An attempt to reverse engineer the world’s greatest boxer’s rise to the top of the world pound-for-pound rankings
First off, I should probably apologize for my headline. I don’t actually know what makes Vasyl Lomachenko, currently the best boxer in the world and one of the most fluid and graceful fighters to have ever lived, just that. In fact, I doubt anyone does. If they did, they would erect a boxing laboratory designed to manufacture more extraordinary champions like him.
But let’s say, hypothetically, we could do that. What would that lab look like? First off, the (mad) scientist would be someone like Anatoly Lomachenko, Vasyl’s father, who had plans to create a generational talent before his son was even conceived. He placed the first pair of boxing mitts over Vasyl’s tiny fists when he was just three days out of the womb. He oversaw Vasyl over the entirety of the winningest career in amateur boxing and remains intimately involved in his professional training. When Vasyl is sparring, he personally counts the punches in each round, relentlessly tracking it, looking for patterns. In one of those “inside the training camp” videos, Vasyl explains, in halting English, that he is like a video game and his father is the gamer. One of his nicknames is “The Matrix.”
So that’s your foundation, his reason, if you will. But knowing the designer doesn’t bring us much closer to understanding how one creates such an athlete—an athlete whose feats draw references to stunts that are impossible outside the confines of a simulation. We know the basics of his training—the marathon-length runs; the bag, ball, and pad work; the sparring—all of it executed with a single-mindedness that points to something embedded in his DNA. But even this doesn’t really explain what makes his performances different.
This warrants a brief interlude to explain what I mean by “different.” There are two aspects of Lomachenko’s game that are unparalleled, I would argue, in the history of the sport. The first and most obvious to a casual observer are his combinations. He assembles sequences of head movements and punches which make his opponent’s attacks appear choreographed to miss, and his own, in equal and opposite measure, entirely confounding in their precision. Simply put, whoever he is fighting has no idea where the punches are coming from, but from an observer’s perspective, they look like they’re coming from exactly where they need to. There’s an elegance to it, like puzzle pieces fitting together.
Norman Mailer once wrote that a knockout results from a failure of communication between mind and body. “A pugilist with an authentic desire to win cannot be knocked out if he sees the punch coming,” he writes. “In contrast a five-punch combination in which every shot lands is certain to stampede any opponent into unconsciousness.” Lomachencko does this better than any other fighter today. And, more importantly, when he isn’t able to “stampede” said opponent into a coma, his offence is often so overwhelming, so demoralizing that world-class boxers—some of them champions—have simply quit mid-match. Teddy Atlas, a former trainer to Mike Tyson and one of the most experienced voices in the sport, has an ominous way of describing this ability: “He takes men’s souls.”
The second part of Lomachenko’s game is, in large part, what makes the first possible and that is his footwork. It is balletic. Last December, Lomachenko fought Guillermo Rigondeaux, a matchup that was the stuff of boxing purists’ wet dreams. Rigondeaux is another one of history’s winningest amateurs and he had a near-perfect record over something like 500 fights before he was walloped by the Ukrainian. After the fight, writer Hamilton Nolan observed that Lomachenko "can be anywhere in a 270-degree radius of your face before you can move to meet him…(Standing in front of you) he slips punches with the ease of a grown man pretend-boxing with a toddler. You can’t find him, and if you do you can’t hit him, and the whole time he’s hitting you.”
To explain these more particular talents you’d have to investigate the unorthodox aspects of Lomachenko’s training. Anatoly did not allow Vasyl to begin training as a boxer until he took up traditional Ukrainian dance. One of his favourite training implements is the agility ladder, and he regularly wears out his shoes using it. On film, his warm-ups sometimes include these knuckle-to-palm handstand hops, which seem more like something an acrobat would do to open his circus act than what you’d see from a boxer. On his rest days he swims, juggles, and plays tennis (occasionally against himself). At the end of full training days, he does at least 30 minutes of mind flexibility exercises, brain teasers, and reflex drills, all part of a program crafted by a designated psychological trainer who is a permanent fixture in his camps. Then there are the breathing exercises, remarkable both in their simplicity (holding his breath for as long as he can) and sophistication (he uses computerized breathing apparatus to measure the force of his in/exhalations).
Sports psychologists, fight trainers, armchair critics, and awestruck magazine writers have twisted themselves into knots trying to connect the dots between his preparation and performance. How exactly does “x” allow him to do “y”? Maybe you’re only reading this because you were hoping to glean a few training tips, which, with enough sticktoitiveness might lead to a few flashes of athletic brilliance. If that’s the case, I’m sorry to tell you that much of what this boxer is able to do simply defies explanation. It could be, for anyone else, that spending hours doing brain teasers will do very little to improve one’s boxing IQ. It could be, for anyone else, that learning to juggle will do nothing to help you land a cleaner punch or avoid one. The consensus among the boxing cognoscenti is that what Lomachenko can do doesn’t totally make sense. The BBC’s Mike Costello described it as “almost sorcery.”
If one were forced to explain the formula to Lomachenko’s success, say in a contrived think piece, it would probably sound something like this: two generations of irrepressible devotion to the sport, an arsenal of physical and psychological gifts, and a healthy pinch of creativity. But the secret, I think, is his tacit recognition that there’s more to it than that. History always demands more.
Originally published by GLORY.