LAS VEGAS >> Nearly 13 years ago, a little-known champion from a boxing outpost got the chance to fight on one of the biggest pay-per-view shows of this century, and he stepped into worldwide stardom with a dynamic performance.
Manny Pacquiao did it on the undercard of Lennox Lewis’ victory over Mike Tyson, and Vasyl Lomachenko is thrilled to have the same opportunity before Pacquiao takes on Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Saturday night.
When millions tune in to the most anticipated boxing show in recent years, the first fight they’ll see is a title defense by Lomachenko, the two-time Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine who won the WBO featherweight belt in just his third professional bout last year.
Lomachenko is a gifted multisport athlete and a vicious puncher widely considered the greatest amateur boxer of his generation. He’s still learning the pro game and adjusting to life on the West Coast, but he has already attracted a devoted following that will explode if he thrashes Puerto Rico’s Gamalier Rodriguez at the MGM Grand Garden.
“It’s an opportunity for millions of people to see what I can do,” Lomachenko said Thursday through his manager and translator, Egis Klimas. “It’s always good when you know people have confidence in you and want to see you fight.”
Top Rank boss Bob Arum eagerly bestowed his company’s only spot on the Mayweather-Pacquiao pay-per-view card on Lomachenko (3-1, 1 KO), who signed a new five-year promotional contract with Top Rank on Thursday.
“Lomachenko has a kind of talent that people in professional boxing have not yet seen,” Arum said. “As great as he was in the amateurs, he’ll be an even better pro. People ask me, ‘After Floyd and after Manny, who are the next big superstars in boxing?’ I know that Vasyl Lomachenko will be a big, big superstar.”
Promoter hype aside, the 27-year-old Lomachenko appears to have many qualities necessary to make the Pacquiao leap, from his hand speed and brilliant athleticism to a winning smile and ring charisma.
Mark Taffet, who runs HBO’s pay-per-view division, remembers Pacquiao’s second-round knockout of Jorge Julio at the Pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee, as a star-making moment.
“I don’t think it’s lost on Team Lomachenko, the parallels and the similarities that this night will offer them,” Taffet said. “I hope we’re around for the ride.”
Lomachenko appeared on the world boxing scene during his 2008 trip to Beijing, where he drew world champion Albert Selimov in his first fight. Lomachenko battered the Russian for four rounds with a daredevil flair that immediately established him as an amateur star.
He was barely touched on the way to a gold medal and the Val Barker Trophy as the Beijing tournament’s top fighter. He turned down professional offers in Europe and stayed in the amateur ranks for four more years, winning two more world championships and a second gold in London.
When Lomachenko and his father interviewed promoters in 2013, their demands weren’t about money: They wanted a world title shot in his first pro fight. Top Rank won the worldwide derby to sign Lomachenko, and he moved to Southern California to prepare for a featherweight title shot — albeit in his second bout.
But Lomachenko got a boxing education from veteran Orlando Salido, who battered him with questionable punches and used numerous cagey tricks to eke out a split decision.
Three months later, Lomachenko fought Gary Russell Jr. for the vacant WBO title and dominated, winning by majority decision. After defending his title last November on the undercard of Pacquiao’s victory over Chris Algieri, he seized this showcase spot against Rodriguez, who has won 17 straight fights over the past five years.
Lomachenko has a wife and two children back home in Ukraine, but he mostly refuses to discuss his nation’s political turmoil, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Oleksandr Usyk, Lomachenko’s good friend and fellow Olympic gold medalist from London, is a native of Crimea who has refused to take Russian citizenship while pursuing his own promising pro career.
“What I’m worried about, I worry about the people in my country,” Lomachenko said when asked about his professional concerns. “I worry about people who are dying, innocent people who are dying. That’s what I’m worried about. I’m not worried about the politics (of boxing).”