- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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When Gary Russell Jr. was a young boy, maybe age 5 or so, he began attending boxing cards in the Washington, D.C./Maryland region in the early '90s with his father, Gary Sr., a former pro fighter who now serves as his trainer. The precocious kid with the fast hands already was something of an entertainer.
Before the bouts would begin, Russell said, he was often invited into the ring to shadowbox for the crowd, which typically included the top fighters from the area.
Dan Rafael's prospects of the year
"I wanted to box, but I was too young to compete as an amateur, so at least I could go in the ring," Russell said. "The older guys, the pros, they knew I was good. Sharmba Mitchell, Keith Holmes, William Joppy, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mark 'Too Sharp' Johnson -- these guys would pay me money to get in the ring to shadowbox, maybe about $5, and I would shadowbox and the crowd would love it."
Russell said he wasn't allowed to box as an amateur until he was 8, so the family fudged his age, and he had his first bout when he was actually 7.
Now he is a rising, 23-year-old professional featherweight with a huge future and already earning a lot more than just $5 per performance.
"He's very charismatic," said Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer, who has a handshake deal with Al Haymon, Russell's adviser, to promote the fighter. "He's one of those handful of guys who have it all -- the talent; he's a good-looking kid; he can be funny, and he can fight."
Russell lost that first fight at age 7, but it was just the start of a decorated amateur career during which he had about 230 fights and, he said, "I know for sure I lost 11."
Russell, of Capitol Heights, Md., made sure to point out that a few years after losing that first fight, he avenged it by scoring a first-round knockout in the rematch.
He said he remembers each defeat (all but one avenged, because there was never a rematch), but there were also a ton of wins as Russell became the 2008 U.S. Olympic bantamweight, a junior Olympic champion, a two-time U.S. national champion and a National Golden Gloves champion. Russell is one of only two boxers to win a U.S. championship and National Golden Gloves title before age 17.
In 2005, a 17-year-old Russell won a bronze medal at the world amateur championships and was named USA Boxing's athlete of the year.
At the 2007 U.S. Olympic trials, Russell, a southpaw, became only the fourth fighter in history to lose his opening bout (to fellow prospect Roberto Marroquin) and rally through the losers bracket to earn an Olympic berth. You may have heard of the other three: Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Russell (19-0, 11 KOs), of course, hopes to follow in those fighters' footsteps to a great professional career and is laying the foundation even after the bitter disappointment of not being able to compete in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when he became ill and passed out during a weight check.
He ripped through 2011 with six wins -- granted, against modest competition -- and showed everything you could ask for from a young fighter: crazy hand speed (perhaps the best in boxing), power, skills, defense, smarts, poise, a dynamic style and a dash of showmanship.
"He is so advanced for such a young fighter," said Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez. "He has offense and defense, and he takes his time. He throws beautiful punches, throws combinations. He's the best prospect I've seen in a long time. He is, by far, our best prospect."
Golden Boy's best prospect and the 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year.
Although the level of opponents Russell has faced so far as a pro isn't overly impressive, the way he has beaten them has been. He has barely lost a round and wasn't touched in a pair of HBO fights, a domination of last-minute opponent Leonilo Miranda in an eight-round decision in September and a spectacular first-round knockout of faded former bantamweight title challenger Heriberto Ruiz.
"I think my year has gone good, and I am 100 percent blessed," said Russell, who is deeply religious. "I'm very grateful that I have a good team and my dad as my coach. Everything is going just the way we planned. We plan on it being a bigger year in 2012. I'm ready for whatever comes my way. I just love what I do. I definitely love my job. [After] every fight, I am back in the gym on Monday. That is no myth."
Russell will open his 2012 slate on Feb. 11 in a Showtime-televised bout on the undercard of the rematch between top welterweights Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto, both past prospects of the year, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Gomez believes Russell can get into position to win a world title in 2012.
"I believe he can," Gomez said. "It's fun to see guys who are very exciting, like James Kirkland, Alfredo Angulo, Marcos Maidana. Everybody loves guys like that. But when you combine that aggression with the technique and style that Gary has -- he can stand right in front of you and slip punches and throw combinations -- that is something I love to watch. If we can get Gary in position to fight the big names at 126 and 130 [pounds], it will be fun. He can fight guys like [featherweight titlist] Chris John or [former titlist] Juan Manuel Lopez, and he would beat them right now, or at least give them a good fight."
Said Schaefer: "He's only 23, and he's so complete. You see some prospects, and you see a diamond in the rough who needs polishing. There is not much to be polished with Gary."
