LAS VEGAS – It’s strange here: eerie, quiet, half-lit, socially distanced, like someone made a movie about a pleasure oasis of casinos just like these, where neon signs and gaudy nightclubs and 44-ounce margaritas make life so amplified that extreme begins to feel normal. Until one day everything is extreme, the world thrown into chaos, and then, here, the rhythm feels off.
Even now, it’s different, on this weekend, a big fight weekend, the likes of which Vegas hosts better than anywhere else. Now, it’s like The Strip is stuck on low battery mode. No lines for cabs, no lines of cars. Plenty of masks. Thousands of hand sanitizer stations. Business is back but not exactly booming, not even on the eve of a bout that matches arguably the world’s best boxer, Vasiliy Lomachenko, with boxing’s youngest world champion, Teofimo Lopez.
Their fight, scheduled for late Saturday, promises a vast array of potential significance. For boxing fans, the most-overlooked, underappreciated group of die-hards in sports, here’s a blockbuster they’d usually have to pay extra for, showing on regular ESPN, in a prime 10 p.m. (EST) slot. With four belts on the line and one loss between the combatants, this is the kind of match-up promoters like to promise and then hold hostage for years. Want casual, or mainstream, fans to give the fight game another try? Give them this kind of showdown and don’t ask for $75 in return.
For the 32-year-old Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KOs), the stakes continue to elevate. From the most astounding amateur career in the sport’s storied annals (396-1 record, Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012) to the belt taken from the undefeated Gary Russell Jr. in only pro bout No. 3. All the way to here, to the opponent he most wants to shut up. Take the bad blood between the camps, the 2018 incident in a Manhattan hotel lobby, the animosity that seems real rather than manufactured; add a live, national TV audience that’s stuck at home and watching sports; throw in a spectacular knockout; and witness the Ukrainian technician continue to rise toward global stardom.
For the 23-year-old Lopez (15-0, 12 KOs), there’s much in play here, too. He might have more wins and fewer pro losses than Lomachenko, but his resume is thinner, his bonafides less established. Yes, he stopped Richard Commey to seize the IBF belt last December. But it took a possible unification—and his father’s threats to the reigning lightweight king—to land Lopez in this kind of bout, which most think is happening too early. At least for him.
And yet, it might not be that simple. In boxing, simple is a tomato can, the concept that takes the most Ls. Lopez is younger than Lomachenko by nine years, boasts of a significant three-inch reach advantage and has flashed significant power in most of his fights. “The Takeover is not just a phrase we throw out there,” he says, citing, well, a phrase they throw out there. But to Lopez, it takes on additional meaning. “This is the part where I’m leading the new generation,” he says. “Winning this is a stamp and a mark to put on for the new era.”
That’s part of this, the contrast in personality and in styles, the way the combatants check the stereotypical boxes that might be expected of them. Lopez is brash, is from Brooklyn, is more raw and unpolished. Despite undeniable talent, many in boxing are still wondering what to make of him. Lomachenko is from Eastern Europe, is clinical and can perceived as arrogant or cold. But his record says what he never needed to, and so, he decides not to say much. “It’s just a ring and judges and TV,” he said. “That’s it. And, of course, four belts.”
This is what happens on big fight weekends, whether there will be fans in stands or sealed-off bubbles. Look long enough, hard enough, and it always seems like either man can win. Lomachenko moves with precision that recalls his days learning traditional Ukrainian dance; he’s graceful like Roger Federer, if Roger Federer threw uppercuts.
And yet, because this boxing, where narratives can change with one punch, Lomachenko hasn’t looked quite as dominant in recent fights, particularly against larger opposition. Since making the move from super featherweight to lightweight, two of his four fights in the bigger division (Jose Pedraza, Luke Campbell) have gone the distance, while Jorge Linares knocked Lomachenko on his keister for the first time in his pro career.
Beyond the fans, or the eventual fight winner, boxing could benefit from what happens on Saturday, too. For one, the lightweight division and adjacent weights are heavy with contenders, starting with these two, but also Gervonta Davis, Leo Santa Cruz, Devin Haney, Yuriorkis Gamboa and fast-rising prospect Ryan Garcia.
The hope for all involved is that on the most abnormal of fight weekends, in a city of sin gone prayer-in-church quiet, the impact will stretch further than anyone expected. That a city and a sport in need of a spark will be electrified by two men who really don’t like each other and yet have spent a week on the same 12th floor, of the same MGM Grand hotel, hearing about how everything is different. Until the moment they step in the ring, when nothing is.