By Lyle Fitzsimmons, photo by Ryan Greene
Gary Russell Jr. admires Bernard Hopkins.
But by no means does he want to be Bernard Hopkins.
Even as a Saturday night defense against Oscar Escandon draws nearer, the WBC’s featherweight title-holder is already – at age 28 – pondering his career’s final stages.
“I plan on finishing this career within the next three years or so,” he told BoxingScene. “That’s about it. Thirty-one, maybe, tops. I’ll be 29 next month. We definitely want to start picking up the action so we can be able to sit back and live off the fruits of my labor.”
Russell was four months old when Hopkins began a four-decade run back in 1988 and last fought in April 2016, about eight months before “The Alien’s” inglorious swan song – at age 51 – against Joe Smith Jr.
And though both he and the former two-division champ have nurtured a tidy nest egg with the proceeds of their ring work, the younger man doesn’t feel the need to labor another 20 years before spending it.
“We’ve been very, very strategic with business outside of boxing. Boxing is what I do, it’s not who I am as an individual,” Russell said. “We just use boxing as a vehicle to get us close to what we want. We’ve made very, very wise business decisions outside of boxing. We’re good.”
But if you think the executive has edged out the competitor, here’s a suggestion:
In fact, all that’s needed to get Russell’s fire burning is the mention of a certain Ukrainian.
“I would love to unify against the other world champions (at featherweight),” he said, “and before the end of my career I would definitely like to compete against Mr. Lomachenko twice.”
Lest anyone forget, a then-.500 fighter named Vasyl Lomachenko – fresh off a loss to Orlando Salido barely three months earlier – won eight of 12 rounds on a pair of scorecards against while capturing the WBO’s vacant 126-pound title against Russell in June 2014.
He defended three times before leaping to 130 and climbing to the coveted single digits on many respected pound-for-pound rankings lists. Meanwhile, the loss drove Russell to the sport’s backwoods in Shelton, Washington before he bounced back for a WBC title win against Jhonny Gonzalez.
The Gonzalez win resurrected public perception of Russell, elevated him to No. 2 on Ring Magazine’s featherweight list and led nicely into a second-round thrashing of Patrick Hyland in a title defense.
But the blemish on a 28-fight resume remains an itch the Washington, D.C. can’t wait to scratch.
“That’s definitely the one that I want to get done,” he said. “The only reason why Lomachenko is even mentioned – and I feel as though he’s put somewhat on a pedestal in his professional career as of now – was based upon the fact that he competed against Mr. Gary Russell Jr.
“He lost to Salido. No one knew who he was coming into the professional game. I can’t take away from what he accomplished in the amateurs – by him being an Olympian, etc. – but as far as him making his name known as a professional it was not a factor until he competed against Gary Russell Jr.”
First things first, though, Escandon awaits.
The 32-year-old Colombian has ascended to the ever-dubious “interim” championship level at both 122 and 126 pounds, in spite of a 3-2 record in his last five fights since a 22-0 start.
He rose from the floor to erase Robinson Castellanos in his most recent outing 14 months ago, and arrives to the MGM National Harbor this weekend in possession of Russell’s undivided attention.
“He’s a complete competitor. He’s going to push himself physically to the limit,” the champion said. “He’s rough. He’s rugged. He’s going to have a level of endurance. He’s going to attempt to bully his way through this fight and try to make it an ugly fight as much as he possibly can.”
But the latter tactic, according to Russell anyway, could be his undoing.
“He’s going to put himself in the situation where he’ll be much more susceptible to get hit with clean, flush, hard shots,” he said. “When you have these straightforward guys you don’t have to look for your shots. They’re running right into you.
“Sometimes you throw shots without the intent of them being hard but just his forward momentum makes your shot even harder than what you really expected to make it.”
