OXON HILL, Md. — Halley’s Comet is visible from Earth approximately every 74 to 79 years and next expected to appear sometime in 2061. Gary Russell Jr.’s ring appearances aren’t that rare but it sure feels that way.
Russell, the immensely talented featherweight world titleholder, has been downright leisurely with his fighting schedule. Before he claimed a 126-pound world title, Russell, a 2008 U.S. Olympian and the 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year, had three fights in 2014. In the 3½ years since, he has had only three.
In 2015, Russell knocked out Jhonny Gonzalez in the fourth round to claim a world title. In 2016, he faced Patrick Hyland and the fight was, as expected, not competitive at all as Russell blew him away in the second round. And in May 2017, Russell smoked interim titlist Oscar Escandon in seven one-sided rounds in another expected blowout.
Now, one year later, Russell is finally getting back in the ring to face mandatory challenger Joseph Diaz Jr. on Saturday (Showtime, 10:05 p.m. ET/PT) at the MGM National Harbor in what amounts to a hometown fight for the Capitol Heights, Maryland, resident.
While many fighters get antsy when they have long layoffs or can point to a specific injury that sidelined them, that’s not the case with Russell. He is at ease with his schedule, making no secret whatsoever that boxing is a business to him even though at age 29 he is in his prime athletically as well as in terms of his earning potential in a division with depth and potentially major fights.
“It’s a business. It’s definitely a business,” Russell said. “I’m not anxious (to fight more often). When it comes to earning potential, it’s definitely a business first before fighting. Whenever we do compete we’re going to make sure we maximize our coin because regardless of what our occupation is we want a sense of financial stability. And then a lot of these guys (in the featherweight division) aren’t really in a rush to get in the ring with Mr. Gary Russell Jr.”
“I absolutely think Gary is overlooking me. I think he underestimated me. I’ve trained for this my whole entire life. This opportunity has been presented to me by my hard work and it’s really the opportunity of a lifetime. I can’t wait to show everybody my skills and what I’m truly about.”
While it is true that in a division that includes quality-name opponents such as titleholders Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Lee Selby and Oscar Valdez, as well as former titlist Carl Frampton, they have not called Russell out. But he should still not have a problem getting at least two fights a year. But, again, he seems unmoved by his one-bout-per-year schedule.
“You’ve got to find the good within a situation. I have had hand injuries in the past. The more time you take off it gives me the opportunity to preserve my body to the best of my ability and spend time with my family,” said Russell, the married father of three daughters and a son.
Gary Russell Sr., who trains his son and celebrates his birthday on Friday, would like to see his Gary Jr. fight more frequently.
“I don’t like it,” Russell Sr. said of the inactivity. “I want him to fight more. Three times (per year) at least. My hands are tied. I give him advice. I advocated for more fights, it didn’t happen. I really want him to fight more.”
Has Russell Sr. voiced his view to his son?
“Absolutely,” he said. “It gets to a point where you’re beating a dead horse.”
Russell Sr., who also trains his younger sons, bantamweight Gary Antonio (10-0, 8 KOs), 25, and junior welterweight Gary Antuanne (4-0, 4 KOs), a 2016 U.S. Olympian, both of whom will be on Saturday’s undercard, said they have talked to adviser Al Haymon about fighting more often but fights have not materialized, even though Haymon also works with Santa Cruz, Mares, Selby and Frampton.
“We ask for fights and they don’t come through. Guys don’t want to fight,” Russell Sr. said. “Al said we could do (a lesser fight) if we want, have a tune-up opponent. (He says) ‘It won’t pay as much money and the risk is the same so why don’t you wait? Maximize the dollar.’ A lot of fighters get burned out. Gary has the luxury of being able to preserve his body. But we’ve had conversations with his adviser about that (lack of activity).
“Don’t get me going. I really think he needs to be fighting more. He makes good money. Not millions. He could probably get that, have five, six fights max and walk away. Get your money, buy your property and move on.”
If all goes well against Diaz — and Russell is the clear favorite — father and son are hopeful that if there is a second fight in the fall that it will be a big one, otherwise another long layoff seems likely.
“We’re definitely not looking past him at all. I think that he’s at the point in his career where he’s hungry and he wants to try to get a world title. As a fighter, I respect it and understand it. I understand him trying to line himself up for a world title but it ain’t gonna happen this day.”
Gary Russell Jr.
They’d like to face the winner of the June 9 rematch between Santa Cruz and Mares, which should be a relatively easy fight to make given the Haymon and Showtime connections.
“We’d love it,” Russell Sr. said. “We’ve been asking for it for the longest. We asked for a unification with Santa Cruz and it didn’t happen.”
While Russell’s zest for regular fights is absent, he did say if he beats Diaz he would indeed like to fight the Santa Cruz-Mares II winner before the end of the year.
“Hopefully, God willing, we get through this guy (Diaz) right here and we would definitely be willing, be ready to get back in the ring relatively soon, maybe get two fights in this year,” Russell Jr. said. “I would love to unify. I’ve been trying to unify with any of the other champions in the division. They have not been in a rush to get in there.
“I’ll be competing (Saturday), Abner and Leo will be competing in June. Why not make this fight happen? Of course, I want the winner. Leo already said that he wants the chance to avenge the loss I gave him in the amateurs at the 2008 U.S. championships.
“It was the only time we competed but it stuck with him and it stuck with me. I feel as though I grew and developed much more as a professional. I’m glad his career has blossomed just as well. He became a world champion in spite of setbacks. Get me that winner.”
Of course, first Russell (28-1, 17 KOs), whose lone loss was a one-sided decision to Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2014 for a vacant world title, must deal with Diaz (26-0, 14 KOs), 25, a fellow southpaw, who hails from South El Monte, California, and was a 2012 U.S. Olympian.
Diaz has been far more active than Russell and has looked good in recent fights against solid opposition. He earned the mandatory title fight with a one-sided decision win against Rafael Rivera on the Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin undercard in September and has been calling out Russell. But Diaz isn’t relying on his activity level to aid him in the fight.
“He’s been inactive and used to fighting just once a year now, but what makes him so dangerous is he’s very, very speedy and has great hand speed,” Diaz said. “And not only that but he knows how to use his hand speed and counter when guys are opening up. My father (trainer Joseph Diaz Sr.) and I know what we are bringing to the table, and I’m fast, as well. I have a very high boxing IQ and I’m very powerful in there.
“I don’t think Gary having not fought since last year will be any kind of advantage. (But) I absolutely think Gary is overlooking me. I think he underestimated me. I’ve trained for this my whole entire life. This opportunity has been presented to me by my hard work and it’s really the opportunity of a lifetime. I can’t wait to show everybody my skills and what I’m truly about.”
Russell said he is surely not looking past Diaz.
“We’re definitely not looking past him at all. I think that he’s at the point in his career where he’s hungry and he wants to try to get a world title,” Russell said. “As a fighter, I respect it and understand it. I understand him trying to line himself up for a world title but it ain’t gonna happen this day.”
And if Russell retains his title, he just might make another appearance this year.
“The timing is perfect right now for any of these unification fights. If they still don’t want it, I’m willing to move up in weight to meet any of the guys who have a name,” he said. “It’s time to make it happen.”