VASILIY LOMACHENKO isn’t talking. At least not to everyone in the lead-up to his Saturday meeting with Masayoshi Nakatani in Las Vegas. It’s a comeback fight for the former three-division belt-holder, and those are two words – comeback and former – many believed they wouldn’t ever hear associated with the Ukrainian master boxer in the years following the first loss of his career against Orlando Salido in 2014.

That was the second fight of Lomachenko’s pro boxing career, and from then until the night of October 17, 2020, it was all wins, title fights and a lofty place on the pound-for-pound list.

Then Teofimo Lopez came along, and after chasing Loma and his belts for two years, he hit his mark, winning a unanimous decision that made him the lightweight champion of the world. As for Lomachenko, the aura of invincibility that had developed around him in the years after the Salido fight was shattered.

More than that, questions arose, wondering if Lomachenko was as good as we all assumed he was. Sure, he was dubbed “The Matrix,” but was it all a mirage? No, it couldn’t be; we had the video to prove it, along with the wins over Roman Martinez, Nicholas Walters, Guillermo Rigondeaux, Jorge Linares and Anthony Crolla that reminded us why boxing was dubbed “The Sweet Science.”

But in Las Vegas against the unbeaten Lopez, Lomachenko wasn’t just human; he looked like a fighter who didn’t want to be in the ring that night, and some would say he wasn’t there, at least not for the first half of the bout, when he barely threw a punch as Lopez built a big lead.

By the time he decided to make a run at the New Yorker, it was too late, with the judges returning scores of 116-112, 117-111 and 119-109 in favor of Lopez. It was a verdict that didn’t sit well with the Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi native.

“I said that I wasn’t ready to comment on the fight without watching it first,” Lomachenko said via his own social media on December 18. “And I said that I thought I didn’t lose the fight. And I can repeat it today. I didn’t lose the fight.”

Few agreed with that assessment, though some did think Lomachenko might have squeezed out a draw if he got favorable judging in close rounds. Even by his own account, the former champ explained to Kobelkov his scoring of the bout after watching it.

“His win reflects the bias against myself,” Lomachenko said. “If we counted scores strictly by the book, the scorecard would be different. I took one round for the first half of the fight and five rounds for the second one, namely rounds seven to 11. We’ve got six-six, which is a draw. And if it’s a draw, we use the unspoken rule of boxing. We look at rounds 10-12, and I won two of them. It’s 2-1. Even if I won three rounds in the first half of the fight, I wouldn’t win the fight on the scorecards. What does it say? It’s not about bias, it’s about being bribed. There was nothing about honest judging.”

Five days later, Lomachenko walked back those incendiary comments, telling Joe Santoliquito of The Ring, “I didn’t say that the judges were bribed, I said that they were not being objective and they were being biased, they were not being objective in my personal opinion. After I saw the scorecards, I knew the judges were against me.”

That fire put out, it still didn’t cover Lomachenko’s insistence that his performance was largely caused by a shoulder injury, one he didn’t reveal before the fight and didn’t think would affect him, despite the insistence of his father (and coach) Anatoly that he withdraw from the bout. “If I’d postponed the fight, it would have been unknown when the next one would happen,” he said of the bout, which was held in the Top Rank “Bubble” in Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “And if it would happen at all.”

“I propose everyone to see it from where I was standing,” Lomachenko explained. “Can you believe you’re having this chance? And the chance is today. You have no idea of what’s gonna happen tomorrow in the world. What if the pandemic gets worse, and everything is closed for the next one or two years? Nobody knows what happens next. Besides, there’s too much at stake. Too much was said from his side. The MRI didn’t show a big problem; it showed bursitis. It’s very common. I made injections for the treatment of bursitis, but it didn’t help. My father said to postpone the fight. But I believed that everything would be fine.”

Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Teofimo Lopez

It wasn’t, yet a disappointing result could have turned into an opportunity for Lomachenko to come back stronger and get even in a rematch with Lopez, building his fanbase as they get on board for his return. Instead, the loss turned into a case of sour grapes that painted him as a sore loser at best and delusional at worst.

Lomachenko did get surgery on his labrum after the fight and he did pull back on the corruption statements he made, but instead of explaining that his loss had reasons attached to it and not excuses, he largely went off the grid.

There was the interview late last year, a few scattered chats with reporters here and there since, but even after the announcement of the Nakatani fight, he’s been fairly quiet, apparently choosing to let his reputation promote the bout and his performance to speak for itself. “I give interviews to people who understand boxing and people who wouldn’t mangle my words,” said Lomachenko last December, clearly feeling torched by fans and media who have embraced Lopez and his always quotable father, Teofimo Snr.

As for “The Takeover,” he’s apparently moved on from the man he pursued with an obsessive intensity. A fight with George Kambosos Jnr. has been rescheduled for August, and after that, he’s talked of moving to 140 pounds to chase another set of belts. Even if Lopez sticks around a little longer at 135 pounds, or moves back and forth between weight classes, the sexy headline is about Lopez being one-fourth of a new Four Kings series along with Gervonta Davis, Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia.

No talk of Loma, who wants a rematch with Lopez but isn’t necessarily expecting one.

“They know that he can’t fight with me,” Lomachenko told Kobelkov. “He reached the top. He got lucky. He doesn’t want to fight with me because he will lose the belts. They will trash talk, they will place conditions. And finally, they won’t fight.”

But Lomachenko will fight on, Lopez or no Lopez. At 33, he is young enough on paper to add more titles to his resume and engage in big fights, but after his last bout, he will have some proving to do against Japan’s Nakatani, whose only pro loss is to the current lightweight champion. Nakatani gave Lopez some issues at times in their bout, and at 5-foot-11 ½ to Lomachenko’s 5-foot-7, he could give the Ukrainian a tough go, as well. And a tough go is not what Lomachenko needs this weekend. He needs the kind of fight that will put him back in the win column in a way where fight fans won’t be talking about what happened last October, but what will happen this October.

What won’t happen is Lopez-Lomachenko II or a move back down to 130 pounds or up to 140. Those are pretty much certainties, as Lopez won’t be available if he fights in August, and Lomachenko is not big enough for super-lightweight. As for a return to super-featherweight, that’s more of a matter of stubbornness.

“I’m not going back to 59kg until I finish here,” Lomachenko said last December, determined to get back his lightweight titles. Maybe it will be from Lopez, maybe from Haney, or maybe someone else will swoop in and become champion if the titles are vacated. Whatever the case may be, Lomachenko plans on being there, regaining his crown, and regaining his status as one of boxing’s elite.

If he completes his mission, then there really won’t be anything for him to talk about because I think that’s what the kids these days call a mic drop.