By Tom Donelson / Member Boxing Writers Association
The recent championship fight between Gary Russell and Vasyl Lomachenko brought up the question, how quickly should a prospect be brought through the ranks. After a successful amateur career, Russell team brought him along slowly before his championship bout with Lomachenko whereas this was Lomachenko third professional fight and his second shot at a championship. Lomachenko won and many, myself included, felt that Russell should have been challenged more before this bout.
In conversations with pundits, promoters and a world class trainer, I tried to answer the questions how fast does one take a prospect to the championship. Let’s begin with two fighters who both won their first title in their ninth fight, Guillermo Ridgondeaux and Davey Moore. So far, Ridgondeaux career is going strong but Moore’s career suffered a devastating defeat in his tenth fight when he faced Roberto Duran. Duran pummel Moore and Moore was never the same. Boxing writer David Martinez noted about “Like Rigondeaux, Lomachenko were rare top premier amateur. “ So sometimes, a fighter is totally unique athletic specie and both Rigondeaux and Lomachenko may just be that rare fighter where the rules don’t apply.
Former boxing contender and now championship John “Iceman” Scully opine about Lomachenko, “What’s the rush? I mean, WHY do you need to fight for a title so early? Other than for publicity and for the novelty of it all, what is the point? Why not season him first? If he’s good enough that early he’ll certainly still be good enough a year from now.”
Scully believe a fighter needs time to learn the professional game and noted, “When I went pro in September of 1989 I was the # 4 ranked amateur middleweight in the world and held victories over a couple of the top ranked middleweight in the world. But my manager rushed me early on, I had 13 fights and was fighting in an ESPN main event against a tough guy with 30 pro fights under his belt. Looking back on it, I know that talent for talent and skill for skill I was on his level but I lost to him because I had no professional seasoning. It wasn’t just the fighting, it was the TV, the Atlantic City casino, the hype of it all. It takes time to develop into a real professional.” Scully noted that when Roy Jones became a professional, there was talk of pushing Jones for a title shot within his first ten fight but Roy Jones’ father stated, “Lil’ Roy could go ahead and win a junior middleweight title right now. I know this. But, understand, I don’t want him to just win it. I want him to win it and keep it for a long time, too. That’s a lot to ask of a nineteen year old boy that grew up on a farm. Riddick (Bowe) and (Ray) Mercer and these other boys (on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team) are older and have been around more. Roy is a farm boy. He hasn’t been exposed to all the things those other boys have been exposed to at such a young age. He needs a little more time to grow enough to be able to handle that kind of pressure. You don’t just want to win the title. You want to be seasoned enough and wise enough to keep it, too.”
The career of Davey Moore is an example of what happens when you put a young fighter in situation he might not be ready for. Moore defended his championship that he won the previous fight but he was not ready for the skill levels of Roberto Duran nor did his career blossom after that bout.
Keith Terceira believes the most important criteria for a young fighter is his mental toughness. Terceira noted, “So much more comes into play than just the amateur record of a fighter, whether they are they mentally prepared, mature enough to handle the professional end of the sport.” Another aspect is what kind of financial support the fighter has and that too can determine how quickly a fighter can move and Terceira added, “The business end of boxing has certain detractors that warrant consideration on how the fighter is moved.” There is also the danger that a fighter may get false confidence if he gets nothing but cherry picked opponents. The trick is moving the fighter as fast as they capable of. If they are pushed too fast, they could suffer a loss that could hurt their career or there is the chance that a fighter goes too slow and not prepared against higher caliber of opponents.
Boxing writer Amy Green believed that Gary Russell should have been tested before he fought Lomachenko but she added, “There is a delicate balance to maintain when advancing an elite amateur fighter once they’re professional. In the amateurs, they fight any and all opposition in their class, no matter the talent- that’s how they move through the ranks, but the pro game is trickier on all fronts.” Amy Green added that there is no magic number when moving a fighter forward and that each fighter needs to be treated differently.
Scully noted that from a style point of view, Russell was perfect for Lomachenko since Russell style resembled amateurs Lomachenko faced before he turn professional. Boxing writer Jack Hirsch added that Lomachenko was a better fighter than Russell so maybe it wouldn’t matter if Russell faced Lomchenko in his 25th fight or his 50th fight.
Is Scully right that maybe Lomachenko is moving too fast? We know that answer over the next ten fights, for Lomachenko will be fighting at the highest levels with no real break in the skill levels of the fighters. On the other hand, Russell could have used tougher competition before his first championship bout to know exactly where he stood. Russell has the option of going back to the gym and moving forward with his career. History will tell if Lomachenko is moving too fast or he is where he should be. Will Lomachenko face his version of Roberto Duran before his 10th fight and will this derail his career or is Lomachenko simply a unique athlete?