When was the last time you discovered a sportsman you’ve never heard of who made you sit up and take notice simply because of their sheer brilliance?
In this social media saturated age there’s something especially satisfying to find Vasyl Lomachenko – who up until a few months ago, I knew precious little about.
“A Glitch in The Matrix.” “The Picasso of Boxing.” “The New Mayweather.” Legendary promoter Bob Arum has called him the greatest boxer he’s seen since Muhammad Ali.
Lavish praise. Hyperbole from those blinded by the dollar signs of big fights and marketing deals to come?
Lomachenko’s dazzling skills will play out to a primetime audience to decide when he locks horns with brilliant lightweight king Jorge Linares in their eagerly awaited clash at New York’s Madison Square Garden this weekend.
A BBC Five Live interview with Steve Bunce and John Rawling before his last world title success alerted me to a new boxing superstar. When two broadcasters of their renown sing the praises of someone out of leftfield, I had to find out more.
Lomachenko is still in the first flush of his professional career and has a lot of leather to dish out and take before his record stands comparison with the all-time greats. What is without doubt is his astonishing talent perfected during a stellar amateur career.
In just a few short years he has taken the old boxing maxim of “hit and avoid being hit” to a whole new level.
Lomachenko is rapidly becoming to boxing what Roger Federer is to tennis and Lionel Messi to football.
His movement and balance is breathtaking. His hand speed and punch accuracy dazzling.
Opponents cover up not knowing from which angle the next punch will land to scramble their senses. Natural gifts honed through thousands of hours of gym work with his father as his trainer.
An artist but without the canvas of huge media exposure as boxing struggles to reconnect with fans lost to the more brutal and hyped UFC and attract a new younger audience whose time has a million and one different distractions.
Despite arresting pro displays and an incredible amateur record, Lomachenko is still an enigma to all but the most ardent boxing fan.
The 30-year-old hailing from the shores of the Black Sea emerged into the global spotlight to grab two Olympic golds at Beijing and London, the summit of an astonishing amateur career which saw him lose just once in 396 fights. He went on to defeat his victor, twice for good measure.
Lomachenko has tasted defeat in his pro career, losing a highly controversial second fight when he battled for the world featherweight title. A world title shot in just his second pro fight!
But he’s blasted his way to featherweight and super featherweight crowns since. Different opponents, same outcome.
Lomachenko gliding around the ring like he’s on castors, circling before probing for weaknesses, switching shots, avoiding artillery and refusing to give his antagonist a moment’s respite.
Pros quitting in their corners is not how fighters call time. If they have to lose, then they go out on their shields or at least until the ref steps in.
Sickened to the point of not wanting to re-emerge from the sanctuary of their corner is testimony to the impact of boxing’s shining new light.
Whether he has the star power to take his talent beyond his sport and into the mainstream remains to be seen.
Moving up in weight to fight Linares is a risk. But a calculated one. The Venezuelan is an artist, a big name, and, like Lomachenko, as skilled in avoiding blows as dishing them out.
Linares in Madison Square Garden – the US spiritual home of boxing – is the card-topping fight on ESPN to propel Lomachenko’s renown to a whole new audience.
Victory would bring the widespread acclaim his talent deserves.
Finding those in future prepared to step through the ropes to take on a man hailed as a genius by many hardened observers of the sport, may be more difficult.
Who wants to try and hit what seemingly can’t be hit, or be pummelled senseless in a flash of Ukranian blue and yellow?
I was just going to post this appreciation of Barry McGuigan again – one of my favourite sportsmen – as a ‘lockdown read’ at a time when there’s so little sport around.
But it needed a new foreword.
He’s a man who has had to endure more tragedy in his life than most could ever understand, although reading his posts on his Twitter feed @ClonesCyclone you’d never know.
I’d urge you to follow him and take a look if you don’t already.
It’s all there.
High stakes gamble in Nevada sun
Las Vegas is the home of a million hard luck stories, high rollers and holidaying visitors alike parted from their cash in the desert temple to filthy lucre.
The searing heat of Nevada was the scene of a high stakes gamble by Ireland’s favourite son in June 1986, the next step for him on his march to global dominance.
But the odds were to prove stacked against him. A fight staged outdoors in the brutal conditions of a Las Vegas summer evening, one roll of the dice too many.
Barry McGuigan was without doubt the face of British boxing and much more. A unifying force across the divided communities of Northern Ireland, the public declared him their BBC Sports Personality of the Year just six months earlier.
His thrilling defeat of long-time champion Eusebio Pedroza on a never to be forgotten night at Queen’s Park Rangers’ Loftus Road still resonates as one of the great performances by a British fighter.
