May 15, 2014

Gary Russell Jr. looking to make a statement in bout against Vasyl Lomachenko Gary Russell Jr. (right) has fought 96 professional rounds to his challenger's 16. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

To those who believed Gary Russell Jr. would go ahead with a fight against Vasyl Lomachenko, a tip of the hat to you. You were in a rare minority, like the few who thought Oscar De La Hoya beat Floyd Mayweather and the handful who actually enjoyed the series finale of Lost.

Fact is, even when the WBO established Russell as the mandatory, even when he publicly said he wanted the fight, even when his promoter, Golden Boy, won the purse bid, many couldn’t fathom Russell, who has built a glitzy record fighting unheralded opposition, coming anywhere near a ring with Lomachenko. He is, after all, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who came within a couple of missed low-blow calls from outpointing Orlando Salido in what was billed as his second professional fight.

Yet here we are, with Golden Boy confirming on Wednesday that Lomachenko-Russell for the vacant WBO featherweight title will be part of a Showtime-televised tripleheader on June 21. Russell (24-0), the American wunderkind, will test his mettle against one of the best featherweight prospects in boxing. 

“People thinking I didn’t want the fight is crazy,” Russell said. “I wanted it. I really wanted it.”

By now, Russell’s story is familiar. The son of a fighter, Russell was a fast-rising amateur. He was expected to be one of the U.S.’s best hopes for a medal in the 2008 Olympics. But the day before the weigh-in, Russell, severely dehydrated from trying to make the 119-pound limit, collapsed and was forced to bow out. He turned pro and, with the backing of shadowy advisor Al Haymon, has racked up an impressive record against mediocre opponents, many of whom were named just weeks before a scheduled fight. 

The last four years have netted Russell a little bit of money, some decent exposure and an absurd No. 1 ranking in the WBO. But it hasn’t garnered him much respect, and many in the industry snickered that TBA -- to be announced -- had become Russell’s preferred opponent.

Still, Russell insists that there was a reason for his slow ascent. 

“You have to learn so much,” Russell said. “Regardless of your amateur pedigree, you have to crawl before you walk. You have to learn how to make adjustments on the fly, how to slow the pace down, when to pick the pace up, when is the proper time to engage a guy, how to engage a guy. It’s just the basic fundamentals that you have to learn. There is no way around it. You have to put in the work.”

Indeed, Russell says that his professional polish will be his biggest advantage against Lomachenko. Russell has fought scheduled 10 rounders in five of his last six fights, and went the distance in two of them. His 96 professional rounds, per BoxRec, dwarf the 16 Lomachenko has fought. 

“They are going to understand the importance of the learning process when I do what I’m going to do to Lomachenko,” Russell said. “He thinks the laws of gravity don’t apply to him. When you jump up, you have to come back down. You have to get these rounds in. How can you learn to make the adjustments in a 10- or 12-round fight when you have only been fighting three or four rounds your entire career? His second fight, with Salido, was a 12-rounder and he was pushed to limits he has never been before. I don’t want to badmouth Salido, but he is a one-dimensional fighter. I don’t think he could do the things to Lomachenko that I am prepared to do. He’s not able to test Lomachenko the way I will.”

For Russell, a fight with Lomachenko is the statement fight he has been waiting for. After years of being derided as another Haymon creation, Russell has an opponent no one will question. 

“He’s another stepping stone in my career,” Russell said. “We are definitely going to get him out of there. I honestly think he doesn’t possess what it takes to beat me. If he gets reckless, it will be an early night for him.” -- Chris Mannix

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