Russell ready for more in 2013?
Fast-handed featherweight prospect is past due for a higher level of competition
If you've seen featherweight Gary Russell Jr. fight, it's easy to understand why boxing insiders and fans alike are so high on him and consider him a surefire future world champion.
The talent is clear: power, defense and insanely fast hands -- maybe the quickest in all of boxing. Then just take a look at his amateur background: more than 200 wins, against only 11 losses, 2008 U.S. Olympian, junior Olympic champion, two-time U.S. national champion, 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.
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As a professional, Russell (21-0, 13 KOs), the 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year, has been flawless and scored several highlight-reel knockouts.
But as outstanding as his amateur career was, and as good as he has looked as a professional, questions have arisen for two reasons: He has been extremely inactive for a young blue-chip talent, and when he has fought, he has faced generally woeful opposition.
A 24-year-old southpaw from Capitol Heights, Md., Russell fought just twice in 2012, blitzing no-hopers Christopher Perez and Roberto Castaneda in third-round knockouts, and there has been frustration from boxing fans and television networks who want to showcase him because they would like to see him face a reasonably credible opponent.
"Remember one thing," Russell said. "A lot of these top guys are not in a rush to step in the ring with me. It's not so easy to get a top opponent."
Still, when Russell has fought, he rarely has even had an opponent lined up until just a few weeks before the bout.
"I'm satisfied with the way my career is going and at the pace it's going," Russell said. "I refuse to listen to anybody who says anything negative about it. I think in a couple more fights, I'll be ready to challenge for a world title."
His promoter, Golden Boy, thought he would be in position to fight for a world title in late 2012, but that time frame came and went without even a hint of Russell stepping up to fight a top opponent.
Now he is about to kick off his 2013 campaign, but unlike many others who have obsessed over his opponents and schedule, he is as laid-back as ever.
"I understand what people are saying, but we definitely have a game plan and we're sticking to it. I don't worry about the other stuff," Russell said. "We're definitely ready. This is the year where everything will open up.
"We plan on ending the year with a title. Everything is timing. We're looking at a couple of guys. Hopefully, everything goes well."
Russell's first fight of the year will come against obscure Russian Vyacheslav Gusev (20-2, 5 KOs) in a scheduled 10-round bout on Saturday night (Showtime 10 ET/PT, with preliminary bouts on Showtime Extreme at 8 ET/PT) at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
In the main event, Miami-based Cuban Richard Abril (17-3-1, 8 KOs) will make the first defense of his lightweight belt against Las Vegas-based Ugandan Sharif "The Lion" Bogere (23-0, 15 KO's).
On the Showtime Extreme portion of the card, Puerto Rico's Jorge Melendez (25-2, 24 KOs) will meet Ryan Davis (24-9-3, 9 KOs) of Granite City, Ill., in an eight-round middleweight bout; Thomas Williams (12-0, 9 KOs) of Fort Washington, Md. will face St. Louis' Kevin Engel (20-7, 16 KOs) in an eight-round light heavyweight fight; and, time permitting, Jeffrey Fontanez (10-0, 9 KO's) of Puerto Rico will face Daniel Attah (27-13-1, 10 KOs) of Washington, D.C., in a six-round lightweight match.
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Russell said he would have liked to fight more often in 2012, but couldn't.
"Minor injuries and stuff like that were setbacks," Russell said. "I reinjured my right ankle, some fights fell through. I had some personal family issues to deal with. Just minor setbacks in everyday life. But we bounced back and we're ready and prepared, mentally and physically where we need to be.
"I look at it like everything happens for a reason. I know a lot of people anticipate seeing me compete, which is a good thing. So now we're 100 percent ready. I have no injuries. We're good. We're looking to have an explosive year in 2013."
Golden Boy Promotions chief executive Richard Schaefer said that he also expects 2013 to be the year in which Russell makes a big move.
"He's ready to fight somebody, and we want him to fight a top opponent as well," Schaefer said. "We would love for him to fight the winner of [featherweight world title fight between Daniel] Ponce De Leon and Abner Mares.
"We want to get him into the mix of the big fights, and he's ready. That's what we want to do. I believe this year is going to be a big year for Gary Russell. He is ready to go."
Said Russell: "This is the year we will definitely make the moves to get into that world title fight."
Whether Gusev can derail Russell remains to be seen, but there is nothing in his résumé to indicate that he can. The 27-year-old is riding a four-fight winning streak, but he has fought all but one of his bouts in Russia.
On the one occasion when he ventured to the United States, Gusev lost a lopsided decision in Ontario, Calif., to the best opponent he has faced, Juan Carlos Burgos, a featherweight contender who is now a top-10 junior lightweight contender.
"We overlook nobody," said Russell, who would like to fight four times this year. "Gusev is a pretty decent fighter. Gusev has the potential to be a spoiler, and he is definitely somebody we can't overlook. I've seen tapes of Gusev, and he seems to have that classic European style, although he does try and box. He's the type that if you allow him to set the pace, he'll run up the points on you. I expect a good fight on Saturday."
Said Gusev: "I came all the way from Russia for this fight, and I'm here to put on a really great fight. I've trained very hard for this. I know Russell is a good fighter. I'm excited about the opportunity that I'm getting.
"I'm very relaxed, calm and confident. I've seen some of Russell's fights and know he is a very good fighter. I'm excited about this fight and looking forward to it. It's not going to be easy, but I am here to win. I didn't come all this way to lose."
There will be those who expect Russell to score another big knockout against an unknown opponent. But he isn't putting pressure on himself to do that against Gusev.
"I had a good, exciting knockout in my last fight, but I don't put pressure on myself to duplicate that kind of fight," he said. "My job is to perform and win fights."
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