Two successful defences of his WBA Featherweight crown later and McGuigan had cemented his status as a fearsome fighter – his engaging humility in victory taking his popularity way beyond the usual boundaries of the sport.
The lure of a mega-fight with the intimidating WBC champion Azumah Nelson was looming large on the horizon for McGuigan as he landed in the US to take his bow on the world’s biggest fighting stage.
Destination Vegas. Dispose of journeyman opponent Texan Steve Cruz as expected and announce himself to the US public.
Bigger purses and universal acclaim would surely follow, as many thought was his destiny.
An outdoor ring in the car park of Caesar’s Palace Hotel was the agreed venue for his latest title defence.
The King’s Hall in Belfast – the scene of many a McGuigan glory night – seemed a long, long way away.
The fight may as well have been staged in the mouth of a blast furnace.
The thermometer ringside touched 43C – or 110F in old money.
A bank of 72 TV lights blazed down on the canvas.
McGuigan had spent weeks acclimatising for the bout in Palm Springs. But no warm weather sparring could prepare him for 45 minutes of world championship fighting in such brutal conditions at a furious pace which was the hallmark of all his bouts.
BBC broadcasting great Harry Carpenter, in a portent of what was to come, declared: “He’s been out here for weeks but I think when he gets into the ring he’s really going to feel it.”
A flurry of late betting revealed punters thought the Nevadan sunshine and dry desert air could significantly shift the odds in the challenger’s favour.
Weathered and durable, Cruz was to prove the nightmare opponent for McGuigan, whose all action, non-stop style simply wasn’t sustainable in sauna-like heat.
His bow in front of American fight fans – far from the anticipated curtain raiser announcing the new kid onto the block – was effectively career-ending.
But it shone a light on the man McGuigan is.
Refused to wilt
Three decades after last watching the fight, it was clear to me on viewing it again that McGuigan won it.
That threw me. I remembered it as a battle that slipped away from him in the middle rounds, one that saw him clinging on for dear life until the final bell.
But that wasn’t how it played out. Two calamitous rounds – ten and 15 – saw him felled three times. The majority of the other rounds were very much McGuigan’s.
The knock downs in the final three minutes undoubtedly swung the fight in Cruz’s favour on two of the judges cards, while the other inexplicably gave it by a four-point margin to Cruz.
Say a prayer
The fight is compelling. In some ways McGuigan’s greatest, certainly his most heroic.
The outdoor arena makes for a strange atmosphere as much of the noise of the 15,000 strong crowd is dissipated into the evening sky.
But McGuigan’s supporters still manage to make themselves heard and his dad Pat’s pre-fight rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ brings a little bit of the King’s Hall to Caesar’s Palace.
Early doors, McGuigan is all over Cruz. An unremarkable fighter, he is three years the Irishman’s junior at 22 and with none of his pedigree.
The WBA’s number nine ranked fighter has a creditable 25 wins with a solitary loss to his name. McGuigan can barely remember what it’s like to taste defeat, on a 27 fight winning streak taking him to the summit of the sport with 24 of those opponents stopped.
From the outset Cruz is resolute, catches McGuigan with counters and refuses to buckle under regular assault.
Carpenter forecasts that the pace both men are setting can’t be maintained, emphasising just what is at stake for the ‘Clones Cyclone’. As the first round unfolds he declares: “This is a vital fight for McGuigan, this isn’t just to win but to look good in front of America.”
The first signs of the sapping effects of heat on McGuigan are in the sixth. A stinker of a round, Cruz wobbles him with a stinging shot leaving him dazed and out of tempo.
Both men are breathing hard and McGuigan’s timing of his shots seems awry.
A cut eye doesn’t stop his ferocious work rate though – working hard to hit and avoid being hit in the seventh and eighth and looking more assured in the ninth.
But the underlying effects of dehydration are causing him serious distress and famously it comes to the fore as his cornermen work on him before the tenth round.
One of his team declares: “A great round, a marvellous round, you’re boxing, you’re boxing, you’re boxing – you’ll take him out this round or the next round. Box, box, box.”
But McGuigan implores his cornermen: “Say a prayer. Please, say a prayer that we’ll be alright.”
“No problem Barry.” McGuigan again pleads: “Say a prayer that we’ll be alright.”
Still 18 minutes left to overcome a man who would not be moved in conditions as alien as any could be to a Northern European.
His body wilting and mind clouding, he rises for the tenth.
Into the fire
After a decent start to the round, McGuigan is floored by a left hand, stunning him badly and he hauls himself to his feet on the count of eight.
The punishing heat is also sapping Cruz, too tired to follow up on his success but registering a 10-8 round.
