HBO Showcases the Ukrainian Olympic Squad
By: Eric Lunger
There is an ideal narrative arc in the career of a professional boxer: prospect to contender to champion. Normally, the prospect period is spent in dreary isolation, training hard and fighting four or six round undercard bouts in front of mostly empty venues. Every one of these bouts is treacherous, because the other prospect across the ring has the same desperate desire to advance. One mistake can be terrible, a KO loss on the record. But after years of hard work, sacrifice, and honing of the craft, the prospect gains a shot at a title. He becomes a contender.
This narrative has been interrupted recently by the influx of highly-skilled, mostly Eastern European, amateurs.
Instead of a long prospect period, these fighters have spent years in the international amateur system. We are talking about fighters like Gennady Golovkin, Artur Beterbiev, and featured last weekend on HBO Championship Boxing, the Ukrainian trio of Oleksandr Usyk, Oleksandr Gvosdyk, and Vasyl Lomachenko. Usyk won the WBO World cruiserweight belt after only nine pro fights, while Lomachenko became a two-weight class World champ in only seven pro tilts.
Is there some “amateur” style or “European” style that these fighters bring to the table? Golovkin has shed that style, consciously pursuing an aggressive, body attack and combination “Mexican” style. While Lomachenko and Usyk certainly exhibit an “amateur” style, there is more too it than a simple and one-dimensional label. Both guys are southpaws for one, and both have received significant training from Anatoly Lomachenko, Vasyl’s father and trainer.
You can see it in the quick footwork of both fighters, and, for example, in that signature side-step to the right, where suddenly they are in position to throw a punishing, but short, left hook from an angle that their opponent is not expecting. It is no coincidence that both men have perfected that move.
Usyk’s win over Michael Hunter on Saturday night showcased the Ukrainian’s considerable skills. Hunter too has a strong amateur background, having fought in the London Olympic games. And Hunter was not in the ring as a mere opponent; he came to fight and he came to win.
While the unanimous scores were wide (117-110 across the board), I was impressed with Hunter’s learning curve during the fight, his poise, and his incredible courage. Until the twelfth round, when Usyk was clearly looking for a KO, I thought Hunter fought well even while losing rounds. As the twelfth round ended, I was full of admiration for Usyk’s skills, but in my heart I was cheering for Hunter.
As much as I enjoyed watching all three Ukrainians on Saturday night, I’m equally glad that boxing is a big tent with room for all different styles. What if a Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia fight came to fruition? That would be a potential fight of the year, in my view.