In less than two weeks, the calendar will turn the page from 2021 to 2022, which means that it's time to focus on fights occurring next month. On January 22nd, Showtime Championship Boxing returns live from the Borgata Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, NJ. WBC Featherweight Champion Gary Russell Jr. (31-1) will be defending his title against Mark Magsayo (23-0). This intriguing matchup will mark the return of Gary Russell Jr., who will be two years removed from the last time he stepped into the ring for a prizefight.
The story of Gary Russell Jr is one of the more interesting ones in the sport. Here is a guy with all of the talent in the world, but it seems like he could never get the right fights to catapult him into superstardom. What does someone do when they have been out of the ring for two years? Russell Jr. told NYF, “Honestly, I've been chillin and spending time with the family. I am a private person. There have been a lot of hurdles, ups, and downs within my personal life, like my father's health and my brother's passing.”
Russell Jr. continued, “The pandemic made me feel like I wasn't as prepared as I thought I was with the grocery stores closing and being stuck in the house. It forced me to want a level of independence for my family and me and have the economic freedom to stand on our own. When the pandemic hit, we started our garden, and since I am a hunter, I'm always in the woods hunting. I wanted to show my babies that you can be self-sufficient, and you don't have to depend on society or anyone else. At any given time, society can crash, and I need my children to have a certain level of understanding of self-sufficiency. So, that's what I've been doing and still trying my best to stay focused during that process. Trying to keep my chin down and my head up.”
When I heard Gary tell me this, it gave me a better sense of who the WBC Champion is, and I started to understand the “method behind the madness.” Shortly after, I asked him about fighting once a year since fans like to use that as talking points whenever discussing Russell Jr. The thirty-two-year-old said, “Don't no one want to fight me. It's as simple as that. I've been trying to compete against the ones that are supposed to be the best. These guys aren't in a rush to get into the ring with me.”
“I've been trying to fight everyone there is to fight, but it doesn't happen, and then I'm stuck with fighting my mandatory challengers. The mandatory challengers are the closest thing to a champion as they have worked their way up the rankings to compete against the champion. The level of competition of my last three or four fights have been higher than any of the guys that are supposed to be in the upper echelon” said Russell Jr. That makes sense as it seemed like the fight with Leo Santa Cruz should have happened years ago, but it just didn't materialize.
During the time away from the ring, Russell Jr. went on social media and threw out the idea of possibly moving up in weight classes for the big fights. Was this a real thought or something that was said to get the attention of fans? Gary told NYF, “Of course, I've been considering it (moving up in weight). I felt that it didn't make sense for me to be a world champion and move up in weight just to stand in line. If I vacate my title, I will be moving up to challenge the champion. I will not move up in weight and vacate my title just to fight for a mandatory spot.” Point well taken; these days, we see more sanctioning body shenanigans than anything else.
As we moved the discussion towards his current training camp, Russell Jr. is getting ready for a run before he is stopped by a fan walking by. The fan said, “keep working, stay focused, someone has to give you something,” which made Russell Jr. chuckle for a second. That was a perfect segue into our discussion about training camp.
This is where things got a little more serious as the camp has been a challenging one. His father (Gary Sr.), also his head trainer, has been battling some health issues while being in the hospital. With that and more going through his head, how different were things for this camp? Russell Jr. told NYF, “A lot of things have been different this time around. This has probably been the most stressful training camp I have been in so far. My father, who is my coach, hasn't been here the entire training camp because of his medical issues. He just got released from the hospital with almost a month left in training camp.”
Russell continued, “I just started sparring, and I've only had three sparring sessions in the last eighteen months. My father is back, so hopefully, he can get back into the swing of things within the next couple of days. That's been about it so far, no whining and no complaining. This has been one of the most trying and testing training camps. My younger brothers have played a part in helping me, but I pretty much had to train myself for a big portion of it. I've never been in a fight at 100%. Every time I was in a fight, it was something. It was either some type of injury or something was going on.”
After discussing the trials and tribulations of training camp, we shifted the focus towards the task at hand, Mark Magsayo (pictured below.)
What are his initial thoughts on the opponent looking to dethrone him? Russell said, “I never really watched him fight as of yet. I saw some clippings of him but haven't seen a lot of footage. He looks heavy-handed but a little wide. I think he will bring his physical best and be a good competitor. I also think he is going to bring the best he can possibly bring, which is all I can ask for.”
To get ahead of the press conference face-off, I asked Gary if Mark Magsayo was standing in front of him right now, what would he tell him. Gary said, “Lace your MF'n boots up because it's about to be a bumpy ride! Hold on tight! I want you to bring your physical and mental best. “
This fight will Magsayo is another mandatory that Russell Jr will be taking on, and it seems like he can't get the fights that everyone wants to see. With Russell turning 34 in June, the time may be running out for him to get those big fights. What does Gary think he must do to get those big names in the ring? “It ain't nothing I have to do. Maybe it's going to take for me to show signs that I'm slowing down so they can grow some nuts and say fuck it, let's try to fight him. Maybe I have to do something like that, but fuck that!”
He made me lose my bearing a bit as he said it with such enthusiasm, but he believes that most are waiting to see the slippage before accepting a challenge.
Gary Russell Jr. is from Capitol Heights, MD, and there is a fight to be made that makes all of the sense in the world, especially in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area. That fight is against WBA Lightweight Champion Gervonta “Tank” Davis.
Tank is from Baltimore, and there has always been that rivalry between the two. But who does Gary want to face? Russell Jr. told NYF, “It's two fights that I would like. I just can't give you one as I want Tank (Gervonta Davis) and Lomachenko (Vasiliy). I want Lomachenko for shits ‘n giggles. Me and Tank will sell out before it's even announced. ”
Before the end of the call, I tried to ease my way into speaking about his brother Gary Boosa Russell whose untimely death occurred on December 9th of last year. When I brought it up, Gary took a deep breath as the thought of it all was still fresh in his mind and said, “It is still relatively fresh. I'm still trying to figure out the best method to assist in raising his children and my six children, my mom, and dad, as they are up there in age. They do everything in their power to help, but I have to step up to the plate even more.
Gary paused for a second and continued, “All of that stuff takes its toll. I am more than just a fighter. I'm a real person, a father, a son, and a friend. I have a whole lot of different hats that I have to wear. On top of that, I'm the breadwinner, so I take care of all of the bills, issues that come my way on top of trying to stay in mental and physical shape. But no whining, complaining, or bitchin'. I'm going to bring my physical best come January 22nd.”
My Three Cents
Gary Russell Jr. is an elite athlete and a fighter who hasn't been able to get the big fights because of his natural talent to perform at the highest level. Knowing now the adversity he deals with in and out of the ring, it's hard not to get behind a man like Gary Russell Jr.
The real question is can he compartmentalize those things come January 22nd against Mark Magsayo? You will have to tune into Showtime to see if Gary Russell Jr. can again remind everyone why he remains one of the sport's best.