Lee Wylie examines what makes Vasyl Lomachenko the best boxer on the planet today
IT’S A GUESSING GAME
FEINTS are an integral part of Vasyl Lomachenko’s boxing and a way of outwitting his opponent. As with most boxers, Lomachenko utilises feints for various purposes, such as to gain feedback and craft openings. If Lomachenko fakes a left hand to the body twice and each time the opponent drops his right hand to block the perceived threat, rest assured the tendency will be noted and exploited. But the overarching reason for Lomachenko’s feints is to hide his intentions. Whether by stepping in and out or changing levels and shifting his torso side-to-side, Lomachenko shrewdly disguises his attacks, while at the same time threatening the opponent and putting him under constant and mental physical pressure. For instance, not only does Lomachenko’s upper-body movement create an elusive target, it also keeps the opponent on the edge and makes him uncertain of when and from where “Hi-Tech” will throw his next punch – from a southpaw stance, a slip to the right could also be the start of a left cross or a right hook being loaded up. Confused and unable to tell a real attack from a fake one, opponents jab hesitantly, which makes them more vulnerable to slipping and countering.
Lomachenko confuses the opposition further by continually changing his guard as he probes for openings. Essentially a pre-emptive measure against either a right or left-handed punch to the head, Lomachenko shields with his right forearm when he leans to his left, and with his left forearm when he leans to his right. But to keep rivals guessing, Lomachenko will vary his actions following the same ‘look’. Sometimes he leans to the side and does nothing; other times he leans to the side and attacks directly from that position. As a result, the opponent has great difficulty anticipating what comes next. Another, more subtle aspect of Vasyl’s unconventional safeguarding is that it draws punches to the unshielded side of his head. Knowing this, Lomachenko can determine the opponent’s most likely attack and then counter accordingly.
MANIPULATING THE GUARD
SOMETIMES a boxer must use more assertive methods to unlock an opponent’s defense. This is where combination punching comes in handy. Throwing one punch to set the table for the next, Lomachenko expertly targets one area, forcing the opponent to shift his guard to protect it, and then switches his attack to exploit the resulting opening.
A typical Lomachenko combination begins with a series of throwaway jabs and straights, which enable him to occupy the opponent’s guard and gain leverage for a more powerful blow to an unprotected area.
To illustrate, a double jab-left cross aimed at the head is, both tactically and mechanically, an ideal set-up for a weighty right hook to the body. One of Lomachenko’s most effective combinations is a right hook to the body followed by a right uppercut to the head (this was also a favorite of Mike Tyson). Ordinarily, the right hook brings down the opponent’s guard – specifically the left arm – and opens up the lane for an uppercut on the same side. Lomachenko’s go-to punch sequence, however, is a double jab to the head-straight left to the body. Here, the double jab raises the guard and exposes the opponent’s midriff for the left hand to follow. Lomachenko is not a heavy hitter, but he is incredibly accurate when targeting the body, and opponents tend to be caught off-guard when the determining blow lands – remember, it’s the punches you don’t see coming that hurt the most.
And now for one of Lomachenko’s most famous techniques: When faced with an opponent who guards himself tightly by keeping his elbows tucked in and his gloves close to his face, Lomachenko will forcefully pull down one of his gloves to make an opening for a slashing hook . So, if Lomachenko removes the opponent’s left glove with his left hand, he will follow up with a right hook, and vice versa. The key to this technique, as with all Lomachenko’s ‘tricks’, is knowing not just what to do, but why and when to do it. Lomachenko momentarily leaves an opening for a quick counter when he reaches out to break the guard. For this reason, the technique is mainly reserved for when the opponent is standing square and covered up against the ropes.
Due to the conflicting relationship of the lead hand and foot during an orthodox vs southpaw clash, the jab is less favored. This is basically why a righty and a lefty battle for the outside position with their lead foot; so that the more powerful rear hand is brought closer and more in line with the target. Lomachenko likes to sneak his lead foot inside the opponent’s lead foot to line up his jab, but against tall opponents with long guards – that is to say, those who keep their lead arm extended – he must eliminate the barrier to get to the target. With his right glove, then, Lomachenko will proactively parry the opponent’s left arm upwards to open the body for a straight left hand, or he will parry the opponent’s left arm downwards and, in a continuous counter-clockwise motion, sweep it aside and throw a jab-hook hybrid with the same hand.
The two attacks play off each other brilliantly, with the opponent not knowing whether Lomachenko will come in underneath or over the top of his elongated left lead. Lomachenko also fences with his lead hand, faking up and down with it to misdirect the opposing lead and make a way for his own to land. The tactics may vary, but one thing remains: Lomachenko doesn’t wait for openings; he manufactures them.
NOW YOU SEE ME, NOW YOU DON’T
FOOTWORK is the foundation of all boxing technique. A boxer cannot hit the opponent properly unless he is well-positioned and balanced to do so. Lomachenko’s entire game is predicated on balance and superior positioning, and both are products of the Ukrainian’s spectacular footwork. Put simply, Lomachenko has the most educated feet in boxing today, which isn’t surprising when one considers the attention to detail in that regard (the story of Anatoly Lomachenko making his son take dance lessons to improve his footwork is well-documented).
With an array of deft sidesteps and pivots, and slides and glides, Lomachenko keeps his opponent off balance and in a reactive mode for as long as the fight lasts. In this regard, he is the quintessential initiative fighter. Above all, it is Lomachenko’s pinchant for creating dominant angles of attack that makes him so compelling to watch and downright effective. In the words of Cus D’Amato, “It’s always good to throw the punch where you can hit him, and he can’t hit you. That’s what the science of boxing is all about.” Indeed, an ideal position is one which offers a boxer greater attacking opportunity for himself than to his opponent.
Lomachenko routinely secures positional dominance by sidestepping or pivoting to his right and taking up and angle toward the right-hander’s weaker left flank. From there, outside the opponent’s field of vision and with the power hand nullified, Lomachenko can attack unimpeded – usually with a left uppercut to the body followed by a right hook to the head – while his rival works to realign himself or covers up. Of course, opponents strategise to prevent themselves from being blindsided, but Lomachenko has clever ways of making the inevitable just that. For example, “Loma” usually creates a diversion with a decoy jab or backhand before darting around the opponent. He also likes to double up on the jab to obstruct the opponent’s vision and conceal a more advantageous step to his right. And if the jab is slipped or ducked, Lomachenko will deliberately leave his extended arm and press his forearm against the opponent’s neck to stifle his counters and keep him contained, while manoeuvring himself into a better position.
At any level, fighting is chaotic. Dominating a world-class prize fight, therefore, is no easy task. But through a mastery of positioning and an ingenious bluff/double bluff, will-he-won’t-he style of boxing built upon incredible perceptual speed and a phenomenal engine, Vasyl Lomachenko stays ahead of his adversaries and commands the ring the way a chess grandmaster commands the board.
WATCH Lomachenko vs Gary Russell Jnr, Roman Martinez, Nicholas Walters, Jason Sosa and Jorge Linares.