In a featherweight clash of former amateur standouts, Gary Russell Jr. meets Vasyl Lomachenko for the right to be called the winner of the WBO's vacant belt.
It is a battle being fought against the backdrop of a much larger battle with Russell (24-0, 14 knockouts), 26, calling his match-up with Lomachenko (1-1, 1 KO) a potential "breakthrough" in the long-running "Cold War" that has prevented Top Rank Promotions' fighters from facing those promoted by Golden Boy Promotions and advised by the powerful Al Haymon.
Not only is there a bitter rivalry between the promotional companies, Golden Boy and Top Rank, but Haymon and Top Rank CEO Bob Arum are also adversaries.
Having quashed his feud with Arum, who promotes Lomachenko, 26, Golden Boy President Oscar De la Hoya later said "it's wonderful to hear that from a fighter like Gary Russell that he wants to engage in these big major fights regardless of the promoters."
Russell is advised by Haymon and promoted by Golden Boy, the latter of which out-bid Top Rank for the bout's promotional rights and had appealed to the WBO for a 50/50 split of the purse between the Maryland-based Russell and the Ukrainian Lomachenko based on Golden Boy's belief that Lomachenko resided in California.
The WBO regulations states, "If the fight is held in the country of origin, residence or nationality of one of the contenders, the resident contestant shall receive 40 percent and his opponent shall receive 60 percent off the total purse offered."
The WBO determined that Lomachenko is entitled a favorable 60-40 advantage in accordance with an organization regulation which allows Lomachenko to receive $631,350 compared to $420,900 for Russell - career highs for both boxers.
"Honestly, this is a big honor to break the cycle of the Al Haymon and Bob Arum and Top Rank and Golden Boy thing because you have all of these great fighters from both sides of the fence that the fans would love to see," said Russell of Capitol Heights, Md.
"But they don't get the opportunity to perform against each other and they don't get the opportunity to see it because of the ongoing situation."
Russell was a 2008 U.S. Olympian, qualifying for the team but never competing due to missing the weigh-in. Russell was declared by Valcarcel in October to be the WBO’s mandatory challenger to face then-beltholder Orlando Salido.
The ruling did not preclude Salido from making a voluntary defense against Lomachenko, which the two-time Olympic gold medalist did on March 1. Lomachenko fell by split decision but Salido lost his belt at the scales after failing to make the 126-pound weight limit.
As a result, the title was rendered vacant.
"I think that this is a big breakthrough for me and Lomachenko to be able to be one of the first to actually do it," said Russell. "Hopefully, this will open the door for a lot of the other fights that the fans would want to see facilitated."
RingTV.com polled 19 insiders for their thoughts on what will transpire in Russell Jr.-Lomachenko with the results as follows.
Gary Russell Jr. W 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: Look for this to be "Mr. Russell's" long overdue coming-out party. Vasyl Lomachenko is light years ahead of any other first-year fighter but what worked for him versus Orlando Salido won't help him here.
Record: 10-4 [Last pick: Miguel Cotto late TKO Sergio Martinez]
Vasyl Lomachenko UD 12 Gary Russell Jr.: Despite his unrivaled amateur resume, Vasyl Lomachenko got ahead of himself in his professional apprenticeship against Orlando Salido. Lomachenko got a lesson and a loss in only his second pro bout.
He's not likely to forget it. If he does, he'll suffer his second straight defeat. Gary Russell Jr. has enough magic in fast hands to beat the decorated Olympian from Ukraine.
If styles make fights, however, Russell appears to be the right fight at the right time for Lomachenko, who lost only one bout in 397 amateur fights against fighters with Russell's kind of athletic skill.
Record: 12-5 [Last pick: Cotto UD 12 Martinez]
Gary Russell Jr. W 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: If veteran featherweight champion Orlando Salido couldn't put away novice pro Vasyl Lomachenko in the youngster's second pro fight, don't think for a second that Gary Russell Jr can do it. No chance in hell, not with those soft hands.
What Russell Jr. can do, however, is teach Lomachenko a valuable lesson about moving up the ranks slowly while gaining the experience needed to win when the time is right. It's now finally Russell's time to shine as one of the fastest pure boxers in the world.
I expect him to handle Lomachenko with far greater ease than what Salido was able to manage. When it's over, Russell Jr. will have a close unanimous decision win, his first world title and Lomachenko will have a losing record at 1-2.
Record: 11-6 [Last pick: Martinez TKO 10 Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. UD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: I think pride has led Vasyl Lomachenko into a second consecutive world title shot and that decision could backfire again.