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
Vacant IBO light heavyweight title – Hamburg, Germany
Thomas Oosthuizen (No. 16 IBO/No. 31 IWBR) vs. Igor Mikhalkin (No. 21 IBO/No. 20 IWBR)
Oosthuizen (27-0-2, 16 KO): Twelfth title fight (10-0-1); Held IBO titles at 168 and 175 pounds
Mikhalkin (19-1, 9 KO): First title fight; Sixth fight scheduled for 12 rounds (5-0, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: I’m no huge fan of Oosthuizen since his less-than-daunting days at 168 pounds, but he may be facing an opponent even less-qualified to be a champion than he is. Oosthuizen by decision
IBF junior lightweight title – Hackney Wick, United Kingdom
Gervonta Davis (champion/No. 12 IWBR) vs. Liam Walsh (No. 1 IBF/No. 27 IWBR)
Davis (17-0, 16 KO): First title defense; First fight outside of United States
Walsh (21-0, 14 KO): First title fight; Second fight against unbeaten opponent (1-0, 0 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Davis is probably getting more of a post-title bounce than he deserves – and Walsh is no slouch – but the kid has enough of a talent edge to find a way to endure. Davis by decision
WBC flyweight title -- Tokyo, Japan
Juan Hernandez Navarrete (champion/No. 4 IWBR) vs. Daigo Higa (No. 1 WBC/No. 10 IWBR)
Navarrete (34-2, 25 KO): First title defense; Lost first title fight at 105 pounds
Higa (12-0, 12 KO): First title fight; Only two fights beyond four rounds (42 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: The challenger is a KO artist, but the champion has enough big-stage pedigree to pull him out to deep waters and take advantage of what’s left. Navarrete in 9
WBC light flyweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Ganigan Lopez (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Ken Shiro (No. 4 WBC/No. 14 IWBR)
Lopez (28-6, 17 KO): Second title defense; Third fight in Japan (2-0, 1 KO)
Shiro (9-0, 5 KO): First title fight; Third fight scheduled for 12 rounds (2-0, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Winning a world title in a dozen or less fights seems to be all the rage these days in the lighter weights, and the 25-year-old Shiro appears ready to handle it. Upset. Shiro by decision
WBC featherweight title – Oxon Hill, Maryland
Gary Russell Jr. (champion/No. 9 IWBR) vs. Oscar Escandon (Unranked WBC/Unranked IWBR)
Russell (27-1, 16 KO): Second title defense; First fight in Maryland
Escandon (25-2, 17 KO): First title fight; Fourth fight in the United States (2-1, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Escandon is a rugged customer, but Russell is fighting at home, defending a title and motivated to make a statement against his Colombian opponent. Russell in 6
WBC/WBO super lightweight titles – New York, New York
Terence Crawford (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Felix Diaz (No. 3 WBC/Unranked IWBR)
Crawford (30-0, 21 KO): Fifth WBO title defense; Second fight in New York (1-0, 1 KO)
Diaz (19-1, 9 KO): First title fight; Second fight scheduled for 12 rounds (0-1)
Fitzbitz says: Diaz might be able to beat a handful of top-end fighters at 140 pounds, but Crawford is among the very best at any weight and will quickly illustrate the difference. Crawford in 9
WBO light flyweight title -- Nagoya, Japan
Kosei Tanaka (champion/No. 5 IWBR) vs. Angel Acosta (No. 1 WBO/No. 20 IWBR)
Tanaka (8-0, 5 KO): First title defense; Held WBO title at 105 pounds
Acosta (16-0, 16 KO): First title fight; One fight beyond seven rounds (51 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: Like Higa at 112 pounds, Acosta arrives off the KO assembly line. But he’s no realistic match for the precocious defending champion on a top-end stage. Tanaka in 10
IBF junior flyweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Akira Yaegashi (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Milan Melindo (Unranked/No. 9 IWBR)
Yaegashi (25-5, 13 KO): Third title defense; Held WBA title at 105 pounds and WBC title at 112
Melindo (35-2, 12 KO): Third title fight (0-2); Fifth fight outside the Philippines (2-2, 2 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Yaegashi took a while to get to the championship level, but he’s improved now that he’s arrived and remains a step ahead of the veteran Filipino. Yaegashi by decision
WBO junior bantamweight title -- Tokyo, Japan
Naoya Inoue (champion/No. 4 IWBR) vs. Ricardo Rodriguez (No. 2 WBO/No. 29 IWBR)
Inoue (12-0, 10 KO): Fifth title defense; Six KOs in seven career title fights (49 total rounds)
Rodriguez (16-3, 5 KO): First title fight; All three career losses outside the United States
Fitzbitz says: The 24-year-old champion is one of boxing’s hottest young champions and his California-born opponent ought to provide little more than a speed bump en route to 13-0. Inoue in 5
Last week's picks: 1-0 (WIN: Yafai)
2017 picks record: 32-10 (76.1 percent)
Overall picks record: 854-284 (75.0 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.