By Thomas Gerbasi
Gary Russell Jr. may be the most patient man in boxing. So it was no surprise that he didn’t get rattled when the second defense of his WBC featherweight title against Oscar Escandon was postponed from March 11 to May 20 due to an injury suffered by the challenger.
But that cool could also apply to the career and life of the 28-year-old southpaw.
“It was the way we were brought up,” Russell said. “I was taught that patience isn’t the ability to wait; it’s what you do while you’re waiting. That’s the difference. So we just stay busy, we stay on our grind and we stay focused.”
Unfortunately, Russell has had plenty of time to stay busy outside of training camps and fights, having fought only three times since the lone loss of his career to Vasyl Lomachenko in June 2014. But these days, Russell isn’t worried about what happened in the past; he’s firmly focused on today and the future.
“Everything in life has to take its course,” he said. “I can’t focus on something that I’m not in control of. All I can do is focus on the things that I am and that’s me maintaining the WBC featherweight world title, being the best in the division, and God willing, we get through this guy and anything from here on forth will be a unification bout. If it’s not a unification bout, then I’m moving up in weight. I need to see whoever has the WBC title in the next weight class. It’s just that simple.”
Sounds like “Mr.” Russell is a man with a plan.
“Of course,” he laughs. “My career in this sport is almost up. I’ve got maybe two more years in it.”
Two years? Sounds like a harsh and abrupt goodbye from one of the sport’s top talents, but Russell has never followed the path most choose. That may have hurt him in the court of public opinion, but he’s done things his way. If that make him different from his peers, so be it.
“I always felt that way,” he said. “I feel like it’s in my DNA, it’s in my lineage. I’m the type of individual that I don’t care what the situation is, I’ll find my way through it and work my way through it. I might not excel in any other sport and might not be great in it, but I’ll catch on quick. I’ll learn quick and be very decent at it. That’s in anything that I do. So I definitely look at myself as much different than a lot of individuals, but I feel as though my family in general are different.”
So when applied to the boxing business and an apparent early exit strategy, Russell doesn’t back down. But make no mistake about it, he has plenty of lofty goals to hit before he goes.
“As an athlete, I’ve accomplished everything that I could possibly accomplish so far,” he said. “But there are definitely a couple things that I want to do. I would love to unify these titles against a couple of these guys before my career is over. I would love to fight Lomachenko twice because after I beat him the first time I gotta do it again. If everything goes to plan, that will be the conclusion to my career. If not, then I understand and I’m pleased with the way that my career has gone. We’ve gained a decent amount of financial revenue thus far and I’m pleased. But we’re ready to move forward. We want to challenge these guys who are supposed to be the best in the division.”
At featherweight, the big fight would be against Leo Santa Cruz, though matchups with Abner Mares, Lee Selby or Oscar Valdez also fit the unification bill. But from a purist standpoint, a rematch with Lomachenko at 130 pounds is the biggest one in Russell’s eyes, especially given Lomachenko’s elevation to near-mythic status in the two-plus years since their first bout. The Maryland product has watched it all from afar.
“You can’t take anything away from what he (Lomachenko) accomplished in his amateur career, then he became professional and he lost to Salido,” Russell said. “He has the name as a professional based upon the fight that he won against Gary Russell Jr. I’m glad that they are magnifying him the way that they are, so when I break my foot off in him these two times when we do get our opportunity, of if we do, the accomplishment will be that much greater.”
It’s times like these when the cool cracks and the fiery competitor in Russell comes out, and that’s always fun to see. It also makes the prospect of Lomachenko-Russell II or III even more interesting, but there has been more talk of Lomachenko moving up in weight than staying at 130 to possibly take on Russell again.
“To me, stuff like that doesn’t matter,” he said. “In my amateur career, I had over 200 amateur fights and I lost 11. I remember all these guys that I lost to and I made it my personal business to compete against these guys later on down the line and follow through, overcome and conquer. So it (a Lomachenko rematch) is something personal. This isn’t something for the fans or the media; this is something that I’m gonna do just for Gary Russell Jr.”
It’s a fight that needs to be made but, at the moment, the key in the whole equation is the man in the ring with Russell on May 20. So while Escandon may be the forgotten man in this conversation, the champion has not lost sight of his challenger.
“First of all, I believe I’m a step ahead of anyone that I’m in the ring with,” he said. “But what fighter shouldn’t have that type of mentality or attitude? We’re fighters, we’re gladiators, we’re competitors. We’re supposed to think that way. With this guy, it’s boxing. Anything can happen. When you have an individual training six to eight weeks for no one other than you, that’s a very dangerous opponent. I don’t give a damn who he is. All it takes is one shot with these little eight-ounce gloves on. Stuff happens. So how do I stay up for a person? By reminding myself of that. People work hard, mistakes happen, and we’ve got to keep grinding. We’re doing this for our family, we’re doing it for our loved ones.”