Gary Russell Jr. has been criticized heavily for his competition but he still has five years of professional experience and that may be decisive.
Lomachenko is perhaps the best amateur ever but he should have taken the hint Orlando Salido gave him in March and served his professional apprenticeship before making yet another attempt to leapfrog. I see "Hi-Tech" being 1-2 after this all-southpaw collision.
Record: 13-4 [Last pick: Martinez TKO 10 Cotto]
Vasyl Lomachenko W 12 Gary Russell Jr.: Talk about a contrast in career paths: Vasyl Lomachenko has taken a most ambitious route while Gary Russell Jr. has traveled a far more gradual path. Since both are lefties, the southpaw advantage is negated.
So one has to go by experience. Ironically, Lomachenko is the more experienced fighter, given his amateur pedigree and his experience against Orlando Salido.
Lomachenko's late surge was impressive, given the punishment and the "dark arts" Salido practiced on him. Those are experiences Russell hasn't yet seen as a pro. In a tough game of speed chess, Lomachenko will sneak out a points win.
Record: 6-4 [Last pick: Martinez W 12 Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. UD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: Another case of biting off too much, too soon for Vasyl Lomachenko. If Lomachenko's team thought Orlando Salido was a favorable match-up for the fighter from Ukraine, I'm not sure what they think of this opponent because Gary Russell Jr. might be an even bigger test.
Perhaps they went this route because Russell is more slick where Salido was more of a rugged opponent. Nevertheless, we might see one of boxing's brightest talents fall to 1-2 as Russell could outfox Lomachenko throughout the duration of the fight.
While Lomachenko has shot up the contention ladder quickly, Russell's ascent has been slower but he definitely has the goods to become one of boxing's best. Horrible match-up for Lomachenko as I see it being competitive but Russell's a bit more seasoned in longer distance fights and will take over down the stretch.
Record: 13-3 [Last pick: Martinez UD 12 Cotto]
Vasyl Lomachenko SD 12 Gary Russell Jr.: It's obviously odd that the boxer with two pro fights has been tested more at this level than the 24-fight veteran. Gary Russell Jr. has been matched so soft though that you can't help but feel Vasyl Lomachenko is more prepared for him than vice versa.
That said, Russell is an very talented, smart fighter who's eager to prove that his unblemished record isn't the mere by-product of careful matchmaking. I could see this fight going either way but Lomachenko is just about as physically gifted as Russell and should be able to apply enough of what he learned from the unsuccessful approach he took to Orlando Salido to edge Russell in an extremely competitive fight.
Record: 4-1 [Last pick: Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. UD 12 Bryan Vera]
Gary Russell Jr. W 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: Two of the best amateurs of the past decade face off here which means I expect an exhibition of class Saturday.
While Vasyl Lomachenko has the type of body attack to stop the speedy Gary Russell Jr. in his tracks, I think the American will have the requisite footwork and unleash accurate combinations to keep his rival at bay.
Most of all, Russell has the edge in experience though if he breaks his hands - which has occurred several times in his career - all bets are off.
Record: 4-0 [Last pick: Cotto W 12 Martinez]
Gary Russell UD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: Because Vasyl Lomachenko refused to go through the process of working his way up the ladder, with even just a handful of fights, and developing as a true professional, he lost his second bout against the veteran Orlando Salido.
I thought people got way too carried away by his pro debut in which he won decisively, but it was against a fringe contender. While Gary Russell Jr. presents an entirely different set of difficulties than did Salido, the outcome will be the same. In this case, Russell will use his natural gifts to outbox Lomachenko and win by a wider margin than Salido.
Vasyl Lomachenko SD 12 Gary Russell Jr.: Gary Russell Jr. is lightning quick. His combinations are a blur. He's undefeated in 24 professional fights. Vasyl Lomachenko is a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
After engaging in 400 amateur fights, Lomachenko was victorious in his first foray as a pro and then lost in a bid for the WBO featherweight title against Orlando Salido last March.
Boxing has seen its share of 50/50 fights. This is another. Russell has the speed but Lomenchenko is bigger. I believe Russell will get off to a lead but Lomanchecko will edge ahead at the end.
Record: 12-5 [Last pick: Martinez W 12 Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. W 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: It's hard to figure who wins this. Vasyl Lomachenko almost came back to get Orlando Salido and that had to be a good experience.
Gary Russell Jr. has been brought along the Al Haymon path trod by Andre Berto and Adrien Broner and it makes one wonder what they're hiding.