Russell, who married his wife, Sapphire, three months ago, knows he is on the fast track but isn't overly concerned about any timetable.
"I feel like the competition will definitely get steeper, but I feel my hand speed and punching power will be a factor," said Russell, one of six brothers named Gary [five of whom box]. "But I am not in a rush. I'm still young. I got a lot of time."
The one fighter Russell wants a piece of is former featherweight titlist Yuriorkis Gamboa, a 2004 Cuban Olympic gold medalist who is moving up to junior lightweight. Russell said he is taking his time moving up the ladder but hopes Gamboa is there for him down the road.
"Everyone is big on Gamboa. We want him so bad," Russell said. "We see so many mistakes he makes, but his opponents don't act on it. I'm hoping and praying that nobody beats him. I want him to keep his hype going because I am the one who is coming for him."
Coming for Gamboa and, very likely, many other top fighters.
The rest of the Super 25 (in alphabetical order with age, division, promoter and record):
Demetrius Andrade (23, junior middleweight, Banner Promotions/Star Boxing, 15-0, 10 KOs): Andrade, a southpaw from Providence, R.I., was a star amateur. He was a 2008 U.S. Olympian and won a world amateur championship, two U.S. national titles and two National Golden Gloves titles. He has excellent speed, ring smarts and, at 6-foot-1, good size for his division. Ideally, he would be more active. (He fought three times in 2010 and four times in 2011.) In August, he scored the best win of his career when he easily outpointed Grady Brewer, a former winner of "The Contender" and an upset specialist. Andrade isn't the most crowd-pleasing fighter, but he has pound-for-pound potential. He is due to headline ESPN2/ESPN3's "Friday Night Fights" against Derek Ennis on Feb. 10.
Jose Benavidez Jr. (19, junior welterweight, Top Rank, 14-0, 12 KOs): Trained by Freddie Roach, Phoenix's Benavidez is a true blue-chipper. He began boxing at age 6 and has been viewed as a surefire future champion for several years. He is so gifted that Nevada officials gave him a special waiver to turn pro at 17 (the rule is 18). Benavidez went 120-5 as an amateur and, at 16, became a 2009 National Golden Gloves champion -- the youngest to accomplish that feat. Had he remained an amateur, he would have been as close to a slam dunk to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team as there could be. He's the total package of size (5-foot-11, 140 pounds), speed and power, and he effectively switches between righty and lefty. He went 5-0 in 2011, and Top Rank, with matchmakers Brad "Abdul" Goodman and Bruce Trampler, is better than any other promoter when it comes to identifying young talent and grooming raw pro debuters into star world champions. The one thing that could hold Benavidez back is fragile hands.
Sharif Bogere (23, lightweight, Golden Boy, 21-0, 13 KOs): The Las Vegas-based Bogere has style and substance. Nicknamed "The Lion," he makes a stylish ring entrance wearing a lion's head. Inside the ring, the Uganda native and five-time African amateur champion is a bundle of energy, throws tons of punches and has an aggressive mentality that makes him a serious crowd-pleaser. Having left a difficult life in his home country for the United States, he turned pro in 2008 and has risen quickly. He was 3-0 in 2011, including back-to-back "ShoBox" appearances in which he defeated his two best opponents: Raymundo Beltran, in a bloody nip-and-tuck battle, and previously undefeated Francisco Contreras via third-round knockout.
Randy Caballero (21, junior featherweight, Golden Boy, 13-0, 7 KOs): The Coachella, Calif., native has gotten a lot of TV time on Telefutura's "Solo Boxeo" on cards for which he has drawn his fans in the region. He is a crowd-pleasing boxer-puncher who was a standout amateur with a 167-10 record. He won a 2008 U.S. national championship and a bronze medal at the 2008 world amateur championships, but he was too young to qualify for the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. A pro only since early 2010, Caballero continues to improve fight in and fight out. He is technically sound and patient, but he needs to gain strength. He has gotten excellent experience sparring with pound-for-pound star Nonito Donaire (with whom he shares manager Cameron Dunkin) and bantamweight titlist and Golden Boy stablemate Abner Mares.
Rakhim Chakhkiev (28, cruiserweight, Universum, 11-0, 9 KOs): Based in Germany, Chakhkiev was a star amateur in his native Russia, going 160-20 and winning the 2008 Olympic heavyweight gold medal. A professional since late 2009, "The Machine" has moved a bit slowly considering his amateur pedigree, but he has looked good. He's a southpaw with power and is built like a truck. He went 3-0 in 2011 -- he needs to be busier -- but made his American debut in April on the Marcos Maidana-Erik Morales undercard in Las Vegas. He is due to make his 2012 debut Jan. 28 in Germany.
