By Thomas Gerbasi
Gary Russell Jr. used to be the worst interview in boxing. In his defense, he was just a teenager, better with his fists in the ring than with Bernard Hopkins-esque soliloquies outside of it, but when I first spoke to young Mr. Russell, after a series of one word answers and the inability of this scribe to get anything of note out of him - even after using all my tricks - I concluded that while he would probably do big things in the sport once he turned pro, he wouldn’t be as big as he could have been.
I was wrong.
On Saturday night, Russell has the opportunity to become a world champion when he faces Vasyl Lomachenko for the vacant WBO featherweight title. Perhaps even more notable, the 26-year-old Washington, D.C. native may very well be on the verge of becoming the star I figured he didn’t have a shot at becoming.
Now I don’t want to say he’s a changed man. It would be more accurate to describe him as a young man who has found his way around the sport, learning his craft inside the ring and adjusting to the spotlight outside of it. Some get one or the other right; most get neither, and fewer get both. Russell appears to be one of those rare few, and as people have gotten to know him, they’ve gotten on board, and it’s something he takes great pride in.
“Boxing is just part of who I am,” he said. “It isn’t everything that I am and that I bring to the table. So the out of the ring stuff is tremendous. You go through these building blocks and you go through stages and trial and error, and you pick out the stuff that works for you and disregard the things that don’t. And it helps you develop, not just as a fighter, but as a person, and these are the type of things that you bring into the ring. Outside of the ring I have so many people that genuinely support me and love me as an athlete and as a non-athlete. And when I get in the ring and I compete against these guys, they think they’re just fighting me. But they’re not. They’re fighting my neighbor across the street, they’re fighting the people that were blowing the horn when they saw me jogging and preparing for this fight. These are the people I draw my energy from. So you’re in the ring with a lot of people when you’re fighting me, and what happens outside the ring definitely affects what goes on in the ring.”
That one answer was longer than my entire first interview with Russell back when he was tearing up the amateur scene. One of the country’s best, Russell made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, but was forced to withdraw from the Beijing Games due to illness. Shaking off that disappointment, he turned pro in 2009 and was immediately marked for big things. And his performances rarely disappointed those who appreciate the finer points of the sweet science.
But what did disappoint was that his level of competition never seemed to match his talent. Why, people asked, is he clearly a top contender for world title honors but fighting guys like the 15-7-2 Miguel Tamayo who he blasted out in four rounds in his most recent bout in January? Russell, for his part, has always gone on record with his desire to fight the best, but it just wasn’t happening on fight night. So has he gotten a bad rap?
“Yes and no,” he admits. “For the people who truly love what I bring to the sport, then no (that hasn’t been an issue). I believe in taking the time out to actually hone your craft. We wanted to get these rounds in, and we wanted to get to 22-0, 23-0 before we even thought about competing for a world title. You can have a great amateur pedigree, but you cannot overlook the elements of just what is in the pros. How do you prepare for a 10, 12 round fight that’s tough, that’s going to be mentally challenging as well as physically challenging, that’s going to challenge your will? You can only prepare for these things by putting yourself in those particular situations. I think Lomachenko and his camp are overlooking that and overlooking the importance of it and I think it’s going to turn around and bite him on the 21st of this month.”
The polar opposite from Russell, Ukraine’s Lomachenko had nearly 400 amateur fights and two Olympic Gold medals, but goes into Saturday night’s bout with only two pro fights, defeating Jose Ramirez in his debut last October before losing a 12-round split decision to Orlando Salido in March for the same belt he will fight for this weekend. It makes for a great matchup, with the talented and experienced pro in Russell facing off with the talented amateur but untested pro in Lomachenko. So where does Russell see his edge?
“I think my boxing IQ as a professional,” he said. “The time that it takes to put the rounds in, oh my goodness, you can look at my fights when I was 10-0 as a professional, and then you look at my later fights when I was 20-0, 22-0, and you will see a big difference in the level of maturity that I have inside in the ring. My boxing IQ should grow whenever I compete. I don’t take anything from Lomachenko. His amateur career was tremendous, and you have to put the work in to get to that, but don’t be naïve to the fact that there’s a level to what we do as fighters and as entertainers.”
He’s right, and Salido (who lost his title on the scales before the Lomachenko fight) proved it, with his veteran tricks and early lead being enough for him to take the close win. Was Lomachenko outclassed? Absolutely not, yet while Russell isn’t the kind of fighter who will pull some slick, dirty tricks out of the bag to gain an edge, he does feel that what he brings to the fight will allow it to play out in his favor.
“A lot of people are saying my hand speed is going to play a big factor in the fight, which I feel it most definitely will,” he said. “But I think that’s only one of the things that’s going to help me get through this fight. We’ve seen Lomachenko fight and I’ve seen his amateur fights, and he’s still competing as if he’s an amateur. I think his way of trying to adapt to the professional style is to throw less punches and try to be a little more accurate. So he’s the type of fighter that can easily be outworked, and I think this is where he’s going to find himself at. We want to put the rounds in the bank, and I honestly don’t feel that he has the punching ability that I have at this weight, and once he’s down five, six rounds, we’ll no longer have to stalk him or walk him down. I think we’re going to be the aggressor in this fight, and when they realize that they’re behind, he’s going to have to take chances that he didn’t want to take early in the fight because he’s gonna have to try and get these points back. This is when I’ll start sitting on my punches and the fight will become very, very challenging and dangerous for Lomachenko.”
If Russell appears to be cool, calm, collected, and almost clinical before the biggest fight of his life, that would be accurate. The way he sees it, this is another night at the office against just another opponent. It could be Lomachenko, Tamayo, Juan Ruiz, Vyacheslav Gusev or any other face. It really doesn’t matter because the goal never changes.
“Honestly, I don’t want to be much of a spoiler, but it’s all the same,” he laughs. “I think when people tend to magnify one fight from the next, based on the fact that it’s on a bigger stage than the other, it takes you mentally off course from the focus that you should actually be at. I look at all these fights as the same and at the end of the day, the objective is the same – to leave the ring with the win. Of course, it’s exciting to be able to say that I am a world champion, but as far as the level of emotion and everything, it’s pretty much the same.”
Maybe that’s been the secret all along.
“When you’re a fighter, they talk a lot about the eye of the storm,” said Russell. “Even though it’s complete chaos, you’ve got to find a place of serenity, a place of control. And boxing is controlled chaos. So you have to find the balance, and I’m pretty good at finding it. I think that’s one of the secrets to being able to stay focused and on point, and not mentally hyperventilating over the hype of the fight.”
That’s been Gary Russell Jr. all along. It’s just that these days he’s willing to let the world inside to know what’s going on in the mind of one of the most intriguing prizefighters in the game today. On Saturday, we find out if all the signals were true, and if he is world championship material and the next big thing in the sport. He already believes he has the answer to those questions.
“I feel as though this is my calling,” he said. “This is the destiny that I’ve been shooting for my entire boxing career, to become the best. Amateur, professional, or anything that goes above that. Whatever it is that I do, I want to be crowned the best. If being crowned the best is becoming a world champion, then this is something that was created for me to do. It will be done.”