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Russell vs Magsayo Big Fight Preview

Luke G. Williams previews Gary Russell Jr’s intriguing defence of his WBC featherweight title against dangerous Filipino puncher Mark Magsayo…

To some, Gary Russell Jr is the poster boy for many of the things that are wrong with modern boxing.

The well-schooled southpaw from Capitol Heights, Maryland is the longest reigning title holder in professional boxing, having held the WBC 126lbs crown since March 2015. However in this time span he has fought just six times, all for the WBC crown, with a unification contest nowhere to be found. Indeed, he has not fought at all since February 2020, when he easily outpointed Tugstsogt Nyambayar.

Such inactivity is all the more maddening because – at his best – Russell is a highly accomplished performer, with the ability and skill-set to stamp himself out as the premier operator in the featherweight division.  At 33, however, the sands of time are beginning to run out for the 2008 Olympian (side-note for trivia fans, due to collapsing with dehydration and missing the weigh-in Russell was at the games but never fought an Olympic bout).

In some respects, the criticism that gets levelled at Russell is unfair. A softly spoken family man, he does not court fame or notoriety (bar some half-hearted videos a while back in which he called out fellow Maryland fighter Gervonta Davis).

It’s a point Russell made when I interviewed him back in 2017 and he told me: “I’m a family person, I’m a gentleman. Having genuine fans that care about you and love you and want to support you is important, but as far as fame goes, I couldn’t care less about fame. My main objective is to make sure my fans are pleased with my performances and to provide for my family.”

Family matters to Russell Jr and in this respect his recent inactivity is understandable, given some of the issues he has gone through in the last couple of years. In December 2020 his younger brother Gary ‘Boosa’ Russell died of a heart attack, while his father Gary Sr is currently battling diabetes-related health issues and had a foot amputated late last year. (Another of Russell’s brothers, 17-year-old Devaun Drayton, was murdered in 2004).

These tragedies and travails engender sympathy, but also a feeling that the timing may be right for a motivated and fresh fighter to knock Russell from his featherweight perch. Challenger Mark Magsayo certainly fits this criteria.

The 26-year-old Manila-based puncher is coming off a career best victory against former WBC super-bantam titlist Julio Ceja, a fight in which he trailed on the scorecards and was downed himself in round five before securing a highlight reel KO in round ten.

“I learned a lot from that fight,” Magsayo said recently. “I learned a lesson how to better box. I made an adjustment in the middle of the fight and knocked him out.”

A further factor in Magsayo’s favour is that Russell admitted this week that he is carrying an injury into the fight having told DAZN News: “I do have a little slight injury but I prefer not to elaborate on it until after the fight. We’re going to get through this fight, we’re still going to make things shake and then we’ll go ahead and put it out there after it’s all said and done.”

Furthermore, the illness suffered by Russell Sr has – by his son’s admission – affected his preparations. “Camp has been hectic, man,” he said last week. “It’s been a lot going on. You know, pops, he been dealing with amputation. He got his foot amputated. He’s my coach as well as my dad. I’ve been somewhat training myself.”

Who will win then? Well, Magsayo’s best qualities are that he is hungry and hits hard, but as the Ceja fight proved he can be outboxed. 

Although Russell has been inactive and his preparation far from ideal, he is a quality operator and certainly does not seem to be taking Magsayo lightly, having labelled him “a true warrior, a true gladiator”.

If Russell can stay out of the way of the Filipino’s big punches my pick is for class to tell and for him to prevail via a fairly comfortable points win.

Main image: Amanda Westcott/Showtime Boxing