The most extraordinary maestro of the noble craftwork the world of boxing has ever seen was born in Ukraine two years after the horrors of Chernobyl.
Few of Vasyl Lomachenko’s fellow countrymen will quibble with the notion that the genius we have the privilege of watching defend his unified world lightweight championship in London‘s O2 Arena this Saturday against Luke Campbell is in some strange part the product of that nuclear disaster.
All manner of mutant reactions have since been attributed to the sinister, invisible cloud which spread its poison.
Vasyl Lomachenko, the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing, is ready for Luke Campbell
‘Loma’ (right), as he is known, often spars with three fighters at the same time in training
The greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the ring today was born 420 miles from the site of that nightmare accident but Lomachenko says: ‘Maybe I am the man from Chernobyl.’
He says that in answer to the question of how he came by the unique style, mental powers and physical properties which set him apart from the mere mortals of the prize-ring. Does he mean it? At the very least it is a powerful metaphor.
Certainly, he is the product of extreme science. What has become known as the Loma Experiment began when his father Anatoly laced a pair of boxing gloves on to his hands when he was but two days old.
Not for one day thereafter has there been any let up nor deviation from his path towards becoming the greatest boxer of all-time, which his father has always believed to be his son’s destiny. And he still does as the three of us meet on the banks of the Thames.
As of now, Lomachenko is the best pound-for-pound for boxer on planet Earth. Already, he is held to be a phenomenon. No wonder his first nickname was The Matrix.
The regime to which Loma, as he is known to family and friends, submits himself is consuming beyond intensity. ‘Papa’ who is also his trainer has been likened, carelessly by some, to Dr Frankenstein. But he is no nuclear monster.
The Ukrainian fighter was born near the Chernobyl site two years after the disaster
Luke Campbell will be hoping to upset the odds when he fights Lomachenko at the O2 Arena
Loma says: ‘I love my life. Always have. It is what I want to do. Also, I never separate father from trainer. He is my father in life but also my father in the gym, my father in my corner. He created my style originally to look after me in a dangerous game. Protect the head, preserve my health.’
Together they developed the remarkable movement which widens the astonishing angles from which he delivers punches which can barely be seen by opponents before they land. To marvel at this kaleidoscope of brilliance is to be astonished at all it has taken to achieve. Like sparring against three men at the same time. Yes, three.
I’ve always been a quick learner. I can get as close to instant reflex as humanly possible
Loma smiles: ‘Usually it’s one sparring partner. Sometimes two. Occasionally three. I tell you a secret. To be honest, it is easier against three than two. The three get more in the way of each other than the two so if you also understand positioning that makes it easier for me to pick them off.’
That requires lightning speed not only of hand but foot. To acquire that as a boy he had to suffer being exiled from the gym to dancing classes for three years.
‘That I didn’t like,’ he says. ‘It was Ukrainian national dancing with the costumes. But my father insisted. With hindsight, it was worth it.’
Lomachenko (left) and Campbell (right) line up during a press conference in London in July
It was one of many strict lessons. ‘I tell you one story,’ he says. ‘One day I came home from school with a low mark. My father told me to go back and improve the grade. I didn’t take it seriously. After two days he asked if I had done so. I said no. So he said I could not go back to the gym until I did.
‘After two more days he asked again. I answered no and I was banned for two more days from the gym. So I got out the books and got the higher mark.
To improve his focus and sharpen his brain, Lomachenko holds his breath under water – and his record is four and a half minutes
‘Then my father said, “OK”. But he added that he had heard me talking about winning Olympic gold. He said that somewhere in another country was another boy with the same dream but now I was five days behind that boy. He told me that without an educated brain I could not be world champion.’
What subject did he flunk? ‘I can’t remember if it was Russian language or history. For sure it was not mathematics. I love mathematics.’
There speaks The Matrix. Together they set about training as well as educating Loma’s mind as demandingly as his body. The Brain Box is one of their devices.
‘I have to react to lights and stimuli as fast as possible by touch. I have always been a quick learner. Always at speed. I can get as close to instant reflex as humanly possible.’
Maybe inhumanly. Some of the physical excesses are also designed to sharpen the brain. Like holding his breath under water.
