by Cliff Rold
US Olympians collide.
Gary Russell never actually made it into the Olympic ring in 2008 but he made and traveled with the team. Diaz advanced one round before a tough loss in 2012.
Both men came home with plenty of eyes on them as prospects to watch for the future. Saturday night, their similar foundations collide in a mandatory featherweight title match that merits no complaint. The winner takes a big step forward in a lively 126 lb. field that includes Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, Lee Selby, Abner Mares, and Oscar Valdez.
If this scrap is good enough (Saturday, Showtime, 10:05 PM EST), it might not be a case where only one man goes forward.
Let’s get into it.
Stats and Stakes
Gary Russell Jr.
Title: WBC featherweight (2015-present, 2 defenses)
Previous Titles: None
Height: 5’4 ½
Weight: 125 ½ lbs.
Hails from: Capitol Heights, Maryland
Record: 28-1, 17 KO?
Press Rankings: #3 (TBRB, Ring, Boxing Monthly, BoxRec), #5 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 3-1, 3 KO
Last Five Opponents: 142-16-3 (.891)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Mauricio Pastrana TKO1; Vasyl Lomachenko L12; Jhonny Gonzalez TKO4
Joseph Diaz Jr.
Title/Previous Titles: None
Weight: 126 lbs.
Hails from: Downey, California
Record: 26-0, 14 KO
Press Rankings: #7 (TBRB, Ring, ESPN), #8 (Boxing Monthly, BoxRec)
Record in Major Title Fights: 1st title opportunity
Last Five Opponents: 132-8-7 (.928)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: Victor Terrazas TKO3
The Case for Russell: Along with a solid amateur foundation, Russell is blessed with eye-popping hand speed. His foot speed isn’t too bad either. While not a lethal puncher, Russell throws with mean intent and certainly has enough power to put away foes with the right shot. What Russell does well, and what could serve him here, is infighting. He’s good in the trenches and finds openings. Diaz fights better at range but works the body and when he makes those attempts, the shorter Russell has to be waiting with hard counters that make Diaz think and limit his offensive considerations.
The Case for Diaz: Diaz is the dramatically more active fighter of the two and has been carefully matched to improve throughout his career. Along the way, he’s faced the other sort of hungry young prospects Russell didn’t on the way up. Just because he was developed in a more focused manner won’t matter unless it applies in the ring. Diaz isn’t as fast as Russell but he is taller and uses a longer jab. One way to offset Russell’s edge in speed is to establish a jab that gives him an extra split second to react when Russell opens up. Diaz is a good body puncher (both men are) and he’ll need that to keep Russell off balance throughout the right.
The Pick: This has the makings to be a very good fight. Russell seems to be the more popular pick in this one, and for good reason. He’s faster, a sharper puncher, and the MGM near This is the shortest layoff he’s had since 2014, and it’s still another year of inactivity. Still only 29, Russell has plenty of time left in his career but there has never been any real sense of urgency from him. He’s had almost as many fights as Diaz is four more years as a pro. Fighters fight, especially in their primes, and it doesn’t feel like Russell minds that he doesn’t fight that often. Eventually, that sort of thing catches up. Unless Diaz is simply overwhelmed by the speed of Russell, there is every reason to think his consistent activity (12 fights to Russell’s three from 2015 to now) will serve him well in a fight likely to go rounds. Once he gets the timing of Russell down, Diaz’s combinations, body work, and sharpness against live fire will matter. The pick is Diaz in a mild upset.
Rold Picks 2018: 17-7
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]