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Editorial: Can Vasyl Lomachenko emerge as a true boxing superstar?

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In front of more than 10,000 enthusiastic fans at Madison Square Garden, Vasyl Lomachenko (11-1, 9 KOs) battled back from the first knockdown of his professional career to stop Jorge Linares (44-4, 27 KOs) in the 10th round, making him the fastest in boxing history to win world titles in three divisions. It was a thrilling, high-level contest that lived up to the hype and appears to have been a ratings hit for ESPN.

It’s hard to deny Lomachenko’s case as the #1 pound-for-pound boxer in the world. Not only does he possess unique and otherworldly skills in every facet of the sport, but his professional resume is filled with top contenders, former champions, and even a current champion in Gary Russell Jr. I only noted professional, because he’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist with a reported amateur record of 396-1.

If there was palpable disappointment with the anticlimactic ending to Lomachenko vs. fellow two-time gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux — a fight that drew better ratings than did Loma vs. Linares — Saturday night should’ve been a superstar-making performance from the Ukrainian. Emphasis on should’ve been.

As MMA fans surely know all too well with Demetrious Johnson, being dominant and widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world — and in Johnson’s case, possibly the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time — is no guarantee you’re going to become a prolific draw. Even though he’s never headlined a pay-per-view card, I don’t think it’s off-base to say that Lomachenko is a more prominent name than DJ, and it also helps that he has a strong Ukrainian contingent behind him.

The question now becomes, “How much bigger can Lomamania get?” He’s been one of the featured names under Top Rank Boxing’s broadcast deal with ESPN, but in the combat sports world (under the current model as we know it), the leading metric for measuring star power is how many PPVs you sell in North America or the United Kingdom. With that said, I consider the definition of stardom to be multi-layered, much like separating an A-list actor from a B-list actor in Hollywood. There are the mega-stars who transcend the sport and become mainstream names, and there are stars who aren’t worth a lick on pay-per-view but are extremely valuable on cable or subscription television.

For a simplified example, I’ve broken it down into the following categories:

Tier 3a: Ticket seller, television draw

Can you fill an arena in your home country or hometown? Check. Can you “move the needle” on ESPN, HBO, Showtime, etc? Check. Think Arturo Gatti. Despite winning two world titles and having an extensive history of exciting fights beyond just the Micky Ward trilogy, Gatti’s lone PPV main event came against Floyd Mayweather, who also made his PPV headlining debut. Gatti was immensely popular in New Jersey, a hit on regular HBO, but not someone whose fights were deemed juicy enough to place on pay-per-view.

In Europe, you have Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, both of whom competed in soccer stadiums in Germany and were substantial draws on German television. Unfortunately, many of their fights were just poisonous for American networks.

Unless you’re a diehard boxing fan, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Japanese middleweight Ryota Murata (14-1, 11 KOs). He’s going to make his US debut later this year under the Top Rank banner, but in Japan, his recent rematch with Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam peaked at 30 million viewers in a country with an estimated population of 126 million. Murata is a local superstar with the opportunity to elevate his profile outside of Japan.

Tier 3b: Ticket seller, television draw, low-level PPV A-side and/or strong B-side

Basically everything I just wrote in Tier 3a, except Gennady Golovkin has proven himself as a strong B-side to the tune of 1.5 million buys for his fight vs. Canelo Alvarez. Both of Golovkin’s PPVs have drawn under 200,000 buys. On the flip side, he’s averaged over 1 million viewers in three of his last four HBO appearances. He’s also sold out venues to full capacity in multiple US cities, and obviously would be a smash hit if he were to ever fight in his native Kazakhstan again.

Tier 2: Good but not great PPV draw

These are the fighters who were decent draws on their own but were never able to reach the rarefied air of A-side status on a 1,000,000+ buy card.

