LAS VEGAS — Vasiliy Lomachenko sat ringside at Madison Square Garden with a bemused look on his face on Dec. 14, 2019, seconds after Teofimo Lopez knocked out Richard Commey and set up a bout between the two for the undisputed lightweight championship.
The rivals, who have been on a collision course since Lopez’s father got into Lomachenko’s face in the lobby of a New York hotel two nights before Lomachenko’s bout against Jose Pedraza in 2018, will meet on Saturday in the conference center at the MGM Grand for the WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF belts.
Lopez’s victory was typically dramatic. He caught Comey with a blazing straight right hand that for all intents and purposes finished the fight. Commey managed to get up, and the referee somehow decided to let the fight continue.
There are few better finishers in the sport than Teofimo Andres Lopez Jr., and the then-22-year-old grimly went about finishing Commey and winning the IBF belt.
He did his traditional victory backflip in the ring while wearing Joe Burrow’s No. 9 LSU jersey an hour or so after Burrow had won the Heisman Trophy.
It was an electrifying display in the second round from Lopez, and a large reason why Yahoo Sports named him its Prospect of the Year in both 2017 and 2018.
Lomachenko, as usual, took it in stoically and then climbed into the ring to pose for the photos with Lopez. The big fight was on, and Lomachenko posed with Lopez, grinning impishly.
He had his scouting report.
“I saw all I needed to see in the first round,” Lomachenko told Yahoo Sports months later.
Lopez won the first round of that fight on the cards of Julie Lederman and Steve Weisfeld, while Commey took it on the card of Eric Marlinski.
Boxing is a show for Lopez, who calls himself an entertainer and believes the fight is just one part of the act. He’s known as something of a trash talker, and while he’s not against a gibe now and then, he’s not all that outrageous with it. It’s his father, Teofimo Lopez Sr., who hurls out the insults at an alarming rate.
Lomachenko, a -400 favorite at BetMGM, is almost like a light-footed automaton, a boxing savant who sees a smile in the ring as a sign of weakness. Scores of boxing fans and media are trying to do psychoanalysis of the final public appearance of the fighters at Wednesday’s news conference at the MGM.
The fighters sat on opposite sides of ESPN host Joe Tessitore, who questioned them and tried to draw them out on their rivalry.
Lomachenko had little to say and showed little emotion. But that’s almost how he always is in public. He’s uncomfortable surrounded by reporters or speaking about himself and has little to say.
If either Lopez has gotten to him with his taunts, he is doing a good job of hiding it.
“English isn’t my language,” Lomachenko said. “Most of the time, I don’t even know what he says.”
So the fight will be decided where it should and in the way it should, not by emotions but by the fighters themselves in the middle of the ring.
Lomachenko is unlike most boxers before him in history. His footwork was forged from years of dance classes in Ukraine. He moves effortlessly and creates angles to throw his punches from angles his opponents aren’t used to seeing, and as a result, they’re hit cleanly far more often than normal.
Former world champion Andre Ward, who will call the fight for ESPN, said as he was preparing for his rematch with Sergiy Kovalev in 2017, he thought long and hard about Lomachenko’s style.
“It’s formless,” Ward said, noting that Lomachenko would adapt to what was required at all times.
He’s hard to hit and often tires opponents out, making them miss and then countering with hard shots they don’t see. But Lopez Sr. noted that he was dropped by Jorge Linares and that it was one of many fights in which the two-time Olympic gold medalist was hit a lot.
“I hear all this [expletive] about you can’t touch Lomachenko, and that’s all it is, [expletive], coming from people who don’t know what the [expletive] they’re talking about,” Lopez Sr. said. “A lot of guys have touched him. Linares knocked him on his ass. And none of these guys he’s fought hit like my son hits. My son hits him with some of those punches and he’s going to dreamland.”
Lopez, who is 15-0 with 12 knockouts, isn’t simply a seek-and-destroy puncher. He has the power in his hands to end any fight with one punch, but he’s athletic enough and understands intuitively how to move in the ring that he can box when circumstances dictate.
In Lomachenko, though, he’ll face a master who is best at making his opponents look awkward and amateurish.
Lomachenko is an unusually slow starter, so it will be incumbent upon Lopez to come out quickly and try to get Lomachenko out of his comfort zone. That will mean putting him in the corner and fighting along the ropes.
Lopez doesn’t often use a jab, which would be a great weapon to have against Lomachenko, particularly as a means to get the fight out of the center of the ring. The longer the fight stays in the center, the more it will favor Lomachenko.
It seems like this is Lomachenko’s fight to win. Lopez hasn’t fought anyone who remotely resembles Lomachenko, and most of his opposition was limited in terms of mobility and boxing IQ.
Lopez is good enough to win this fight. But Lomachenko’s superior boxing skills, his genius in the ring and his great feet, should lead him to a unanimous decision victory.
More from Yahoo Sports: