By Lyle Fitzsimmons
To love Gary Russell Jr. is to love his contrasts.
The soon-to-be 29-year-old went into a Saturday night date with Oscar Escandon fully expecting to beat his opponent, to look good doing so and to ride the momentum into the sorts of fights boxing fans have been drooling over both at and around 126 pounds.
Given the result at the MGM National Harbor in suburban Baltimore – a seventh-round TKO for the defending WBC champion – consider the first and second missions accomplished.
On the third, however, the juries remain out.
Primarily because Russell isn’t particularly concerned with others’ timelines.
“First and foremost, I couldn’t really care less about what the people have got to say about me competing,” he said. “When my career is over and done with they’ll be talking about somebody else competing in their careers. It’s not my objective to please them. You’ll never be able to completely please everyone regardless of what decisions or choices we make in our careers.”
His career has meant different things to different people.
Russell turned pro in 2009 after a decorated amateur run, but faced myriad criticisms over the quality – or dubiousness – of the opposition he faced on the way to a WBO title match with fellow amateur ace Vasyl Lomachenko in his 25th outing. Lomachenko won a one-sided (albeit majority) decision in June 2014, leaving Russell to deal with the likes of trial horse Christopher Martin (UD 10) before returning to the championship level against WBC claimant Jhonny Gonzalez nine months after the disappointment.
The rugged Gonzalez was floored three times as the Washington, D.C. native re-ascended, and two subsequent title defenses have yielded four knockdowns and two stoppages in just nine total rounds.
Three straight KOs prompt immediate visions of featherweight unification or junior lightweight vengeance, but Russell remains keenly aware of the sport’s business angles and its competitive ones.
“I understand the business aspect of what goes on. The fans, they need to understand that it’s a business,” he said. “We’re more than just brutes. We’re more than just these jocks that are going in there and throwing punches and clobbering each other upside the head. Regardless of what your occupation is, you want to make sure that you’re getting properly compensated for the work you’re doing. You want to protect your investment. If you’re dealing with stock or whatever it is, you want to make sure your making smart business moves on your behalf. I understand that concept.”
Russell entered Saturday’s fight slotted ninth in his weight class by the Independent World Boxing Rankings – behind the likes of Leo Santa Cruz (No. 1), Lee Selby (No. 3) and Abner Mares (No. 5) – and he emerged from it in the No. 2 position (behind only Santa Cruz) according to the folks at Ring Magazine.
Post-victory chatter indicated Russell’s interest in duels with fellow full-fledged champs Santa Cruz (WBA) and Selby (IBF), as well as a possible encounter with veteran Mares, current holder of the WBA’s silly “regular” world title at 126. He labeled the likelihood of those occurring as “possible.”
But if not, a contingency plan is already in place at 130, where Lomachenko is the top dog according to the WBO, the IWBR and The Ring.
“If my next fight is not a unification bout, then I’m planning to move up in weight and starting to bully the bigger guys around,” Russell said. “One way or the other it’s going to get done.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBF mini flyweight title – Monterrey, Mexico
Jose Argumedo (champion/No. 4 IWBR) vs. Gabriel Mendoza (Unranked IBF/Unranked IWBR)
Argumedo (19-3-1, 11 KO): Third title defense; Seventh scheduled 12-round fight (6-0, 3 KO)
Mendoza (28-4-2, 23 KO): First title fight; Never won a fight outside of Colombia (0-2, 0 KO)
Fitzbitz says: Argumedo has succeeded over the distance against a higher grade of foe. Add the fact that Mendoza’s never won on non-home turf and this one becomes an easy mark. Argumedo in 7
IBF welterweight title – Sheffield, United Kingdom
Kell Brook (champion/No. 3 IWBR) vs. Errol Spence Jr. (No. 1 IBF/No. 8 IWBR)
Brook (36-1, 25 KO): Fourth title defense; Twelfth fight in Sheffield (11-0, 6 KO)
Spence (21-0, 18 KO): First title fight; Eight straight wins by KO/TKO (38 total rounds)
Fitzbitz says: I respect Pacquiao’s past and Thurman’s present, but to these eyes Brook is the world’s best at 147. He’ll need all that acumen to beat a guy like Spence, who might be No. 2. Brook by decision
Vacant WBA super middleweight title – Sheffield, United Kingdom
Fedor Chudinov (No. 1 WBA/Unranked IWBR) vs. George Groves (No. 2 WBA/No. 4 IWBR)
Chudinov (14-1, 10 KO): Fourth title fight (2-1); Zero wins since September 2015 (0-1)
Groves (25-3, 18 KO): Fourth title fight (0-3); First fight in Sheffield
Fitzbitz says: Groves has fallen just short on the highest level, but he may change fortunes here simply because the opponent this time isn’t on the level of those he’s encountered before. Groves by decision
Last week's picks: 6-3 (WIN: Davis, Shiro, Russell, Crawford, Tanaka, Inoue; LOSS: Oosthuizen, Navarrete, Yaegashi)
2017 picks record: 38-13 (74.5 percent)
Overall picks record: 860-287 (74.9 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.