When Ukraine was invaded, Vasyl Lomachenko considered the only struggle for his home.

Boxing plans were put on hold, even though they appeared to include a title match. Lomachenko calls it his dream to be the undisputed champion, but his country’s war with Russia is real life.

“I couldn’t understand anything about what was going on militarily,” Lomachenko said through an interpreter, “but inside you have a sense of what you have to do.”

Now he’s getting his career back on track, starting Saturday night at the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden against the undefeated Jamain Ortiz in a bout that will be televised on ESPN+.

A win and Lomachenko (16-2, 11 KOs) could move on to another chance to challenge for the lightweight titles he once held. But in any case, first he is returning to Ukraine, which he believes is now safe enough to allow his family to return home this week after staying with him in California while he trained.

No one was sure that would be the case when Russia launched its invasion in February. At the time, Lomachenko was in Greece, and an expected fight against then-lightweight champion George Kambosas Jr. was scheduled for the end of the year.

He returned to Ukraine and joined the Territorial Defense Battalion, telling his advisers that he would not be able to accept this fight.

“When it was happening, when it started, nobody really knew about anything,” Lomachenko said. “And if you really don’t understand what’s going on, every normal person, every normal citizen is going to defend their country, and that’s what most men in our country do.”

For Lomachenko, that meant being part of a team that enforces a 10 p.m. curfew, patrolling the streets to make sure there are no cars in sight. About a month after that, he was trained to perform several other duties.

“No military actions, but certain tasks,” Lomachenko said. “For example, a suburban area on the outskirts of town where we had to go out and do some reconnaissance, make sure there were no aliens in the area, no one unknown.”

Lomachenko is one of Ukraine’s greatest athletes, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who posted a record of 396-1 as an amateur. After turning pro, he won the title in his third fight and became a three-weight champion after his 12th.

He eventually held three lightweight belts before losing them to Teofimo Lopez in October 2020. Two straight wins after shoulder surgery put him back in the war for title contention.

Lomachenko has been taking breaks during his service to train, so he doesn’t believe his absence will affect his rhythm and footwork, which is among the best in boxing. Ortiz (16-0-1, 8 KOs) doesn’t expect any slack from the fighter the Worcester, Mass., product sparred against.

“I think the opponent in front of you shows the type of fighter you are,” Ortiz said, “and I think Lomachenko will bring out the best of Jamaine Ortiz, a fighter that everyone around me in the gym and in New England and where I’m from native, knows.”

Lomachenko would likely want to beat Cambosas, who won the titles from Lopez. With Lomachenko unavailable, the Australian fought Devin Haynie instead and dropped them a one-sided decision before losing the rematch two weeks ago by another big margin.

Lomachenko isn’t worried about the missed opportunity, nor is she wondering what to do with the Lopez fight. It was originally expected to take place in the spring of 2020, possibly in a packed Madison Square Garden, where Lomachenko is 5-0. Instead, it was postponed for several months due to the coronavirus and was held in a mostly empty venue in Las Vegas after Lomachenko’s nearly 14-month hiatus. Maybe things would be different without the pandemic.

“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “Everything is happening as it should happen.”

He’s also not worried that the chances of getting the belts back will be tougher now that Haney has them. Lomachenko is small for his 135kg weight class and would need to beat a skilled, bigger man like Lopez.

“The victory will be all the sweeter,” Lomachenko said with a smile.