Without a doubt, the star of the show Saturday night at Madison Square Garden is Vasiliy Lomachenko, who is going for his third world title in a different weight class in just his 12th pro fight and is regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing.
But the owner of the WBA lightweight championship belt is Venezuelan Jorge Linares (44-3, 27 KOs), who is vastly more experienced at the pro level, has a one-inch height advantage and a 3 1⁄2-inch reach advantage and has been fighting as a lightweight for seven years and will be making his seventh defense of that title. Lomachenko (10-1, 8 KOs) is moving up from the 130-pound super featherweight class to the 135-pound division.
Lomachenko’s last four opponents have quit between rounds, but Linares is confident that he’s up to the challenge.
“You have to respect where the fans and the media and everybody has him at because he’s earned it,” Linares said through an interpreter when asked about Lomachenko’s status on the pound-for-pound list. “But when the first bell rings, everybody’s mind is going to change.
“I have to be cautious because, obviously, he’s very fast, but then I have to start taking over round by round . . . Yes, I feel [my size] is an advantage, but we have to see how it unfolds during the fight.”
Lomachenko dismissed the prospect of any problems in a higher weight class. But there has been speculation a victory might lead to a 140-pound bout against Manny Pacquiao if he wins a July fight against WBA welterweight champion Lucas Matthysse. That’s a 147-pound title, but Pacquiao could easily make the 140-pound super lightweight limit to facilitate a clash of titans.
Discussing the prospect of facing Pacquiao, Lomachenko betrayed a hint of concern about moving up in weight against a fighter as accomplished as Linares.
“This is the first bout I’m going to be fighting at 135,” Lomachenko said. “My real weight is 130 pounds. I feel very good at 130 pounds, but because I want to make history, I moved up one weight class.
“I don’t know how I’m going to be feeling at 135. Right now, it doesn’t make any sense for us to talk about the Pacquiao fight, which probably would be at 140.”
It would be a serious mistake for Lomachenko to look past Linares, who suffered the second of back-to-back TKO losses six years ago but recovered to win 13 straight bouts and regain prominence. That experience should make Linares mentally stronger than Lomachenko’s last four foes.
“My experience is going to help me in this fight, and the preparation I’ve had for this fight is going to help me tremendously,” Linares said. “I know where I’m at, and I know what I’m capable of doing with the preparation I’ve had. I’ve worked very hard like I’ve never worked before.”