of it is it’s our job to build those. It’s our job to create those. To go back and find guys who have names that resonated 10 years ago to put him in with isn’t really the solution. The solution is, the burden is on us as promoters to build them and to make the big fights. Organic growth is best rather than chasing a name.”

None of it will be an issue if Lomachenko’s shoulder doesn’t hold up. It looks like injury could be the only thing that slows him.

It will take someone elite — like Garcia — to challenge him and bring the best out of him. A Lomachenko-Garcia fight would be epic and boxing at its finest.

Because of Garcia’s move to fight Spence and the enmity between Garcia and Top Rank, it’s not likely to happen, however.

[Related: Don’t sleep on rising star Teófimo López, who fights on Lomachenko-Pedraza undercard]

Fighters like Lomachenko don’t come around that often, and it would be a tragedy were he not to be truly tested.

Hopefully, the shoulder holds up.

And hopefully, Top Rank finds a way to get him into a bout that will grab the attention of the sporting world. Lomachenko is the kind of fighter who can showcase the best boxing has to offer.

He needs that opponent who is good enough to bring the best out of him. It says much about Lomachenko that Pedraza, even with a 25-1 record and two world titles, isn’t believed to be nearly talented enough to do that.

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