By Jake Donovan
Gary Russell and Vasyl Lomachenko may have arrived at the same stage as amateurs and now again in the pro ranks, but the paths they’ve traveled and their approach to the sport couldn’t be more opposite.
A sanctioned vacant featherweight title fight brings the two together this weekend, colliding at the StubHub Center in Carson, California in a bout to air live on Showtime. The fight comes six years after both traveled to Beijing to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics. Russell was considered the class of the U.S. squad, but dehydration led to his dream ending at the scales, passing out during the morning weigh-in prior to the opening round of competition.
Lomachenko’s journey was far more memorable. The Ukrainian tore through the featherweight field en route to Olympic Gold – repeating the feat four years later as a lightweight in the London Games – and earning the Val Barker Trophy in recognition as the most outstanding boxer of Olympic competition.
Through their years as amateur standouts, their paths crossed on a few occasions, but never in the ring. In fact, they were never on each other’s radar until the opportunity arose to fight for the vacant featherweight title.
“In the amateurs, I never really heard of him,” Russell (24-0, 14KO) insists. “We never fought, we never sparred. I don’t even remember if we had a common opponent.”
It’s hardly unique for fighters to claim less about their opponents than is actually the case. There is perhaps validity to Russell’s view of things, however. The level of success each enjoyed in the amateurs came in far differing parts of the world and in separate weight classes, to where they never had a reason until now to pay attention to the other’s career.
Lomachenko stepped into the ring nearly 400 times as an amateur, losing just once. It came in the same competition that would eventually produce the one known common opponent he knows of that is shared between this weekend’s rivals.
“I believe we had one opponent both of us faced in the amatuers,” Lomachenko (1-1, 1KO) recalls. “It was a Russian who Gary Russell lost to and a couple of years later I defeated him.”
The opponent in question would be Sergey Vodopyanov, a tough-as-nails Russian boxer who claimed the 2007 World Amateur Championship as a world-class bantamweight. His run included a quarterfinals win over Russell en route to running the tables in the 119 lb. division.
That same competition also produced the lone loss of Lomachenko’s amateur career, settling for 2nd place in the featherweight division when he was upset by Albert Selimov in the finals. He would later avenge the loss in the opening round of his 2008 Olympic Gold medal run, then one year later defeat Vodopyanov in the final round of the 2009 World Amateur Championships.
By that point, Russell was already several months into his pro career, thus even less motivation to pay attention to those from his past still competing in the amateur ranks.
“If he says it happened, then it’s definitely possible,” Russell said of the one fight that ties their amateur careers together. “We both competed internationally. I honestly didn’t hear about Lomachenko until I was already a professional.”
Even with a four-year head start, Russell is still second when it comes to arriving at the title stage in the pro ranks. Whereas the unbeaten American has been accused of feasting on soft touches through five years as a pro, Lomachenko was fast-tracked to a title. His pro debut came against seasoned veteran Jose Ramirez, scoring a 4th round stoppage in their pay-per-view prelim last October.
Five months later, he came up just short in a bid for the featherweight title, dropping a competitive split decision to Orlando Salido in a foul-filled affair. The title was vacated when Salido failed to make weight, still at stake for Lomachenko, who was given a firm introduction to big time boxing as his clean, effective punching wasn’t enough to overcome Salido’s roughhouse – if not questionable – tactics in their HBO-televised bout this past March.
“If we learned anything that night, it was how to throw low blows,” quips Egis Klimas, Lomachenko’s manager.
Still, it’s not an opportunity that the 26-year old would trade in if given the chance.
“I learned how to adjust to the pace of pro boxing, since I was never in the ring so much (as a pro),” Lomachenko reveals. “I think just fighting 12 round with Orlando Salido I got to experience more than if I were just fighting regular level guys for two years.”
The aggressive path taken by Lomachenko is in stark contrast to the slow crawl endured by Russell, whose development as a pro was hampered in part by chronic hand injuries, but also an inability to secure big fights even when he was ready for such occasions.
“We tried to get Jhonny Gonzalez twice, he definitely didn’t want to fight,” Russell said of the current featherweight champion, who was in between title reigns when his team pursued the fight. “We also wanted Juan Manuel Lopez, who turned us down. It is what it is. I think everything in life happens for a reason. I think this worked out perfectly for me to get my first world title against Lomachenko.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox