By Cliff Rold
A pair of US Olympians showed their pedigree on Saturday night at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and in the end it was the senior classmen who walked away still the champion at featherweight.
29-year old Gary Russell Jr. (29-1, 17 KO), 125 ½, of Washington, DC, a 2008 Olympian, remained the WBC featherweight titlist after twelve exciting rounds with a unanimous decision over 25-year old 2012 Olympian Joseph Diaz Jr. (26-1, 14 KO), 126, of Downey, California. There were no knockdowns in a bout that pitted Russell’s speed and greater activity against a violent body attack from Diaz.
The referee was Kenny Chevalier. The bout was announced as a sellout but no official attendance number was given.
Adorned in a black and gold, with a pharaoh headdress, Russell entered to a noisy reaction but Diaz had traveled a vocal, if smaller, contingent as well. The promotional lines might have been as intensely drawn as the fighters, with Diaz’s promoter Oscar De La Hoya appearing to be denied entry to the ring with Diaz before the fight.
The battle of Olympic southpaws began with the faster Russell setting the tempo, his jab working in multiple while Diaz kept his guard high. The challenger opened up a bit in the last minute, beginning to fire his own jab and landing a few hard body shots. Attempts to land a lead right hook for Diaz fell short.
Round two started off with Russell launching a violent salvo but Diaz weathered and then went on the attack. Booming body shots had Russell on the defensive, Diaz fighting taller and appearing to be the bigger man in the ring. In the third, Russell tried to break the guard of Diaz with looping lefts to the ear while Diaz stayed to the body and also landed a big left to the head.
The fight played out for the next few rounds as a contest between the activity of Russell and the accurate body work of Diaz. In rounds six and seven, it was Russell’s activity setting the table, Diaz reacting and following without punching for lengthy spots before resuming his assault on Russell’s ribs.
After a close eighth where Diaz got some good work done, Russell had a superb ninth. Peppering Diaz and keeping him off balance, he outboxed and outfought his challenger. Diaz rebounded in the middle of the tenth, landing hard to the head and body.
The last two rounds took the fight to another level. Both men let it all hang out in a wild eleventh, bombs landing in close quarters from both men. As the round closed it was Russell with the advantage. In the twelfth, the tables turned. Diaz hurt Russell to the body and the champion moved, throwing enough to keep Diaz honest and refusing to let him sustain offense. With about a minute left, Diaz had Russell in the corner and Russell showed his ring smarts.
Clinching Diaz, Russell could be seen looking over his shoulder at the large television screen on the wall of the arena. Seemingly gauging how much time remained in the round, Russell moved away and used his feet as much as his hands to keep Diaz chasing and away from the knockout he needed on the road.
The fans roared their approval for what had been an excellent fight. When the scores were announced, the crowd stayed excited. Russell retained at 115-113 and 117-111 twice in the toughest win of his career to date.
A gutsy performance from Russell apparently came with an early injury. “I hurt my right hand in the second or third round, so we had to make the adjustments. He couldn't get past my jab. When he got close, we made sure to smother him. Then we reset and got back on the stick.”
Commenting on the attack to the ribs he endured, Russell credited his preparation. "We train to survive those body shots. We put the work in every day in the ring. We consistently grind and push ourselves to be great. We push ourselves to the limit.”
Diaz gave credit to Russell for his performance and was humble about his own shortcomings in the fight. “The game plan was to break him down with the body shots and start attacking him more in the later rounds. But I started attacking him too late. I didn't pick it up until the 8th or 9th round. Gary Russell Jr. is a tremendous fighter and he did a great job keeping me at bay. I needed to start in sixth round.”
Diaz was positive about the road forward after his first defeat. “Overall it was a good learning experienced and I'll definitely be back.”
Russell, who has been dogged by inactivity, seemed to have very specific activity in mind going forward. "We want a unification. We want to unify this division, or we're moving up in weight for another title. I want another belt."
The other reigning titlists at featherweight are Leo Santa Cruz (WBA), Oscar Valdez (WBO), and Josh Warrington who won the IBF belt earlier in the day overseas. Russell and Santa Cruz both fight under the Al Haymon umbrella and, on paper, seems a logical showdown. Santa Cruz is preparing for a rematch with former three-division titlist Abner Mares.