The next fight in the career of long-reigning featherweight titlist Gary Russell Jr. could come against the division’s latest entrant.

Rey Vargas has been named as the mandatory challenger to the World Boxing Council (WBC) featherweight title, officially severing ties with the junior featherweight division where he previously held the sanctioning body’s belt since 2017. With the move came Vargas’ request to be inserted as the number-one contender to Russell’s title, with the WBC confirming to that such a fight has been ordered along with a free negotiation period.

Russell and Vargas are both signed to Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), whose representatives confirmed to of Vargas’ decision to campaign at featherweight.

Vargas (34-0, 22KOs) has not fought since a 12-round points win over Japan’s Tomoki Kameda in July 2019. The feat marked the fifth and now final defense of his junior featherweight title reign which began with a decision victory over unbeaten Gavin McDonnell in their Feb. 2017 vacant title fight on the road in Hull, England. All five title defenses took place in the United States and all going to the scorecards.

Vargas signed with PBC last January, with the intention of debuting under the banner last spring. Those plans were thwarted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with the 30-year old from Otumba, Mexico forced to sit out the balance of 2020 after suffering a broken leg. The injury prompted the WBC to name Vargas its 122-pound “Champion in Recess”, with the title now in the hands of countryman Luis Nery (31-0, 24KOs) whom outpointed Aaron Alameda (25-1, 13KOs) last September in Uncasville, Connecticut.

The vacant title fight came with the understanding that Vargas would be eligible to call for an opportunity to fight for his old title whenever he was medically cleared to return. Those plans are no longer in play with Vargas having officially moved up in weight, a move which should prove beneficial to his 5’10” frame.

Russell (31-1, 18KOs) has not fought since outpointing previously unbeaten Tugstsogt Nyambayar last February in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The bout marked his lone fight of 2020, the sixth straight year where the 32-year old southpaw from the greater D.C. area was held to a singular ring appearance.

The trend spans the entirety of Russell’s title reign dating back to his 4th knockout win over exiting WBC titlist Jhonny Gonzalez in March 2015. Annual title defenses have since come in wins over Patrick Hyland (2016), Oscar Escandon (2017), then-unbeaten Joseph ‘JoJo’ Diaz (2018; currently a junior featherweight titlist), former titlist Kiko Martinez (2019) and Nyambayar (2020).

Russell has since called out for bigger fights, including a desired unification bout with WBA “Super” featherweight titlist Leo Santa Cruz. Also on the southpaw’s radar is a long-sought showdown with Baltimore’s unbeaten two-division titlist Gervonta ‘Tank’ Davis in a fight that would do big business in the Baltimore/Washington area. Such a fight wouldn’t make sense, however, until crowds are once again permitted in the region.

In the meantime, Russell will likely have to settle for his annual appearance once again coming in the form of a mandatory title fight. 

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox