(Gary Russell, Jr.; credit: Esther Lin, Showtime)
Twice in the past year, Gary Russell, Jr. has challenged elite competition after facing nothing like it for his whole career. The first result, against Vasyl Lomachenko, was a gritty showing against an Olympic great, but the loss was also a reckoning for a pro run that prepared him not at all for such competition. The second result, which came Saturday on Showtime, showed his gifts were no mirage against battle-tested veteran Jhonny Gonzalez.
That Russell might knockout Gonzalez wasn’t a far-fetched scenario. Russell’s big knockouts were against comparably shallow talent, but he does damage when he lands flush. Gonzalez has always had a shaky chin, part of his appeal over a career that has spanned bantamweight to featherweight, where Saturday’s contest was waged.
That said, the money was probably better on Gonzalez knocking out Russell, since he packs the bigger power and had upset the more ballyhooed Abner Mares with it. What’s more, an early knockout — 4th round — for Russell? Not so easy to anticipate.
Russell dominated the 1st round with pure speed, on both offense and defense. Gonzalez got closer in the 2nd, landing a pair of clean rights. Perhaps sensing that he needed to convince Gonzalez to back off, perhaps evolved as the Showtime team suggested from too many pitter-patter punches against Lomachenko, Russell stood in range and sat down on his shots in the 3rd. The payoff came with a big right hand in the 3rd that left Gonzalez touching his glove to the canvas, then stumbling to his behind. Gonzalez looked legitimately rattled.
Russell stayed aggressive in the 4th, with a left hand that dropped Gonzalez again. By that moment, Gonzalez was on very, very wobbly legs when he stood. Referee Tony Weeks let Gonzalez continue, maybe without cause. When Gonzalez came up from that knockdown slugging, he was probably through; in fact, it’s hard to see a punch that led to the fight’s third knockdown, although Russell scored a nice right uppercut after Gonzalez’s glove again touched the canvas. Weeks called a halt to it after that.
Gonzalez has resurrected his career repeatedly, but hasn’t been scintillating since the Mares KO. It would be unwise to count him out of another victory. His power keeps him in everything. At age 33, it’s just slightly harder to see it happening than before.
Russell, meanwhile, demonstrated that for whatever inept competition he hid himself against for so long, he has the right combination of natural ability and competitiveness to hang in a very deep division. Whatever Mares said about wanting the winner of this fight, he is probably facing Leo Santa Cruz next instead. Given the Al Haymon stable vs. how many featherweights are doing battle on HBO, we might have to again wait a bit to see Russell against anyone all that good. It’s too bad. After getting what we always wanted for Russell twice in the past year — competition that wasn’t laughable — the outlines of a fighter whose absurd gifts might be beginning to net results against actual quality fighters are emerging. It’d be a shame if he went back to wasting everyone’s time.