IBHOF inductee and boxing gambling expert Graham Houston weighs up Saturday night’s fascinating clash between WBC featherweight king Gary Russell Jr and undefeated Filipino puncher Mark Magsayo.
Saturday night’s featherweight title fight in Atlantic City between Gary Russell Jr and Mark Magsayo is as intriguing as it gets. Russell is a 2/7 (-350) favourite at Betfred, with Magsayo offered at 5/2 (+250).
At first glance, Russell looks the obvious winner. He’s the superior boxer, faster, more experienced, with the southpaw smarts that can bedevil an opponent.
But there are negatives that hang like storm clouds over Russell’s head as he enters what will be the sixth defence of his WBC title. He’s been out of the ring for two years. At 33, and after seven years as a champion, Russell is at the stage of his career where he could lose unexpectedly.
I believe Russell when he says that boxing is a way of life with him and that he’s never out of the gym. But he’s been making 126lbs for 12 years. The fact that he missed weight by half a pound at Friday’s weigh-in could be a red flag. Sure, Russell shed the excess in about half an hour, but he’s been in the featherweight division for a long time and making weight surely isn’t getting any easier for him.
Then we have the matter of his father, Gary Sr, having undergone a serious operation just last month when a foot was amputated due to complications with diabetes.
His father’s health must be a concern for Russell, not to mention that Gary Sr trains him. So he hasn’t had his father working in the gym with him, and his father won’t be in the corner on Saturday night.
Then we have Russell’s disclosure that he is going into the fight with what he describes as a “slight injury”. Russell prefers not to divulge what this “slight injury” is, but it’s one of several factors that could work against him in this fight.
When this bout was first announced, I was thinking that Russell to win by decision (offered at 4/5, or -125) was the most likely outcome. Now, though, I’m not so sure.
Magsayo doesn’t have Russell’s gifts in terms of slick skills and craftsmanship but, at 26, the Filipino challenger is seven years the younger man, he’s undefeated and he can punch. Magsayo will have a world-class corner, in trainer Freddie Roach and assistant trainer (and Magsayo’s fellow-Pinoy) Marvin Somodio.
We’ve seen Magsayo on the floor. Chris Avalos dropped him hard in their fight in the Philippines, and Julio Ceja had him down in Magsayo’s last fight. But Magsayo has shown he can battle back from adversity. He rallied to stop both Avalos and Ceja. Interestingly, money has shown strongly for Magsayo. When betting lines first appeared, Russell was priced at around 8/1 (-800). That number has basically been slashed in half.
Prices on Magsayo as a straight-up bet have lost a lot of value but the KO TKO DQ proposition at around 11/2 (+550) could be a decent play, because if the challenger wins it will most likely be inside the distance.
The wild card here is that we don’t know which version of Russell we’re going to get. Russell has outclassed good fighters. He’s primarily a stylist, hit and don’t get hit, but he has some pop in his punches. Russell has stopped four of his last six opponents. He demolished Jhonny Gonzalez and Patrick Hyland inside four rounds and he beat up Oscar Escandon in seven after dropping and almost stopping the sawn-off Colombian slugger in the third.
Russell has the sort of talent and hand speed that Magsayo hasn’t seen before. But now we’re talking about Russell in top form. Will Russell be at his best on Saturday night? With all that’s been going on in his life in recent weeks, and with the inactivity factor, we can’t be sure.
But Magsayo has shown limitations. He had all sorts of problems with Mexico’s Rigoberto Hermosillo, who, like Russell, is a southpaw. Although one judge somehow gave Magsayo every round, this was in fact a tough, close contest. There was concern in Magsayo’s corner as the fight headed into the last round, with Freddie Roach urging a big finish. Magsayo won the last round on two judges’ cards to eke out a split decision, but that was easily a fight he could have lost. And Magsayo was trailing on points against Julio Ceja before his heavy hitting pulled him through. So it’s easy to visualise Russell having his way and outboxing and outsmarting Magsayo. That is, if Russell is on top of his game. If Russell is diminished, then Magsayo has a real chance at upsetting the odds.
Rather than take a side here, I’m rather liking a play on “Distance — NO”, which is priced at about 6/4 (+150) across the industry. Magsayo is not going to win a 12-round tactical boxing match. He will have to bring pressure, looking to hurt Russell. This in turn could oblige Russell to dig in and let his hands go. And in this sort of scenario, someone could “go”. Russell should win — he simply looks the better fighter — but, with all the doubts swirling around the champion, nothing would surprise me too much.
Main image: Amanda Westcott/Showtime.