By Cliff Rold
One guy hasn’t fought anybody.
The other has only two fights.
Put them together and we’ve got one of the more intriguing fights of 2014 to date.
While it won’t technically be the main event on Saturday’s Showtime card (10 PM EST/7 PM PST), Russell-Lomachenko is easily the most must-see fight of the weekend on paper. While this scrap for the vacant WBO Featherweight belt lacks in professional accomplishments, it makes up for it in terms of talent. Lomachenko and Russell are blue chip in that category.
Russell has been a pro since 2009. Lomachenko, excepting how some might view his World Series of Fighting background, turned pro only last year. Both are former Olympians, Lomachenko winning Gold at Featherweight in 2008 and Lightweight in 2012. The Ukrainian has been as ambitious as Russell has been careful in their approach to the paid ranks.
Which path pays off this weekend?
Let’s go the report cards.
Gary Russell Jr.
Titles/Previous Titles: None
Weight: 125.5 lbs.
Hails from: Capitol Heights, Maryland
Record: 24-0, 14 KO
Record in Major Title Fights: 1st Title Shot
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: 1 (Mauricio Pastrana TKO1)
Titles/Previous Titles: None
Height: 5’6 ½
Weight: 125.5 lbs.
Hails from: Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, Ukraine
Record: 1-1, 1 KO
Rankings: #8 (ESPN), #10 (Ring)
Record in Major Title Fights: 0-1
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: 1 (Orlando Salido L12)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Russell A; Lomachenko A-
Pre-Fight: Power – Russell B; Lomachenko B+
Pre-Fight: Defense – Russell B+; Lomachenko B
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Russell B; Lomachenko B+
Lomachenko made a big splash with an audacious challenge of Orlando Salido earlier this year. He fell short but came close to pulling out the fight late. It was easy to see where he might be a better fighter down the road. He wasn’t there yet. Too often, he seemed tentative as the veteran put in steady work and did what a quality veteran should against a fledgling pro.
How much did that experience prepare Lomachenko for Russell? In physical terms, this is an entirely different fight so the question is more mental. Does Lomachenko rebound stronger from the loss, able to adapt his learning curve in time and get comfortable as a pro with already his second title shot?
For Russell, this is easily the best fighter he’s faced as a pro and that speaks to what is interesting about the match. He’s long been lauded as perhaps the biggest talent from the disappointing 2008 US Olympic team, but his matchmaking has been deliberate and lackluster. Where were the development wins? Where were the subtle attempts to test him and make him better? A stream of hapless opponents all generally at the same level let him practice his speed and pick up rounds but have they rounded him? His speed and defensive chops are visible but how sharp are they?
When a fighter with Russell’s natural gifts is brought along as methodically as he has been, it leaves one to wonder if his camp is worried about something not visible to the naked eye.
The fact is we know more about Lomachenko at this point than we do Russell. In two fights, he’s faced more adversity and, in Salido, a single fight to give him the edge in quality of competition. Lomachenko responded well, if not victoriously. What will Russell do?
Will size play a factor? Russell was a Bantamweight as an Amateur and has fought as high as 128 lbs. Lomachenko was bigger as an amateur, fighting at Lightweight as an amateur (132 lbs.). While they weighed in the same, Lomachenko is the taller man and should fill out heavier.
In this battle of southpaws, both young men will go to the body. Russell shoots a nice right jab and short right hook. Lomachenko slings a nasty, quick straight left. Russell appears the faster man; Lomachenko has the longer arms. The assigned intangibles grades entirely reflect the difference in approach to their careers so far.
If pro experience in general is what matters, Russell has the edge. Will that play out in the ring?
How the hell does anyone handicap this fight? More than most title fights, this demands guesswork because there just isn’t enough known about either man to feel that certain. Amateur success is great but it doesn’t always play out in the pros. In 2000, eventual Gold medalist Muhammad Abdullaev was clearly superior to Miguel Cotto, bouncing him from the Games in the opening round by a score of 17-7. Five years later, they faced off as pros and Cotto laid down a thrashing.
There isn’t the luxury of a similar comparison point here.
Lomachenko almost came back to get Salido and that had to be a good experience. Russell has been brought along the Al Haymon management path trod by Andre Berto and Adrien Broner, looking good early but against a level of foe that makes one wonder what they're hiding. Without an answer to that, this is all about two talents we just don't know that well yet. Russell, with better speed and shorter shots, building a lead and holding off a charge seems as good a bet as any. On a coin flip, the pick is Russell by decision.
There is no conviction in that pick.
Report Card Picks 2014: 28-12
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com