When I first saw Gary Russell Jr. as a prospect more than ten years ago, I honestly thought I might have been looking at the future of boxing. His gifts were such that it seemed undeniable that he would take his place among the all-time greats in the lower weight classes. The remarkable athleticism and balance, the natural boxing ability, and the absolutely blinding hand speed were evident from the first time I laid eyes on him.
Yet, here I am on the morning of January 23rd, just several hours from Russell Jr.’s defeat to Mark Magsayo—a very good but unremarkable fighter—left wondering what happened. I suppose, in a way, you could see the upset coming. Russell Jr. entered the ring at 33 years of age last night (a perilous marker for many a fighter), coated in two years of ring rust and apparently nursing an injury to his right shoulder.
Last night Russell Jr. looked old, out of practice, and physically hurt. Even before Russell Jr. exacerbated his shoulder malady in the fourth, he looked like a shell of himself. While his hands were still quick, they were no longer lightning, and he struggled to let them go. Then in the fourth, we all saw Russell Jr. wince in pain, not from a Magsayo blow, but from whatever was going on inside that right shoulder. Without his vaunted jab to set up his combinations, Russell Jr. was all but cooked.
Somehow, the three judges at ringside scored the fight for Magsayo by tallies of 115-113(x2) and 114-114. Magsayo did get the win he deserved, but in a fight that I had trouble finding more than two rounds for Russell Jr., the tightness of the decision was alarming—especially considering Magsayo more than doubled Russell Jr. in punch stats (150-69). In the post-fight interview, Russell Jr. argued that “I landed clean when I wanted to.” If so, he should have “wanted to” more often.
The more important question for the defeated fighter is, where does Russell Jr. go from here? He’s not going to get any younger, and a shoulder injury may mean another lengthy layoff for a fighter with a long history of inactivity. If I were a betting man, I’d say we’ve seen the best of Gary Russell Jr.
If I’m right, what do we then make of Gary Russell Jr.’s career? Despite all that talent and being a long-running featherweight champion (nearly seven years before losing to Magsayo), there are no signature wins on the resume of Russell Jr.
That’s not to say that Russell Jr. has beat up on nothing but tomato cans, but quick, off the top of your head, who is the best opponent that Russell Jr. has taken down? If no particular name comes to mind, don’t feel bad, I had to consult his record myself to come to the conclusion that JoJo Diaz (who recently lost a competitive title fight in December to Devin Haney) is probably the best-notch on Russell Jr.’s belt.
And look, Diaz is a very good fighter. So were Kiko Martinez and Jhonny Gonzalez, two other world title holders that Russell Jr. bested. That being said, when Diaz, Martinez, and Gonzalez become Hall of Fame eligible, I doubt many members of the BWAA are going to rush to check the boxes next to their names if their names are there at all.
To be fair to Russell Jr., the relatively modest level of competition he has faced hasn’t all been his fault. Many a quality fighter saw enough of Russell Jr. in the ring on their big screen TV and decided to pass on taking a chance at receiving a setback at the hands of someone so obviously talented. To put it another way, a lot of qualified pugilists simply ducked him.
Still, Russell Jr. has to take some responsibility for never fighting more than once in a calendar year since 2013. He held the WBC Featherweight belt for most of those years, and last I heard, fighters like strapping on hardware. But even if you give yourself over to the notion that Russell Jr. simply couldn’t find a quality dance partner more than once a year, the record is the record.
Only once did Russell Jr. go toe to toe with anyone approaching his level of talent—Vasiliy Lomachenko in June of 2014. In no way did Russell Jr. get embarrassed in losing to Lomachenko (like so many of Loma’s other opponents), but he was beaten fairly obviously by the perennial pound-for-pound contender. While one judge cluelessly scored the bout a draw, the other two had Loma by matching scores of 116-112, and that seems about right to me. And that’s it. That was Russell Jr.’s one shot at greatness, and he fell short.
While no reasonable person would argue that Russell Jr. hasn’t had a fine career, the holes in his resume can’t be overlooked. Even that seven-year featherweight title reign comes with an asterisk, as Russell Jr. has only defended that belt six times over that span.
The fact of the matter is that Gary Russell Jr. is running out of time to be truly great. And after his poor performance last night against a fighter, he likely would have run circles around just a couple of years ago; maybe I’m speaking in the wrong tense. Maybe Russell Jr. isn’t running out of time; maybe time has already run out.