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How a champion will need to reach deep into his bag of tricks to handle Vasiliy Lomachenko

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Jorge Linares is a champion, but still a massive underdog against Vasiliy Lomachenko. (AP)

There is little that Jorge Linares can’t do in the boxing ring, as evidenced by his 44-3 record, 27 knockouts in 47 fights and world titles at two different weight classes.

The lightweight champion has a reputation as an entertaining, high-volume offensive fighter, which is why his bout Saturday at Madison Square Garden on ESPN against Vasiliy Lomachenko is so hotly anticipated: both boxers are exceptional offensive machines.

But Linares came into boxing with a far different reputation: From the time he turned professional in 2002, he was a sharp defensive fighter, whose speed and quickness, footwork, timing and an uncanny sense of where punches are coming from made him difficult to hit.

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Those are traits he’ll desperately need against Lomachenko, who not only has won his last seven bouts by knockout but who has made his last four opponents quit on the stool. Lomachenko’s fierce attack forced Nicholas Walters, Jason Sosa, Manuel Marriaga and Guillermo Rigondeaux to say, “No mas,” between rounds.

Though Linares is the bigger man physically with Lomachenko moving up in weight, he’ll likely suffer the same fate if he tries to go blow-for-blow in the center of the ring with Lomachenko. He’s going to have to pull out his old bag of tricks to slip and slide, and duck and spin out of the way of punches.

It’s not like Ozzie Smith forgot how to field a grounder once he learned to hit, and it’s not as if Linares has eschewed the defensive tendencies that have made him so successful.

“I feel I have to be a step ahead of him,” Linares said.

Roberto Diaz, Golden Boy’s highly regarded matchmaker, pointed out that Linares was eliciting comparisons to Oscar De La Hoya long before Linares fought for the company.

He has always been a smooth, slick fighter, but he took it upon himself to fight a more exciting style to please the fans.

“It’s funny to hear fans saying how Jorge is an offensive fighter, because he’s been known as a defensive fighter, so smooth and graceful, for so long,” Diaz said. “He’s got beautiful defensive skills. He has the ability to make you miss, but he’s engaged more to please the fan base. When he went to the U.K. to fight, he fought a little more aggressively in order to be careful to not let the decision get away. But Jorge has always been good in avoiding punches.”

Linares laughed at the suggestion that there will be any issue despite the fact that his highly regarded trainer, Ismael Salas, won’t be in his corner Saturday.

Vasiliy Lomachenko is perhaps the most gifted fighter on the planet. (Getty)

Salas also trains heavyweight David Haye, who was stopped by Tony Bellew last week. Salas trained Haye in England and so was unable to train Linares.

Linares’ brother, Carlos, will replace Salas, with Jorge Capetillo and the highly regarded Rudy Hernandez also in his corner. Linares is a veteran and insisted the change won’t have much of an impact.

“People will always talk and I hear things in the media or on social media and it’s OK for people to have opinions,” Linares said. “But I’m fine. I have worked hard and we have had a good camp. And look, I still have all of the teachings Salas has given me. He’s one of the best trainers ever and he’s taught me well.

“I’m a smart fighter and I know what I have to do. It won’t matter who is in the corner on Saturday.”

There were considerable obstacles toward getting the fight done, not the least of which was that Golden Boy already had a fight card scheduled on HBO and doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with Lomachenko promoter Top Rank.

But the fighters themselves wanted the bout and when they insisted it happen, the promoters got it made.

Linares has never had a fight of this magnitude and has been eyeing a match with Lomachenko for a while as a way to prove himself. Lomachenko is a massive 15-1 favorite, but Linares scoffed at such a wide disparity.

“You can see the kind of fighter he is,” Linares said of Lomachenko. “But I requested this fight because I have always wanted to challenge myself against the best. I told Oscar to get this fight for me and I had confidence he would get it done.

“I believe in myself and in what I can do up there in that ring. I have a good plan and it’s going to be a hard, difficult fight, but I know I have the ability to win this.”

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