Campbell (left) is the tallest opponent Lomachenko has ever faced in his professional career
‘My record is four-and-a-half minutes,’ says Loma. ‘My father says it is four minutes 20 seconds but he is always wanting more. I haven’t done it so much lately but I think I could get to five minutes now. It’s not only physical. It teaches the brain to remain calm and focused under pressure. Down there, it means more to me to win a fight than to take a breath. I never panic if I’m tired or hurt. I am still thinking when I can hardly breathe.’
Lomachenko has been forever immersed in sport, the son of a boxer father and a mother who still practises gymnastics and martial arts. ‘I did everything,’ he says.
‘Ice hockey, horse-riding, rowing, wrestling, juggling tennis balls, basketball, 10 kilometre swims.’
Not chess, though, unlike many great Eastern European fighters like the Klitschko brothers and Gennady Golovkin. ‘I’m not good at sitting down,’ he smiles. ‘But I was good at football. I played wide front on the left (Eden Hazard style as he explains it) but with all the boxing it never became serious.
The Ukrainian’s father has been by his side throughout, even making him go to dance classes
‘When my father threw me a football it was for something else. I had to keep it up with my feet 300 times. A hundred, a hundred-and-fifty, two hundred was OK. But it took me three hours to get to the 300. It teaches focus, concentration, determination.’
As does 15 four-minute rounds of sparring against larger fighters: ‘At my size (5ft 7in) I am usually boxing bigger opponents. But none before so big as Luke Campbell (5ft 9in) so to solve that problem for this weekend’s fight I have worked with men ever taller than him.’
Pause for a moment and consider this man’s record. Only one defeat in 396 amateur bouts, with that defeat avenged twice. Double gold medallist in Olympics and world amateur championships. Won first world title, at featherweight, in only his third pro fight (having suffered his only defeat in a rushed bid to win a belt in his second bout) and holds the record for winning a world title in a third weight division in just his 12th fight.
Through it all, his father has been there. ‘Always will be,’ he says and not only in the tattoo of Papa on his side. ‘We have had our differences down the years, of course. Our arguments. Our problems. But he always wins. Because in the end it comes to an ultimatum. Quietly he says that if I want to go my way he wishes me well but it will be without him.’
The moral support from his mother as well as wife Elena is vital, also. As is that of his life-long best friend ‘from the house opposite ours’. That is one reason why, although he trains for his American fights near Los Angeles, he still lives in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskiy, the Black Sea resort where he used to sell newspapers and ice cream on the beach for pocket money.
Neither the relatives nor the best friend are coming to the fight, however. He explains: ‘My mother came to a couple but she was frightened for me. Elena came once but was nervous. And if they are there I know they will be worried about me doing something this dangerous and it would distract me.’
Lomachenko only had one defeat in 396 amateur bouts, with that defeat avenged twice
The laser focus is on Campbell — ‘A very good fighter with a high boxing IQ who I would never take easily’ — at the moment. And he enjoys being in London where he won his second Olympic gold.
He is happy to pose for pictures against the skyscraper backdrop of Canary Wharf. ‘I like the architecture, the structure,’ he says. ‘I like the people, too. They love the boxing and I could tell at the Games they understand it. I was last here for the Dillian Whyte fight against Oscar Rivas and the atmosphere in the O2 was fantastic. I look forward to that. I have the feeling that every real Englishman has done boxing at some point in his life. It is the making of men, as I have explained to my son.’
Sportsmail’s Jeff Powell spent Bank Holiday Monday with Lomachenko near Canary Wharf
Anatoly Jnr, at seven, has had his first two fights. ‘Two wins,’ says Loma. ‘Although my father told him he scored one as a draw because it is not good for a young boy to think things come easily. It will be his decision whether he goes on to become a boxer. But if he does we will help him.’
Apart from us being with our families, there could have been no more pleasant way to spend a sun-kissed Bank Holiday Monday morning than beside the Thames with this sporting great chatting about his unique style. So could there be a nasty edge to him?
‘All champions have a big ego,’ he says. ‘I think I am the best pound-for-pound in the world. Terence Crawford thinks he is. Canelo Alvarez thinks he is.
‘For me Crawford is second, Alvarez third. Although none of us accept losing.
‘But you are a journalist, not a danger to me. Come watch on Saturday night when the Loma-Chip will be on my shoulder.’
So where did that come from? When was it ordained that this disarming 31-year-old would scale such Elysian heights? ‘Before he was born,’ says Papa Lomachenko.
Not long after Chernobyl, then?
Lomachenko v Campbell will be televised live on Sky Sports Box Office this Saturday