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Gary Russell Jr finally returns. But can he make the most of his talent?

Gary Russell Jr
Amanda Westcott/Showtime
Gary Russell Jr returns after two years to take on the lively Magsayo, writes Matt Christie

ON SATURDAY night, in a bout that would be labelled a comeback for anyone else, Gary Russell Jr ends his latest hiatus when he takes on unbeaten Filipino Mark Magsayo at the Borgata Hotel Casino in Atlantic City.

Russell Jnr has been inactive for two years. Prior to 2020 he fought only once a year. He’s insists the lack of action is because he only wants to fight the best and the best do not want to fight him. Frankly, when a belt-holder is as inconspicuous as Russell Jnr – and there are less talented but more lucrative titlists to aim at – it’s little surprise that nobody calls his name. Some would say Russell, now 33 and unranked by BN due to his layoff, only has himself to blame. Others might point to the splintered championships and explain that such scenarios are inevitable. Indeed, when the fighter who owns the WBC strap – supposedly the grandest belt of them all – is struggling to find an opponent, something can’t be right.

Regardless of your opinion on why, Russell has struggled to make the most of his considerable talent. In 2014, he was competitive while losing a 12-rounder with the 1-1 Vasiliy Lomachenko. The next year he halted Jhonny González to win his WBC strap. In 2016, he defended against Patrick Hyland (rsf 2), Óscar Escandón was stopped in seven in 2017, Joseph Diaz found himself soundly outpointed 12 months later, Kiko Martínez was the next victim in 2019 (rsf 5) and, in his most recent bout in February 2020, Russell returned to decision his mandatory, Tugstsogt Nyambayar.

“The fans want to see the best fight the best,” Russell told Boxing News. “I’ve been trying to get unification fights but none of them want to fight me. When Shakur Stevenson was a champion he didn’t want to fight me. When I tried to get a fight with Josh Warrington he didn’t want to fight me… None of them are willing to come this way… I would love to be more active but I don’t want to water down the sport by fighting C and D-class fighters. I’m a real competitor and I want a real challenge.”

His next opponent is a decent challenge in many ways but is barely known outside the hardest of hardcore. Ranked No. 10 at featherweight by BN (though he’s third with the WBC), the 26-year-old is an exciting talent but not exactly the kind of name that the fast-handed southpaw Russell craves.

Life hasn’t been easy for the Russell family. Two of Russell’s brothers have died, one murdered, the other passing away. Another two brothers are professional fighters, and highly regarded ones at that. The father and trainer, Gary Russell Snr, who trains the three who grew up to be boxers and one of the sport’s good guys, had one of his feet amputated last month due to complications with type 2 diabetes.

“Camp has been hectic,” Russell said on a virtual press conference. “Pops has been dealing with amputation… He’s my coach as well as my dad. I’ve been somewhat training myself. My father, his health isn’t the best, so he’s getting in the gym as much as possible. But we grinding, man. No complaints, no whining. We gonna get to it.”

Russell insists his father will be present at the fight but will not be working the corner. That will likely be the responsibility of Gary Allen Russell Jnr and Rodrigo Mosquera.

The complications behind the scenes cannot have helped his preparation. Nor can his sustained inactivity. It makes this fight – like all Russell Jnr fights – somewhat difficult to predict because we have no recent form to go on. All we have is his last outing, which occurred before lockdowns were imposed all over the world; a proverbial lifetime ago. Add that Russell Jnr is a featherweight and featherweights rarely peak past the age of 30, and it’s fair to wonder if we’ve already seen the best of him.

Magsayo, however, seems to be entering his peak years. In August, he knocked out Julio Ceja in the 10th after exchanging knockdowns with the Mexican fringe contender. Magsayo started fast, dropping Ceja in the first, but looked to be done himself when he was floored in round five. That he passed the gut check, and made the most of a second wind in the process, should be a warning to Russell about his opponent’s ambition.

The 11/4 underdog was signed by his idol, Manny Pacquiao, last year and beat Ceja on the undercard of the legend’s last fight – the defeat to Yordenis Ugás. As a teenager he had a WBO belt tattooed to his left arm after seeing Pacquiao parading that organisation’s belt. It has since been inked over by his wife, a tattoo artist who is 10 years Mark’s senior. Frances is Magsayo’s ‘taskmaster’, telling her husband when to train and what to eat.

“I’m ready to become the next face of Filipino boxing,” he said. “I’m not the next Manny Pacquiao but I want to follow in his footsteps. I want to make my own name.”

His style is not dissimilar to Pacquiao’s but he’s not nearly as mobile. Consequently, he can be countered while admiring his own work and is guilty of loading up on nearly every punch. Regardless, he remains a work in progress and the volume of shots he throws could expose the belt-holder’s lack of match practice.

An upset, then, should not be overlooked nor ignored when placing bets. But having seen the smooth and safety-first Russell Jnr thrive on the odd occasion he’s fought at the top level, he has to be the pick. This might well turn out to be Magsayo’s coming-out party but, for now, we go with the proven quality and superior ring intelligence of Russell to win a lively encounter on points.

There are outings for prospects Subriel Matias, LeShawn Rodriguez and Evan Holyfield on the undercard.

The Verdict Russell Jnr’s inactivity gives Magsayo a solid chance in this intruiging contest.

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