Cornelius "K9" Bundrage is a 39-year-old veteran of "The Contender" reality series and now a junior middleweight titleholder looking for a breakout fight in the late stages of his career.
Gary Russell Jr. is a 24-year-old featherweight prodigy and the 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year with an enormously bright future.
Although they are in radically different places in their careers, Bundrage and Russell have more in common than one might think.
Both are anxious to get back into the ring after being forced to sit on the sideline for a lot longer than either had expected or wanted. Finally, both will get their opportunity to fight again, on a special Saturday night edition (9 ET/PT) of Showtime's "ShoBox: The New Generation" series at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, Calif.
In the main event, Detroit's Bundrage (31-4, 18 KOs) is back after a 53-week layoff to make a mandatory defense of his 154-pound belt in a rematch with former titleholder Cory Spinks (39-6, 11 KOs), the man Bundrage destroyed in five one-sided rounds in August 2010 in front of Spinks' hometown St. Louis crowd to win the belt. Russell (19-0, 11 KOs), a 2008 U.S. Olympian from Capitol Heights, Md., will face Mexico's Christopher Perez (23-2, 14 KOs) in a 10-round undercard fight.
Opening the tripleheader will be junior middleweight contender Erislandy Lara (16-1-1, 11 KOs), a former world amateur champion and Cuban defector living in Houston, against Mexico's Freddy Hernandez (30-2, 20 KOs).
Bundrage, who is trained and managed by Emanuel Steward, pulled the upset against Spinks to win a belt and figured that bigger fights and bigger purses would follow. Instead, Bundrage was put on ice by promoter Don King, who let him languish.
Bundrage fought only once a year from 2009 to 2011 and hasn't fought yet this year.
Even when King staged the Timothy Bradley Jr.-Devon Alexander junior welterweight unification fight at the Silverdome outside of Detroit in January 2011, Bundrage couldn't find a spot on the hometown card. Instead, he showed up to the fights wearing street clothes and his title belt.
He had been off for 10 months before King finally arranged a fight for him last June, an overdue mandatory defense against Sechew Powell in a rematch of Powell's first-round knockout win in a 2005 nontitle bout. Bundrage won a unanimous decision, but the fight did nothing for him. It was on a small untelevised card for a five-figure purse.
Then came another year of inactivity, despite the fact that Bundrage had a title in one of boxing's hottest divisions.
Bundrage was looking at another meager purse and no television exposure for the rematch with Spinks until Golden Boy Promotions, which is heavily invested in the junior middleweight division and has a lot more juice with the television networks than King does these days, came to his rescue. Golden Boy won a purse bid for the rematch against Spinks for $211,011, even though it doesn't promote either fighter. King bid a meager $51,000.
"I'm just prepared to go out there and give it my best on Saturday night," Bundrage said. "I don't dwell on the past. I can only take care of the present and what's in front of me. I just want to have a good fight on Saturday and show the world I am one of the elite fighters out there."
Bundrage claimed that he is free of King now because of multiple contract breaches, even though King still promotes Spinks.
"I was in a contract with Don King and it was a two-fight deal and he wanted me to sign a longer deal, and I refused to do that when I was doing nothing but fighting mandatory fights," Bundrage said. "On top of that, he didn't even give me any money to sign with him in the first place. I was the mandatory [opponent] for Spinks in the first fight, so I earned it. It's not like Don King gave it to me. Then I signed with him, and he gave me no fights. It was bad. But I hung in there and I kept God first and now I'm [a free agent] and on Showtime in the main event. You go from not fighting for a year to fighting the main event on a good card, so it's a blessing."
Bundrage said his deep religious faith and support from his wife kept him from getting overly frustrated during his forced layoff.
"I stayed in the gym," Bundrage said. "I've been in the gym for a year, but I didn't get frustrated. I'd get upset here and there, but I stayed in the gym, so I'm in great shape for this fight."
At Bundrage's age, however, he may have missed some of his prime earning opportunities because of the layoffs. He said he isn't worried about that because he views himself as a young 39. He hasn't taken much punishment and keeps himself in condition year-round.
"You don't hear me slurring. I feel 24," he said. "I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't party. I am well-preserved. I'm 100 percent clean and I take care of myself. No regrets. I'm just happy to move forward. I'm living in the present. You can't go forward if you are looking back."
A victory on Saturday could put Bundrage squarely in the sweepstakes to land a unification fight with titlist Saul "Canelo" Alvarez -- who has already lost three opponents for different reasons -- on Sept. 15. That would be a fight for significant money and exposure. Of course, it's a fight Bundrage wants.
"I definitely don't look past Spinks, even though I've heard I could be a possible opponent for Canelo," Bundrage said. "That's what I want. I don't want to keep fighting the same fighters over and over again. It's time for the big fights now."
Russell put the finishing touches on a 6-0 year in 2011 by scoring a sensational first-round knockout of Heriberto Ruiz in November, and big things were anticipated -- and expected -- in 2012. Then came an unexpected seven-month layoff.
But Russell wasn't idle because of a promoter. He was a victim of bad luck. He was supposed to make his 2012 debut in February on the undercard of the Victor Ortiz-Andre Berto rematch. But Berto suffered a biceps injury, and the fight was postponed until June 23 (before Berto was dropped altogether because of a failed steroids test).
Golden Boy rescheduled Russell to fight on an April 21 card, but then Russell suffered a badly sprained left ankle while training for the fight, forcing him out of action again.
"I injured it in sparring," Russell said. "There was a real soft spot in the ring, and I stepped in it and just rolled my ankle all the way over. It comes with the territory. I believe God allows things to happen for a reason, so no frustrations, man. I took my time coming back. I'm in no rush. I'm just 24 years old.
"Time is definitely on my side, so no rush, and now we're back, but it was extremely painful. It was a little more serious than just a twisted ankle. They put a brace on it. It's definitely better, but I have it wrapped to protect it, but I can perform. We don't make excuses."
Russell, who could have been fighting fellow prospect Luis Franco in a title eliminator on Saturday before the deal fell apart, said he did what he could to work out, even with the injury.
"I stayed as active as I could," Russell said. "I'm one of those guys who stays in the gym all the time and I'm never out of shape. There was a little ring rust, but we got rid of that in sparring. I'm ready to go. I love what I do, I love the sport and I'm grateful to get back in the ring."