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Russell Faces Lomachenko in Title Tilt

(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)
(Photo © Chris Farina / Top Rank)

By Steve Kim

While it’s not technically the main event at the StubHub Center, tonight’s face-off between Gary Russell Jr. and Vasyl Lomachenko for the vacant WBO featherweight title is perhaps the most intriguing fight of Showtime’s tripleheader. While Russell Jr. has a perfect mark of 24-0 (14) and Lomachenko has a record of 1-1 (1), you can make the argument that it’s the Ukrainian who is more battle-tested.
After all, while Russell Jr. has many more fights, Lomachenko got 12 rounds under his belt back in March against the wily ol’ veteran Orlando Salido. Many believe Russell hasn’t even faced anyone at the level of Jose Ramirez (who Lomachenko downed in four rounds in his pro debut in October). Perhaps this is a case of quantity versus quality but Russell still believes he is the more seasoned professional prizefighter.

“You learn from everything. Every opponent you get in the ring with, we take something from it and we grow from it and we add it to our repertoire and add it on to our arsenal,” Russell said on Thursday at the Biltmore Hotel where the final press conference for this card was held. “So I think my speed, my power, my boxing I.Q. as a professional and just my ring generalship alone is going to win the fight. But I’m thinking he should’ve gotten a little more rounds in as a professional.
“I definitely take nothing from him; obviously he’s a helluva amateur but it’s night and day.”
Lomachenko was not your garden variety amateur; he was a two-time Olympic gold medalist who won every conceivable honor there was to win at the level. He finished with a ledger of 396-1 and he avenged his only defeat - twice. But Russell, a former Olympian himself, didn’t know much about Lomachenko’s prodigious career representing his country.
“I don’t, honestly. I didn’t hear about him until maybe a couple of months ago when they were speaking on him fighting me. I knew I was the mandatory for the WBO. I heard about him when there was talk about him as one of the possible opponents. That’s when I first heard about him,” admitted Russell. When Lomachenko faced Salido, the defending champion missed the weight and gave the titles up on the scales. When Lomachenko lost, the title became vacant and when the WBO kept him high in the rankings, this fight came to fruition.
While you can accuse Lomachenko of perhaps being guided too fast, there is the same amount of derision over Russell’s path being perhaps too slow. The natural tools of this quicksilver southpaw are evident every time he performs but there’s a sense that he’s been matched a bit soft and maneuvered a bit too cautiously. The question was: Why was a guy this talented being moved like this? But perhaps all this was a bit of backlash because he’s a client of Al Haymon, who has a way of getting his clients paid very well for facing overmatched foes on premium cable.
Russell-Lomachenko is a referendum on the paths taken by each fighter. Whoever wins will be vindicated. Whoever loses will be second-guessed.
When you ask Russell if he would have gone for a title shot in his third fight or faced a guy of his caliber, he thinks for a second and says, “That’s a tough one...that’s a tough one. But I think he’s underestimating the importance of getting the rounds in as a professional. If you look at my fights when I was 10-0 and you see my fights when I’m 23, 24-0, you’ll see a level of maturity that I have in the ring as a fighter and I think it definitely plays a big part.”
So when did Russell start to feel comfortable as a pro?
“I say about maybe 10 to 15 fights before you actually get comfortable. You’re aware of everything, seeing different styles, etc.,” said the 26-year old, who hails from Capital Heights, Maryland. “You know how to cope with everything; you know how the overall atmosphere is, dealing with the commission, the stuff outside of boxing. All that stuff plays a part.”
This reporter has said numerous times that Russell is the best talent out of the Washington D.C. region since the great Mark Johnson. There are a lot of similarities. Like Johnson, Russell is left-handed and possesses incredible speed. But what was undeniable about the Hall-of-Famer was his toughness; Johnson didn’t have an easy road to the top. From early on in his career, he was matched with one tough Mexican after another at the Great Western Forum. Russell has all the tangibles of Johnson; what remains to be seen is if he has the intangibles that took “Too Sharp” to Canastota.
“All I do is go out there and do what I do best. This is something that I love to do,” Russell says.”I love being a competitor; I love being an entertainer. This is something that I love to do. When I’m out there fighting, I look at it as a performance. I like performing; I like displaying my talent with the ability God gave me.”
So how does this match go tonight? Truth be told, it could be more of a chess match than a real donnybrook (hey, after all, you do have two skilled southpaws in there). Russell says, “It can go a couple of ways: I think if he gets a little too rambunctious and wants to test the waters early, I think the fight might end early. I think if not, then it’ll definitely be a boxing lesson to show him the reason why he needs to go back to the drawing board and get the rounds and experience he needs as a professional.
“Regardless of the situation, I think my versatility alone is going to win the fight. Regardless of the situation, I’m coming out of the ring with a ‘W.’”
Coming out as a 1992 Olympic gold medalist, there was some talk of Oscar De la Hoya actually facing Genaro Hernandez as quickly as possible - perhaps even in his pro debut. But Top Rank Promotions took a more traditional approach and the “Golden Boy” was matched with Jimmi Bredahl in his 12th pro outing for his first world title, WBO junior lightweight belt. In retrospect, De la Hoya is glad they went this route.
“Absolutely,” he said, laughing. “Look, that’s why you have matchmakers because they’re the experts. Us fighters, we have such big egos that we’ll fight King Kong in our first fight.”
As De la Hoya was dumped to the canvas by the likes of Narciso Valenzuela and then Giorgio Campanella early in his career, a few realizations came to him.
“What crosses your mind at that point is, ‘I better train harder and I better focus and keep my eyes on the prize,’ especially when you taste success at such an early age or early on in your career,” said De la Hoya, who chuckles at the thought of coming into the ring to face Campanella with “Hero” by Mariah Carey as his intro music, blowing kisses to the audience and waving to his adoring fans. “The best thing that could’ve happened to me is getting knocked down,” says De la Hoya, who didn’t end up facing “Chicanito” till his 19th outing.
Here’s my latest contribution to in which Oscar De la Hoya talks about his personal growth and recovery from substance abuse:
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