For the first time in the fight, McGuigan is back pedalling and looking desperately tired in the 11th.
But McGuigan’s heart and extraordinary conditioning remarkably sees him gain the upper hand in the next three rounds – a low blow though costing him a point.
Carpenter is in awe of McGuigan’s “superhuman” strength which drags him back from the brink, propelling him forward and taking the 13th and 14th rounds to give him “a big, big lead” in the estimation of the BBC man.
The final round is a disaster. Nearly three-quarters of an hour of high octane output has taken its toll.
The blows that fell him are not full-blooded, but enough to put down a man on the point of total exhaustion. The tank is empty.
God knows, the temptation to stay down and end his suffering must have been huge. But he gets up quickly both times and on he goes.
On buckling legs and with senses scrambled, he somehow survives to the end.
McGuigan’s body language speaks of defeat at the final bell, a 10-7 last round a crushing blow to a king who had expended everything in defence of his crown.
Ahead on two of the three judges scorecards heading into the final round, the knockdowns swung the fight decisively to Cruz, the unanimous winner and new champion of the world.
McGuigan is helped away from the arena by his team and stretchered to a waiting ambulance, tearfully acknowledging the applause of his fans. Apologetic, with nothing to apologise for.
The reason McGuigan’s fights still resonate for people of my generation is that we liked him so much. Still do.
A working-class lad, humble and brilliant. He fought in a style most could identify with and yet hit with a power way beyond what a nine-stone man should.
His career was extinguished as it burnt at its brightest. No recriminations from him though. Typical really.
Barry McGuigan was an elite-level boxer. And he is an even better man.
As the sport’s two most destructive fighters made their way back to their respective corners, an incredulous US TV commentator caught the moment perfectly: “An entire fight encompassed in three minutes.”
Whether or not Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler actually set out to unleash hell on each other for the first 180 seconds of their unifying world middleweight championship clash, is open to debate.
What isn’t is that boxing had never seen anything quite like it before and hasn’t since. Two supremely gifted athletes at the peak of their powers setting aside all thoughts of self preservation in trying to blast each other into submission.
It’s almost 30 years to the day since ‘The Hitman’ and ‘Marvellous’ (you just have to be good with a moniker that brazen) went Mano a Mano in Las Vegas.
I still remember watching their war the following weekend on Grandstand – no YouTube or catch up in those analogue days. The slightly fuzzy, yellowed images, as was the want of videotape from the States, only added to the spectacle for me and cemented my lifelong fascination with the sport.
Of course, for both men the fight was to prove the defining moment of their glittering careers. How could it not?
Hagler entered the fight seemingly driven by a bitterness that his achievements could still not lift him from the shadow of media favourite Sugar Ray Leonard.
For Hearns, the clash represented his chance to finally take his place in the hall of modern day middleweight greats alongside Hagler, Leonard and Roberto Duran.
‘The Hitman’ had blown away Duran and pretty much anyone else unlucky enough to step into the ring with him en route to meeting Hagler. Meanwhile Hagler was a champion who could lay claim to being the sport’s pound for pound king.
A snarling, intimidating figure, dominant in the division.
The opening bell saw both men tear into each other, landing ferocious blows that would have deprived most of their peers of their senses.
From the middle of the second round Hearns was gassed out. The sheer physical effort of landing enormous shots on Hagler that registered on the Richter Scale – while having to soak up Hagler’s spiteful worst – had taken a heavy toll.
Hearns – in full flow a gangly, unfeasibly tall fighter – was now on Bambi-like legs. Hagler though, a walking shaven-headed scowl, had problems of his own.
In getting close to Hearns to fight on the inside, he had shipped heavy blows from one of the sport’s most hurtful punchers.
Blood seeping from a cut above an eye brought the doctor to the ringside to inspect the damage. Despite being allowed to continue to fight on, the message was clear for Hagler – knock Hearns out now or see your WBA, WBC and IBF belts head back north to Detroit.
The end when it came was brutal. I remember at the time being surprised that it ended as quickly as it did. A lunging Hagler felling Hearns with a chopping right hand.
But looking back now 30 years on at Hearns lying flat on his back, staring through glazed, half open eyes at the ceiling lights, it was all too clear he was spent.
The image of Hearns being carried back to his corner in the arms of one of his team is one that has stayed in my mind ever since – much as Barry McGuigan’s ‘thousand yard stare’ has as he toiled in the desert heat against Steve Cruz.
While Hearns’ dream lies broken in total exhaustion, there behind him is the contrast of a champion, raised aloft in triumph – a victory all the sweeter in having been taken to the brink.