Without an answer to that, this is all about two talents we just don't know that well yet. Russell building a lead and holding off a charge seems as good a bet as any.
Record: 9-7 [Last pick: Martinez KO Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. UD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: It's very difficult to pick a winner in Vasyl Lomachenko-Gary Russell Jr. They both obviously are gifted, all-around fighters but neither has enough pro experience to get a good handle on their capabilities. I'll go with a hunch and pick Russell to win a unanimous decision.
Record: 9-3 [Last pick: Carl Froch UD 12 George Groves]
Gary Russell Jr. SD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: I see Gary Russell Jr. winning a split decision over Vasyl Lomachenko. Russell gets dropped but still wins a close one.
Record: 3-2 [Last pick: Martinez UD 12 Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. UD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: I'm going with Gary Russell Jr. on a unanimous decision. I think that even with his limited pro experience, Vasyl Lomachenko is going to make a good go of it. But I believe that Lomachenko will come up short over the distance against one of the hottest young champs in the game right now.
Record: 8-4 [Last pick: Martinez W 12 Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. UD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: Gary Russell Jr. has frustrated boxing fans thus far in his career with his lackluster competition while Vasyl Lomachenko has already fought for a world title in only a few professional fights.
Both men are extremely talented but Russell holds a big edge in professional experience. Russell arguably has the fastest hands in boxing and will have to be busy because Lomachenko's work rate is high.
This fight will be a chess match with a high level of technical skill and it's easy to make a case for both guys. Russell doesn't know how to lose and that's important in this fight. I'll go with Russell by unanimous decision as he outboxes Lomachenko in a very close fight.
Record: 10-2 [Last pick: Martinez UD 12 Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. SD 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: I think quickness will be the difference here and Gary Russell Jr. has the edge in that department. Vasyl Lomachenko won’t have to deal with the veteran tricks he had to with Orlando Salido.
But Russell, nonetheless, has far more professional experience than Lomachenko, even though the Ukrainian has gone 12 rounds once in only two pro fights and Russell has never gone more than 10. Then again, Lomachenko won 396 of 397 amateur fights and he wants this vacant title badly.
Record: 9-2 [Last pick: Martinez SD 12 Cotto]
Vasyl Lomachenko W 12 Gary Russell Jr.: Vasyl Lomachenko, as a fighter with limited pro experience, could very well be the next best thing in boxing.
Gary Russell Jr., on the other hand, has had the boxing world guessing if he's even serious about wanting to be the next best thing.
It's a tough pick but Lomachenko seems to want it more and will earn a hard-fought decision over what could have been the "next best thing" in Russell.
Record: 10-5 [Last pick: Martinez W 12 Cotto]
Vasyl Lomachenko W 12 Gary Russell Jr.: While I may have put too much stock into the prospect of Vasyl Lomachenko making history by winning a title in his second professional fight, it has been quite some time since I felt Mr. Gary Russell Jr. was a worthwhile investment.
The talent and physical skills are obviously there but his inactivity, constant injuries and level of opposition has left much to be desired. Russell Jr. may be the more seasoned professional but his resume might as well have been a continuation of his amateur run.
Even though Lomachenko may be a bigger question mark than Russell Jr., his ability to adapt in the second half of his losing effort against Orlando Salido showed a fighter with the boxing I.Q. required to overcome adversity in the ring.
We don't know how Russell deals with any sort of adversity due to his painfully weak resume. With both fighters being southpaws, I'm going with Lomachenko to use his timing to neutralize Russell Jr.'s speed and walk away with the belt and a decision victory in 12.
Record: 6-6 [Last pick: Martinez UD 12 Cotto]
Gary Russell Jr. W 12 Vasyl Lomachenko: This is a really tough fight to pick. I've deliberated over this one and have gone back and forth. It looks very much like a 50/50 fight on paper.
The interesting thing with this fight appears to be the intangibles. Both will be facing the quickest opponent they have as a pro. Neither will have fought someone as technically sound.
Both are the most talented fighter the other has faced. When a pattern is established, is the other able to do something to change the course of the fight?
All told, I feel that Gary Russell Jr. is quicker and will have the edge in speed, which will help him to win a competitive decision over Vasyl Lomachenko. But with so many unanswered questions, this could easily go the other way.
Record: 11-4 [Last pick: Martinez W 12 Cotto]
The insiders have picked Gary Russell Jr. to win the WBO's vacant featherweight title over Vasyl Lomachenko, doing so by the margin of 13 to 6.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images