Pier-Olivier Cote (27, junior welterweight, InterBox, 18-0, 12 KOs): Quebec City's Cote isn't just one of Canada's brightest prospects -- he's one of the most exciting up-and-comers in the sport, period. Considering he didn't begin boxing until age 20, he has come a long way, winning a Canadian national amateur title and now coming into his own as a professional. He turned pro in 2008 at junior lightweight and has grown into a solid junior welterweight. He has a flashy, dynamic, fan-friendly style and fast hands. He went 4-0 in 2011 and really opened eyes with a sensational performance on Showtime on the Lucian Bute-Glen Johnson undercard in November, when he annihilated one-time prospect Jorge Teron in the second round of an explosive performance. He'll kick off 2012 on Feb. 3 in a main event on Showtime's "ShoBox" against Mauricio Herrera in Quebec City.
Luis Orlando Del Valle (24, junior featherweight, Lou DiBella/Gary Shaw, 14-0, 11 KOs): Puerto Rico's Del Valle, who lives in New York, lost his first amateur fight at age 14 but wound up going 112-14 and earning a National Golden Gloves title before turning pro in 2008. He has excellent hand speed and is efficient with his punches. He has a high knockout percentage but is more of a sharp puncher than a crushing puncher. He scores his knockouts with an accumulation of well-placed shots. In his most notable fight, which aired on "ShoBox" in June, he hammered credible Dat Nguyen in a lopsided 10-round decision with an excellent performance that stole the show.
Thomas Dulorme (21, welterweight, Lou DiBella/Gary Shaw/Javier Bustillo, 13-0, 10 KOs): Puerto Rico's Dulorme is an ultra-exciting prospect with Felix Trinidad-like charisma. When Dulorme comes to the ring, he has a smile on his face and seems to thoroughly enjoy the combat. He is a very aggressive puncher with tremendous power. He turned pro in 2008 but initially didn't fight very often. In 2011, he picked up the pace, winning five fights -- including spectacular second-round knockouts of Guillermo Valdes and Harrison Cuello on major undercards. Dulorme followed those fights with quality decision wins against former junior welterweight titlist DeMarcus "Chop Chop" Corley on "Friday Night Fights" and former welterweight title challenger Charlie Navarro. The sky is the limit for this kid. He has the look of a future star who just needs more experience. Dulorme will open his 2012 schedule by headlining "ShoBox" on Feb. 17.
Javier Fortuna (22, featherweight, Sampson Lewkowicz, 18-0, 13 KOs): Lewkowicz is one of the best in the business when it comes to finding diamonds in the rough and polishing them into top professionals. Fortuna, a southpaw with blazing speed (hands and feet) and good power, turned pro in 2009 and could be his promoter's next find. The Dominican Republic native, who fights out of the same stable as middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, is a bit raw and wild. He needs a lot of work cleaning up his defense, but he is aggressive and progressing well. Fortuna fought on the Dominican national team during his strong amateur career and has scored some sick knockouts as a pro, including a devastating eighth-round KO of decent opponent Derrick Wilson on a Martinez undercard. On Dec. 16, Fortuna scored his most notable win, a 10-round decision against former title challenger Miguel Roman.
Luis Franco (29, featherweight, Gary Shaw, 11-0, 7 KOs): The Miami-based Franco spent eight years on the powerhouse Cuban national team and was a 2004 Olympian. But he lost what would have been some prime professional years before defecting in mid-2009 and turning pro. After roughly 400 amateur fights (including wins against Yuriorkis Gamboa), Franco is adapting well to the pro game. He's a volume puncher with quickness and, because of his amateur experience and advanced age, is on the fast track. He has already defeated solid pros such as Wilton Hilario, Eric Hunter and Leonilo Miranda. There was serious talk of Franco facing 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year Gary Russell Jr. on HBO on two different cards, but no deal ever came to fruition, as Franco was in position for a title eliminator in one of the alphabet organizations. He figures to get a significant fight in 2012.
Jonathan Gonzalez (22, junior middleweight, Leon Margules/Gary Shaw/Lou DiBella, 14-0, 13 KOs): Gonzalez was a 2007 Pan-American Games silver medalist and 2008 Puerto Rican Olympian who went 132-18 as an amateur. He's a strong volume puncher who loves to bull forward and look for knockouts. But he can also box and fights in a confident, relaxed manner. He picked up his most notable victory in June, when he broke down onetime contender Richard Gutierrez in impressive fashion to win a lopsided decision on Showtime's "ShoBox" in New York on the eve of the annual Puerto Rican Day parade.
