There are no shortcuts in Gary Russell Jr.’s routine, not even as he prepares for what figures to be a sure win against Christopher Perez this Saturday at the Fantasy Springs Casino, Indio, California.
Russell, an unbeaten featherweight prospect from Capitol Heights, Md., had his 24th birthday pass on June 5. Instead of breaking camp for a day to celebrate, the admitted gym rat trained through and posted about it on his Facebook page.
“I could be partying or even having a drink right now but instead I am on my way to the gym,” wrote Russell, whose bout with Perez opens the televised portion of the ShoBox, which is headlined by the IBF junior middleweight title fight between Cornelius Bundrage and Cory Spinks. “This is why no one will ever beat me, I will remain undefeated. I am laughing at the competition.”
Russell is highly confident, and deservingly so. No less than Roy Jones Jr. himself lauded Russell for having “some of the fastest hands in the sport” on an HBO telecast last November just moments before the southpaw knocked out Heriberto Ruiz with a single right hook in the first round.
He was voted as THE RING’s Prospect of the Year by Ring’s readers last year, receiving a whopping 55.8 percent of the vote in a field that included Demetrius Andrade, Tyson Fury and Jessie Vargas.
Russell hasn’t been beaten since 2007, when as an amateur, he was outpointed by Russia’s Sergey Vodopyanov at the World Amateur Boxing Championships, the only defeat out of 11 he didn’t avenge in approximately 230 amateur fights, if only because he never had a shot at a rematch.
Russell made it all the way to the 2008 U.S. Olympic squad, but didn’t get a chance to fight for a medal after he passed out trying to make weight.
“Mr. Russell” doesn’t believe he will ever again experience defeat.
“The reason why I say that is because the majority of these fighters are one-dimensional,” Russell said shortly before leaving his Maryland base to fly out to California. “It’s like, they’re good punchers with very little hand speed, or they have good hand speed with little power. They’re boxers with no power at all. They can only fight one particular way. I feel that these fighters should be able to adapt, no matter what the competition is. That’s the true definition of a complete fighter.
“I can box; I don’t have to go blow for blow with a guy. I can actually move and get on my bicycle and still make the fight entertaining. If it came down to me needing to make it a dog fight, I can do it efficiently. I can switch up to whatever the competition is. Those are things that a lot of fighters lack and I feel that’s what will put me on top.”
Yet with great talent comes great expectation, and the big question on the mind of boxing observers is: When will Russell be in with the Orlando Salidos, Yuriorkis Gamboas and the rest of the name fighters in the deep featherweight division?
“Very soon, God willing I get through Christopher Perez,” Russell assures. “We’re going to use this fight as a tune-up fight to increase the competition way up. Every fight is a championship fight for me. I don’t take anyone light. After this fight there will be a definite step up in competition.”
If you haven’t seen Perez (23-2, 14 KOs) before, you’re not alone. The 22 year old from Julio Cesar Chavez’s hometown of Culiacan, Mexico has never fought outside of his home country, and in his last fight against an opponent with a winning record, lost a unanimous decision to unheralded Sergio Torres in November.
“He’s a little taller, he’s a boxer, he’s one of these guys who are not going to sit there and try to mix it up with you,” said Russell. “He’s comfortable going backwards. We’re pushing him out of his comfort zone, we’re not going to pressure him, we’re going to stand in the middle of the ring and force him to engage. He doesn’t have my power and he definitely doesn’t have my technique.”
As hot as Russell was at the end of last year, Russell has cooled off some after being out of the ring for seven months. Russell first had a February 11 date fall through when the night’s main event pitting Andre Berto and Victor Ortiz was scrapped after a Berto arm injury. Russell’s fight was rescheduled for April 21 against Dat Nguyen, who dropped out just before Russell had to withdraw from the date altogether with an ankle sprain.
Russell says the ankle is healthy and he’s ready to perform on Saturday.
When the subject turns to the Olympic squad of 2012 and their chances at redeeming USA Boxing’s image after bringing home just a single bronze medal in 2008, Russell’s response wasn’t very hopeful.
“I do know that if they use the same tactics as they did in 2008, then it will be very, very difficult for the fighter there to come out on top,” said Russell. “We have 12 fighters that made it to Olympic team based on the fact that they were trained by their own individual coaches. Now, once I make the Olympic team, USA Boxing just excluded their personal coaches out of the equation. Period.
“These guys have been trained by a certain coach for their whole career up until the Olympics, now you want to change their coaches. You don’t want the coaches to be really involved, you have this other guy who really don’t know the fighter as well as the coach. And you expect the fighter to perform at the highest level? I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do.
“If they made the necessary adjustments and allow the coaches to actually play a part in the fighter’s life when it comes to that, then I feel that they definitely do have a chance. But if things are still the same, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
According to several members of the USA Olympic squad, the team is still using the traditional “team coaches” structure as opposed to employing each fighter’s original trainer.
Despite exuding self-assurance from his pores, Russell credits his family structure with keeping him grounded and motivated at the same time. Russell doesn’t stray away from home for training camps with trainer/father Gary Russell Sr., preferring to remain local to be with his wife and child. Russell and his wife of one year, Sapphire, have another on the way, who is due to arrive in August.
“I feed off their energy,” said Russell. “I’m the oldest out of six boys that love boxing. They also box and they drive off my energy. I have a father who is also my coach and he lacks no creativity when it comes to training. I feel I have the support from my mom and my wife, that’s all the elements that I need to be at my best. My worst fear is to become a disappointment to my family and the people that I love.”
Photos / Scott Heavey-Getty Images, Liu Jin-AFP
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.