By Lem Satterfield

Two-division and WBO interim featherweight champion Carl Frampton called left-handed WBC counterpart Gary Russell Jr. “a terrific fighter” and “certainly one of, if not, the best featherweights in the division” during an interview in August.

And he’ll be watching closely should the 5-foot-4 ½ Russell (29-1, 17 KOs) get a rumored unification bout against WBA titleholder Leo Santa Cruz (35-1-1, 19 KOs), who defeated Frampton in Las Vegas by majority decision in a January 2017 rematch of Frampton’s victory the same way in July 2016 in Brooklyn, New York.

While the WBC ordered Russell and Santa Cruz to fight each other - Santa Cruz has for the moment taken a stay-busy fight against Miguel Flores on February 16th.

In the hopes of forcing a trilogy against Santa Cruz, if not, a unification with Russell, Frampton looks to impressively dethrone IBF counterpart Josh Warrington (27-0, 6 KOs) on December, 22, in Manchester, England.

 “I hope Leo starts to become as keen as I am about making the trilogy and finally settling the score. It seems like I’m the one who’s talking about it more than Leo,” said Frampton, a former unified junior featherweight champion from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who also wants to unify against WBO titlist Oscar Valdez (24-0, 19 KOs).

“Gary’s a different type of opponent than Leo Santa Cruz. I think he’s got very fast hands, picks his shots well and is a very explosive fighter. That would be another very difficult fight against a world champion who has got something that I want. I want to be a unified world champion again, and that’s another fight that I would be happy to take.”

The 30-year-old Russell is 5-0 with three knockouts since losing a WBO vacant title bout by majority decision to current three-division king Vasyl Lomachenko in June 2014, rebounding with a unanimous decision over Christoper Martin that December.

Russell easily earned his crown in his next fight in March 2015, his three-knockdown, fourth-round stoppage dethroning hammer-fisted Jhonny Gonzalez. Russell’s initial defense was a three-knockdown, second-round TKO of Patrick Hyland in April 2016.

Gonzalez was making the third defense of the crown he won in August 2013 by two knockdown, first-round KO of Abner Mares, loser to Santa Cruz by unanimous decision in a battle of three-division champions and a June rematch of Santa Cruz’s majority decision in August 2015.

“Mr.” Russell’s last fight was in May at the MGM Grand National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, near his hometown of Capital Heights. In that bout, Russell overcame a right hand damaged in the second round as well as a brutal body attack to win his third defense by unanimous decision over Joseph Diaz (27-1, 14 KOs).

 In the MGM Theater, Russell returned to the site where he scored a seventh-round TKO over former champion Oscar Escandon in May 2017, marking the first time Escandon had been stopped.

 A win over Warrington would follow-up Frampton’s WBO interim title-winning unanimous decision over four-division champ Nonito Donaire in April and a ninth-round TKO in August of previously undefeated 2012 Olympic team captain Luke Jackson, whom he floored with an eighth-round body shot in Belfast.

“For the fight with Santa Cruz to take place, I don’t know what has to happen.  I’m saying that I’m willing to fight him, and I’m saying that I’m willing to come back to the United States to fight him. That fight can be made whenever he wants it, and that’s the truth," said Frampton.

"I’ve got it out of my head that Santa Cruz is going to come to the UK. I just don’t believe that he will. So I’ve kind of forgotten about that, but I’m willing to travel. It’ll happen, but I think I’ve got to win another world title before the end of the year…against Warrington…and then go into 2019 with title. Maybe that will force is hand a little bit and almost make it impossible for him to ignore me.”