George Groves (23, super middleweight, Frank Warren, 14-0, 11 KOs): As one of England's top amateurs, he went 66-10 and has moved very quickly since turning pro in late 2008. He's a good boxer with good enough power and has already claimed the traditional British and Commonwealth titles. In the amateurs, Groves defeated James DeGale, who went on to win a 2008 Olympic gold medal for Great Britain. They met in a heavily hyped pro rematch in May, in which Groves did enough to claim a majority decision before scoring a sensational second-round knockout of experienced Paul Smith.
Badou Jack (28, super middleweight, Lou DiBella/Leon Margules, 9-0, 8 KOs): Jack, known as "The Ripper," is a little older than your average prospect and is a bit of a project, but he can fight and is a crowd-pleasing, come-forward fighter with solid power. Although born in Sweden and now living in Las Vegas, he was the first boxer to make the Olympics for the African country of Gambia (his father's native nation) in 2008. He turned pro in 2009 and fought in Europe but fought only once in 2010 before relocating to the United States, where he has won all four of his 2011 bouts, each by knockout.
Diego Magdaleno (25, junior lightweight, Top Rank, 21-0, 7 KOs): The Las Vegas southpaw -- who boxed as a right-hander before an amateur trainer had him switch -- is a slick operator who has been brought along nicely by Top Rank. He began boxing at age 8 and won a 2007 U.S. national championship during an amateur career in which he went approximately 116-14. Even though he isn't a heavy hitter, he's a formidable technician. Facing fighters who possess excellent records, he went 4-0 in 2011, including a dominant decision against former contender Emmanuel Lucero.
Roberto Marroquin (22, featherweight, Top Rank, 21-1, 14 KOs): Marroquin's reputation took a hit in 2011 when he suffered a bloody 10-round split decision to Francisco Leal in an April fight that could have gone either way. Ultimately, it should be a learning experience for the talented Marroquin, who was originally supposed to face Leal in an eight-rounder but wound up in his first 10-rounder when it was bumped up to the main event (after the scheduled headliner dropped out because of illness). Dallas' Marroquin has a terrific left hook and quickly bounced back from the defeat, looking good in a pair of dominant decision wins against reasonable opposition. Fans should enjoy his crowd-pleasing style. As a teenager fighting in the amateurs, he was a 2007 U.S. Olympic trials finalist.
Seth Mitchell (29, heavyweight, Golden Boy, 24-0-1, 18 KOs): The heavyweight division is dominated by Europeans and the pool of legitimate American prospects is weak, but Mitchell, of Brandywine, Md., is one of the few with a chance. At 29, he is older than your typical prospect, but he didn't begin boxing until his 20s. Mitchell was a Michigan State linebacker, but he turned to boxing after a knee injury snuffed out his NFL dreams. With hard work and intense focus, "Mayhem" has improved dramatically since turning pro. At 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds, Mitchell is solidly built and is well-schooled. He throws a textbook left-jab-right-hand combination. He needs a bit more seasoning, but he went 4-0 (all knockouts) in 2011, culminating the year with a superb performance in his HBO debut, a blowout of the very experienced Timur Ibragimov, by far Mitchell's best opponent, in two rounds.
Thomas Oosthuizen (22, super middleweight, Lou DiBella/Rodney Berman, 17-0-1, 12 KOs): One of South Africa's rising talents, Oosthuizen, a 6-foot-4 southpaw, is a crowd-pleaser who isn't afraid to take two to give one. He has advanced quickly in his four-year pro career and went 4-0 in 2011, including a pair of excellent victories: He outpointed Aaron Pryor Jr. in September in his American debut and stopped rugged Francisco Sierra in the 11th round in November. As physically strong as Oosthuizen is, DiBella believes he hasn't yet filled out with his "man strength." The fighter's father, Charles Oosthuizen, was a two-division national champion in South Africa.
Jose Pedraza (22, lightweight, Lou DiBella/Gary Shaw/Javier Bustillo, 5-0, 4 KOs): Pedraza, a 2008 Olympian and 2009 silver medalist at the amateur world championships, is perhaps the most heralded Puerto Rican prospect since Miguel Cotto came out of the 2000 Olympics. Nicknamed "The Sniper," Pedraza turned pro in February and has rolled through his first four (low-level) opponents. He has shown an educated jab and an excellent body attack, two elements that usually take time for a young fighter to develop. He has poise, is accurate with his punches and is very fluid. DiBella said Pedraza's fighting style reminds him of a young Oscar De La Hoya.
