By Lem Satterfield Gary Russell Jr. credits faith in God and family -- to go with some otherworldly skill -- for his early success. The former U.S. Olympian faces Eric Estrada on the Amir Khan-Zab Judah card tonight.
Gary Russell Jr. turned only 23 a little more than a month ago, yet the featherweight boxer's already being called one of the sport's brightest stars.
Russell, a resident of Capital Heights, Md., is the second-oldest in a brood of boxing brothers and one of the siblings' five southpaw fighters -- all of whom have been trained by Gary Russell Sr. and all of whom share their father's first name.
Although there are plenty of expectations upon the shoulders of the 126-pound fighter, Russell Jr. embraces them, thanks primarily to his religious conviction and family.
"If you were to ask me where I give 110 percent of the graces for the way that I perform as a fighter, then I would say that all of that goes to God. You know, I think that's one of my hidden secrets," said Russell (16-0, 10 knockouts).
"I have so much ring generalship, and a great deal of it comes from coaching, because my dad has been the man in my corner since I first started boxing when I was about 3 years old. But most of it comes from my prayer and my faith in my family and my belief in God."
Russell will take that along with plenty of skill into Saturday night's clash with 23-year-old Eric Estrada (9-3, 3 KOs) of Chicago, a man who is one bout removed from his lone defeat -- a sixth-round knockout loss to unbeaten Luis Cruz in June 2010.
"I'm fighting Eric Estrada. I'm not sure where he's from," said Russell. "But no matter how the situation shakes out, you know, I'm focused and I'm ready."
Much of that confidence comes from his relationship with Gary Sr., said the son.
"I know that a lot of people in boxing critique the father-son training relationships, but I've been trained by my dad since I was 3 or 4 years old. A lot of guys with dads as their coach, it becomes difficult," said Russell.
"They have falling outs, and I'm not saying that I couldn't have a falling out with my coach. But out of the ring, he's still going to be my dad. He's going to be here when this sport is long gone. It goes back to loyalty, and I believe that our bond is way too strong to let anything come between us."
The Russell-Estrada fight will take place on the under card of a main event featuring IBF junior welterweight title holder Zab Judah (41-6, 28 KOs) and WBA counterpart Amir Khan (25-1, 17 KOs).
But there are some who believe that Russell will be the best fighter who steps into the ring at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.
"I don't want to come off as cocky or arrogant, but I expect to hear things like that from people. I try to be my best. I want to be the best, no matter what the situation," said Russell. "When God has your back, and he wants things to go a certain way, that's the only way that it's going to happen."
Russell foresees a world championship in his future -- the near future.
"I just turned 23 years old, so I'm not in a rush. But I don't think that I'm very far away at all. And you know, I have confidence in my dad, my training regimen and my management team," he said.
"We'll stick together and make a mutual agreement on when we're ready to make that move. I think that we've got two or three more fights ahead of us before I think that we're ready to make that happen."
Russell's siblings range in age from 33-year-old Gary Antonio Jones, who fights professionally as a super middleweight, to 10-year-old amateur Gary Isaiah.
Russell relishes his role as the torchbearer.
"Most definitely I feel as though I'm laying down the groundwork. I want to be able to be their role model and to show them the effects of working hard," he said. "I want to demonstrate to them and to show to them that if they're willing to make sacrifices in life, that's going to play a huge part in your success."
Russell proved that to some degree in his last fight, a fourth-round knockout of Antonio Meza on June 17, during which he dropped Meza once in the third round and twice in the fourth.
He won the fight even though he suffered a hairline fracture in his right hand during his previous fight, a six-round unanimous decision over Adolfo Landeros in April.
"The hand is doing pretty good. I had a doctor do some things that strengthened the tendons in my hand," said Russell. "I'm not going to say that I'm 100 percent, but it's more that I'm 95 percent to where I need to be."
Russell doesn't foresee a problem getting where he needs to be on Saturday night, especially with his family in the arena and his dad in his corner.
"I look at my dad as my last line of defense, so you have to have a certain amount of faith and belief and trust in what they want you to do as part of the game plan," he said.
"My dad being my coach, I know that he has my best interest at hand, no matter what the situation is in life in general. He's my dad outside of boxing and he's going to be my dad when this boxing thing is over and done with."