The top example that springs to mind is Roy Jones Jr. While Roy’s breathtaking, awe-inspiring mastery of the sport was incredible to watch, only once in his career did he exceed 500,000 buys, and that was his 2003 heavyweight title win vs. John Ruiz, which somewhat doubled as the beginning of the end of Jones’ time at the top. It certainly didn’t help that there weren’t many credible foils available, such that a “Roycott” was staged for his bout vs. Julio Cesar Gonzalez.

The recently retired Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto was a strong B-side against Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, and Canelo Alvarez, yet most of his other PPVs ranged from 225,000-600,000 buys.

Tier 1: The super-duper superstar

The cream of the crop, if you will. In the UFC, it’s obviously Conor McGregor. In boxing, Canelo Alvarez and Anthony Joshua are the only A-side pay-per-view attractions, and the latter’s PPV success is limited to just the United Kingdom. Joshua’s popularity is further boosted by his ability to sell out massive stadiums in excess of 75,000. The likes of Tyson, Mayweather, Pacquiao, and others all became mainstream icons to the point where at the peak of their respective powers, fans bought their cards just to watch them compete, strength of opponent be damned. Good luck trying to squeeze 700,000 buys out of the 2018 equivalent of Pacquiao vs. Joshua Clottey in the current economic climate.

I’d put Lomachenko (and Terence Crawford, for that matter) in Tier 3a. Lomachenko has proven he can fill up smaller arenas, and he pretty much packed the lower bowl at MSG in his debut at the main venue, which is promising. In all likelihood, this will be his second straight ESPN card in which he’s drawn over 1 million viewers. As far as PPV is concerned, any scenario in which he’s the A-side — Lomachenko vs. Mikey Garcia, for example — is going to be a difficult sell. There are absolutely no fighters at present who regularly compete at 130, 135, or 140 pounds who’d relegate Lomachenko to B-side status. That’s just how it works in the smaller divisions.

One possibility for Lomachenko is the timeless tradition of beating a faded star. Top Rank promoter Bob Arum has been vocal about wanting to set up an end-of-year pay-per-view showdown against Pacquiao, provided Pacquiao beats Lucas Matthysse in July (and that’s not a given). Pacquiao went from Tier 2 to Tier 1 in the stardom rankings after dominating a faded Oscar De La Hoya in 2008. Mayweather became a Tier 1 draw immediately after beating De La Hoya the year prior to that. Anthony Joshua sent Wladimir Klitschko into retirement last year in an instant classic. Lomachenko’s management doesn’t seem keen on moving up to 140 to face Pacquiao (who would simultaneously be moving down in weight), but more money in the pot probably washes that concern away.

Lomachenko vs. Pacquiao is likely the best path “Hi-Tech” has towards breaking into at least Tier 2. Somewhat like Demetrious Johnson, Lomachenko is a victim of not having other high-profile names who can generate money fights, and Lomachenko has already fought in three different weight classes that have the exact same problem. Perhaps there’s a chance Lomachenko will follow in Pacquiao’s footsteps and take on opponents all the way up to super-welterweight (154 lbs), but I doubt that’s in the cards. On the plus side, he’s managed quality pre-fight narratives for himself just on the Rigondeaux and Linares bouts alone, but there aren’t many other feasible options on the horizon.

That isn’t to say time is running short. He’s only 30 years old and in the prime of his career, and looking beyond his in-ring achievements, he has a compelling personal background, and has been promoted and booked in such a way that he’s developed a fan-friendly reputation for challenging himself at the highest level instead of wasting everyone’s time with a string of jobbers. You could even argue that getting knocked down was a net positive, as it showed vulnerability for the first time since his loss to Orlando Salido. As Luke Thomas wrote on Twitter, he truly is a promoter’s dream.

The next few months — likely starting with a bout TBD on Aug. 25 in Los Angeles — will go a long way towards determining what Lomachenko’s ceiling is as a major showcase fighter. If it never materializes that he’s up there with Canelo, Joshua, or even a prime Roy Jones Jr, I’ll still enjoy watching him do his thing in the squared circle. But if there’s anyone in boxing who deserves more widespread attention, it’s Vasyl Lomachenko.

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