David Price (28, heavyweight, Frank Maloney, 11-0, 9 KOs): Price won a 2008 Olympic bronze medal for Great Britain in the super heavyweight division. At 6-8, 245 pounds, he has Klitschko-like size and good power. But he has moved rather slowly since turning pro in 2009, taking only four fights in each of his first two years and three in 2011 -- including a nice first-round knockout of American trial horse Raphael Butler (who lasted three rounds with Cristobal Arreola in November) and a second-round knockout of previously undefeated Tom Dallas. But Price, who owns an amateur win against Tyson Fury, has a good jab that he stays busy with. He will take another modest step up in competition when he faces countryman John McDermott on Jan. 21 in an eliminator for a shot at the British title.
Edwin Rodriguez (26, super middleweight, Lou DiBella, 20-0, 14 KOs): Rodriguez, who was born in the Dominican Republic but lives in Worcester, Mass., is on the verge of getting a notable fight. Trained by Ronnie Shields, he fought only three times in 2011, but that was because of a left rotator cuff injury he suffered in a hard-fought decision win against Aaron Pryor Jr. on "Friday Night Fights" in January. In his two wins after the injury, including a good one against previously undefeated Will Rosinsky on "ShoBox" in October, his shoulder held up fine. In addition to his fights, Rodriguez has gained invaluable experience sparring with such notable fighters as former super middleweight titlist Carl Froch, former light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal and middleweight titlist Daniel Geale. As an amateur, Rodriguez was 84-9 and won the 2005 U.S. nationals and 2006 National Golden Gloves.
Leo Santa Cruz (23, bantamweight, Golden Boy, 18-0-1, 10 KOs): Los Angeles' Santa Cruz was only 18 when he turned pro in late 2006, after a standout amateur career during which he went 148-7 and won a world amateur youth championship. Eric Gomez, his matchmaker at Golden Boy, paid him high praise when he said Santa Cruz's style reminds him of the late, great Alexis Arguello's because of the precise way that he throws his punches. Santa Cruz also displays a sound jab, has a terrific body attack and is very busy. He can fight on the inside or the outside, and although his best punch is his left hook, he has an ever-improving right hand. He was 4-0 in 2011 and gained good experience in wins against ex-junior bantamweight titlist Jose "Carita" Lopez (KO5) and former title challenger Everth Briceno (TKO11). A title shot in 2012 is quite possible.
Ismayl Sillakh (26, light heavyweight, Square Ring, 17-0, 14 KOs): Sillakh, a native of Ukraine living in Southern California, was a decorated amateur. He won a silver medal at the 2005 world amateur championships and had a reported record of 302-16. He can box and punch, and has excellent coordination and good size. As a pro, he has moved quickly and looked exceptional in recent fights, including his biggest win -- a dominant 10-round decision win against former Cuban amateur standout Yordanis Despaigne in March on "Friday Night Fights." Sillakh's next fight is expected to be a title eliminator, possibly against former champion Jean Pascal.
Yordenis Ugas (25, welterweight, Top Rank, 10-0, 5 KOs): Ugas, who has boxed since age 10, had a huge amateur career in which he fought roughly 400 times. He was a four-time Cuban national champion, a 2005 world amateur champion and a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist. Having defected in 2010, he now lives in Miami. Most Cuban fighters are very technical, but Ugas is more of a crowd-pleaser. As manager Luis DeCubas Jr. said, "He's a Cuban who fights like a Mexican." Ugas has excellent ring generalship (no surprise, given all his amateur experience) and fast hands, throws good combinations, goes to the body well and, though he isn't the biggest puncher, can break opponents down. He was 5-0 in 2011 and will open 2012 on Jan. 13 in the "Friday Night Fights" co-feature.
Deontay Wilder (26, heavyweight, Golden Boy, 20-0, 20 KOs): Although Wilder, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., had a limited amateur career, he won the 2007 National Golden Gloves and U.S. National titles and saved the U.S. Olympic boxing team from a medal shutout by winning a bronze in 2008. He's a raw project, but he appears to have the work ethic to continue improving. At 6-7 and 215 pounds, he has great height but needs to bulk up, especially in his legs. His calling card is a booming right hand, and he has stopped all of his opponents inside four rounds. However, the power display might be a little exaggerated because Wilder has faced extremely weak opposition. He went 6-0 in 2011, and ideally Golden Boy will step him up at least a little bit in 2012.
Monday: Fighter of the year
Wednesday: Round of the year
Thursday: Knockout of the year
Friday: Fight of the year
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.