Vasyl Lomachenko determined to prove his historic greatness against Jorge Linares

If Vasiliy Lomachenko was able to prove one thing in 2017, it's that the two-division champion is undoubtedly the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. The question left on everybody's mind remains if he can become one of the best ever and do so at multiple weight classes.

While it may seem on the surface to be a sizable leap to make, the pure talent alone of Lomachenko (10-1, 8 KOs) makes it difficult not to consider whether we are watching a truly unique and historic fighter. The two-time Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine returns Saturday in a new weight class when he moves up to 135 pounds to challenge WBA lightweight champion Jorge Linares (44-3, 27 KOs) at New York's Madison Square Garden (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET). 

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There's plenty of reason to believe that the 30-year-old Lomacenko, who seeks his third world title in as many divisions in just his 12th pro fight, is entering the toughest test of his career on paper. It also comes at a perfect time considering "No Mas Chenko" has forced his last four opponents to quit on their stools in fights that were completely one-sided. 

Unlike Lomachenko's last appearance, when he forced unbeaten and pound-for-pound rated Guillermo Rigondeaux to wave the white flag after six rounds, there arean't any qualifiers needed to make this a potentially competitive matchup. In Rigondeaux's case, he was battling age (37), chronic inactivity and the fact that he was moving up two divisions. 

This time it's Lomachenko who must answer the question of whether his size and skills can adapt at a higher weight class against a fighter in Linares, 32, a Venezuelan who fights out of Japan, who has become the class of the division over the last five years. Linares is not only one of the sport's most beautiful boxers from a standpoint of speed, technique and fluid combinations, he's 13-0 since 2012 and is seeking the seventh defense of his title. 

"I always want a challenge -- always," Lomachenko said at last week's training camp media day in Oxnard, California. "At 130, we can't organize a top fight with a champion. Then, my promoter asked me about if I want to move to 135 against Jorge Linares? After two seconds I said, 'Of course I can. I can and I am ready.'"

Lomachenko feels like a man on a mission to leave his mark on the sport. Getty Images

Lomachenko's dare-to-be-great mentality has been on display since his pro debut when, after promoter Top Rank was unable to fulfill his audacious request for a title fight, he agreed to a 10-rounder against respected veteran Jose Ramirez in 2013. One fight later, he suffered his lone defeat in a featherweight title bout to Orlando Salido, which ended via controversial decision. 

But the fighter known has "Hi-Tech" only continued to swing big from there, winning a 126-pound title against Gary Russell Jr. in his third pro bout before moving up to violently knock out Roman Martinez for a junior lightweight title in his seventh fight. 

Lomachenko's early success made finding opponents extremely difficult, which fueled his necessity to rise in weight so quickly. But the dominant way in which he outclasses opponents and forces them to quit has raised the marketability of his profile, which is something Lomachenko admits has never been part of his focus.  

"I don't think about [being recognized in public by fans,]" Lomachenko said. "My legacy is to put my name in the history books in boxing. If I can't stay a superstar, I don't worry. But I need to put my name in the history books of boxing."

One thing Lomachenko's star has benefitted from is the four-year deal his promoter Top Rank signed with ESPN last August, which has brought Lomachenko's talent to the masses. He also has begun doing interviews in English, which has brought out more of his charm and natural wit.

"We finally got up to the big arena!" Lomachenko said with a hearty chuckle, referring to the fact that he twice previously headlined the smaller Theater at MSG -- including his last bout -- before agreeing to face Linares on Saturday in the full arena. 

Asked to describe just how far Lomachenko's star has come in a short time, his manager, Egis Klimas, shared a habitual scenario that comes up from their travels through airports.  

"When he comes from Ukraine and goes through the customs and a custom officer doesn't look at the passport and says, 'When is your next fight? [Makes stamping gesture.] You can go,'" Klimas said. "That means he's growing." 

Despite how much of a darling Lomachenko has become on social media -- particularly on Instagram, where his nearly 800,000 followers are treated to a glimpse of his carefree yet disciplined lifestyle -- the core of what makes him so dynamic is what happens inside the ring. 

Lomachenko is the kind of technical wizard who currently has no peer within the sport. No one possesses his footwork (his father and trainer, Anatoly, pushed him into ballet for boxing purposes at a young age) or even his hand speed. In fact, his 2014 victory over Russell, who was then touted as owning the quickest fists in the game, saw Lomachenko dramatically outslick and beat him to the punch. 

Touted as arguably the most talented amateur boxer in history, Lomachenko throws combinations from almost absurd angles. But it's the way his mind works in reaction to his opponent that is just as dazzling and scary. 

UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw has become a regular guest and sparring partner in Lomachenko's gym and has marveled at what he has learned. 

"He's too fast, he's too elusive, his cardio is insane," Dillashaw told Fight Hub TV last month. "Just how relaxed he is. He sees every punch coming at him. When I got to spar with him, I felt like he knew what I was going to throw before I even threw it. He's just ahead of the game and some of that stuff, I don't think you can train -- I think you're just gifted with. He can see things in slow motion. 

"That's why he's getting guys to quit. He's not there when they want to hit him. He's on them when they don't want him to be on him. His work ethic is amazing."

When it comes to the prospect of making Linares his fifth straight victim to quit, it's a result that Lomachenko says isn't even on his radar. 

"I don't think about this, I don't worry about this," Lomachenko said. "I don't need this because I come in this sport to show my best skills, show my style and I do everything to win the fight and it really doesn't bother me the way that win will come." 

Yet Lomachenko does acknowledge that one of his keys to success thus far has come through keeping 10 steps ahead of his opponent, making his opponents feel like they are entering The Matrix. OK, maybe not 10 steps exactly, but you get the picture. 

"I don't know about 10 but two or three for sure," Lomachenko said with a smile, before being asked the secret to his amazing ability to anticipate. "I have two special pills -- red and blue." 

The Matrix, indeed. 

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Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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