Olympic boxing greats Lomachenko, Rigondeaux fight as pros
FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2008, file photo, Vasyl Lomachenko, of Ukraine, reacts after defeating Khedafi Djelkhir, of France, during the men's featherweight 57 kilogram final boxing match at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Before they became professional champions, Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux were the class of boxing's amateur ranks. They meet Saturday for Lomachenko's 130-pound title in the first pro bout between two-time Olympic gold medalists. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
By Brian Mahoney, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Vasyl Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux, both champions and two of boxing's best, were even more than that as amateurs.
They were the gold standard.
So a fight between them seemed natural, the first professional bout pitting fighters who each won two Olympic gold medals.
"It's obviously a historic fight," promoter Bob Arum said. "Two great, great fighters with two unbelievable pedigrees facing each other."
They fight Saturday at the Theater in Madison Square Garden for Lomachenko's 130-pound title, a popular pairing for fight fans who marveled at their mastery of the craft back when the prizes were medals around their necks, not belts around their waists.
"This fight is very important for me because a lot of people who are fans, a lot of media want this fight," Lomachenko said. "It's a very special fight for them. It's special for me. It will be interesting."
Lomachenko (9-1, 7 KOs) won Olympic gold in 2008 and again four years later in London fighting at a different weight, the highlights of an amateur career in which the Ukrainian compiled a 396-1 record. He won a 126-pound belt in just his third pro fight in 2014, has made three defenses of the 130-pound title he won in 2016, and is likely headed for a move up to lightweight next year.
First he has to deal with Rigondeaux (17-0, 11 KOs), the 122-pound champion moving up two weight classes for an ESPN-televised chance to earn the appreciation that his unbeaten pro career hasn't brought yet.
"It's a very important fight in my career," Rigondeaux said through an interpreter. "It's going to be a great show and I hope everybody appreciates the show we're going to put on Saturday."
The Olympic gold medalist for Cuba at 119 pounds in 2000 and 2004 would have preferred it at a lighter weight, where he wouldn't be giving up size to a fighter who has the offensive arsenal of Lomachenko. But 130 pounds was where Rigondeaux, 37, had to go to get the opportunity that has eluded him throughout his unbeaten career, even when he toppled Nonito Donaire in 2013 in a fight that gave him another title but not really many more fans.
His defensive-minded style was the way to pile up the points as an amateur, where on top of his Olympic golds he also won world titles in 2001 and 2005, and Pan American Games gold medals in 2003 and 2005. But it hasn't done much to make him marketable as a pro, where Lomachenko's six straight victories by stoppage demonstrate the kind of aggression casual viewers favor.
"Rigo has had a historic, legendary career as an Olympic fighter and now as a professional and this is a fight that he's been waiting for his entire career, to bring him not just to the top of the pound-for-pound list, where he has always been, to bring him the exposure and the accolades as one of the most popular fighters in the world that he's so deserving of," promoter Dino Duva said. "But he's never had the chance to get there. This is the fight that's going to bring him over that hump."
The undercard includes American Shakur Stevenson, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist who sparred with Lomachenko during camp, as well as former Irish Olympic bronze medalist Michael Conlan. U.S. women's Olympian Mikaela Mayer also is in one of the preliminary bouts.
Then Lomachenko will try to cap his year by breaking through Rigondeaux's often impenetrable defense.
At 5-foot-6, the 29-year-old now living in California hardly looks intimidating. Lomachenko arrived for his news conference Thursday in a button-down shirt and thick glasses, a cerebral look for what figures to be a fierce night in the ring.
Fitting, because this is a fight he'll have to win as much with his mind as his muscle.
"Of course, it's going to be a very intelligent fight. Two guys meeting who really knows about boxing," Lomachenko said through an interpreter. "So it's an intelligent fight, brain fight."
Both fighters thrive in those, part of the reason they can't land the bigger fights they want. They're tough to even look good against, let alone beat, and many opponents want no part of that.
So they ended up fighting each other, one of them perhaps headed to a loss that's been so infrequent dating to their youth.
"It's going to be a great fight for the fans and it's going to be a great historical fight that fans will forever look back on," Rigondeaux said.