Gary Russell Jr. is the longest reigning boxing champion. As of Saturday, he will hold his title for 2,493 days. While he is undoubtedly one of the most talented fighters in the world, that status is partly due to his low activity level.
Gary Russell Jr. fight only once a year.
The 33-year-old has owned his 126-pound title since 2015, but will only defend his sixth title on Saturday night. The match against Mark Magsayo (9 p.m. ET, Showtime), an undefeated featherweight promoted by Manny Pacquiao and trained by Freddie Roach, will end a 23-month layoff.
Since winning gold, Russell has only competed once a year until 2021. Last year he didn’t fight at all because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time Russell (31-1, 18 KOs) competed more than twice in a year was in 2014, when he lost to Vasiliy Lomachenko in a vacant title fight, sandwiched between two wins in routine fights. .
Why does Russell fight so sporadically? Russell says it’s no mystery.
“The reason I compete once a year is because we don’t get a dance partner,” said Russell, who was ESPN’s No. 1 featherweight before being removed from the rankings last April for inactivity. “I’m forced to fight the next best man instead of a champion. I definitely want to be more active. I know I’m not satisfied with fighting once a year.”
It’s not like Russell won’t stay ready. “There are no worries about ring rust. I’m always in the gym,” he said on Thursday. “I haven’t taken two months off training since I was about 4 or 5.”
When it comes to when and who Russell will fight with, it takes the guesswork out and uncertainty that most boxers face in this fragmented sport. He fights who the WBC orders him to.
So when is doing does he fight? His past five title defenses have come against mandatory challengers – boxers ranked as the No. 1 contender by the WBC. The WBC requires each champion to make one mandatory defense per year unless the fighter’s promoter makes an exception. Champions typically face such opponents, but also make an extra defense or two against an enemy chosen by the boxer, promoter, and manager.
But since winning the title, Russell has only competed in one non-compulsory fight. In 2016, he made his first defense against journeyman Patrick Hyland and won by TKO in the second round.
Still, there are benefits to Russell’s inactivity.
“I’m pretty sure it will definitely keep me,” Russell said. “We don’t do much sparring. I honestly don’t spar unless I have a fight coming up. A lot of these guys would get beat up before the fight even happens.”
Russell’s first mandatory title defense was a seventh-round TKO of fringe contender Oscar Escandon in May 2017. His next fight, a May 2018 decision over Joseph Diaz Jr., remains the best win of Russell’s career. Diaz won a 130lb title and is currently in ESPN’s top 10 at 135lbs. Russell’s most recent win, in February 2020, also came against stiff opposition, 2012 Olympic silver medalist Tugstsogt Nyambayar.
“Hell yeah, I’d be willing to fight. I definitely have time to fight if I have someone who’s willing to fight, let’s make it happen.”
Gary Russell Jr. about fighting more than once a year
“I have a lot of respect for [Russell]. He’s always fighting his agents, and that’s someone the WBC sees as the best man in the ratings,” said Tom Brown, who promotes all of Al Haymon’s PBC events.
Now comes Magsayo, another mandatory challenger who is on the hunt for the title from Russell. The 26-year-old earned the title shot with a brutal KO of Julio Ceja in a title eliminator in August.
“It speaks volumes about the pedigree of talent I’ve competed against against many of these [other champions]. They pick and choose who to fight,’ Russell said. “They’re fighting guys who are over the hill. They fight against guys who just have names, but they know full well that they pose no threat to them at all.”
Unlike many of the mandatory challengers Russell has faced in recent years, Magsayo (23-0) is a legitimate contender. And yet as of Thursday, he is a +310 underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
“He reminds me of myself,” Pacquiao said when he signed Magsayo. “How we both struggled to become a world-renowned contender out of nowhere. I love his work ethic and desire to become world champions, and I will do everything I can to promote Mark and make his dreams come true.”
Other than this fight, boxers don’t knock on the door to fight Russell. And for the most part, Russell is OK with that. When he’s not fighting, he keeps his distance from the lights and drama of the sport.
Russell continues to be engaged in hunting and farming. He boasts of providing the Thanksgiving turkey for his huge family for the past three years and takes pride in what it takes to get the job done.
He hunts deer with a compound bow, crossbow or shotgun. And he grows watermelons, strawberries, mustard greens and kale on his property in Capitol Heights, Maryland. The lesson for his four girls and two boys: take care of yourself.
“When you’re on your own land, you can hunt whenever you want,” he said. “It’s something to just go out there and be a part of nature and be completely still and listen to the element. It’s really sensual, man.”
Russell tries to strike a balance between his two worlds, but unlike the peace he finds in nature, his quest for the fights he wants is harder to achieve. He believes that the risk he poses to opponents, weighed against the potential reward of winning over him, deters top fighters. Russell is elusive in the ring. He knows how to control distance and has an uncanny hand speed. What he doesn’t boast is star power or brand awareness among ordinary boxing fans. He’s also not the most vocal fighter at selling himself.
“He makes really good money, so it’s hard to pay Gary that more than once a year when there’s not a lot of business to do,” said Eric Bottjer, a longtime matchmaker who currently works for Triller Fight Club. “If he gets $1.2 million a fight, he won’t fight a second fight for half the money just to keep going.”
There is a path for Russell to move forward, but it relies on securing a big fight that can cement a fighter’s legacy. Russell says he would like matchups with Gervonta Davis and Lomachenko, in that order. Yes, both stars compete at 135 pounds, and Russell has never battled at even 130 pounds, but they are big fights.
A matchup with Davis seems more likely as both Russell and Davis are PBC fighters.
“I certainly pushed, but [PBC founder Al Haymon] “I can’t force these guys to get in the ring with me,” Russell said. “It doesn’t make business sense for someone trying to protect their investment when it comes to a Gervonta ‘Tank’ Davis [fight]. Because it’s very likely he can get that ass scorched.”
Given the different promoters and the way their first fight went, a rematch of Lomachenko seems unlikely. What does seem achievable, if Russell does indeed fight again in 2022, is a 130-pound title fight. PBC hosts the junior lightweight title fight between Chris Colbert and Roger Gutierrez (who is promoted by Golden Boy) on Showtime on Feb. 26.
If Colbert wins, as expected, PBC could face a fight with Russell later this year.
“Whoever is the winner, I wouldn’t mind stepping up and battling the champion,” said Russell. “I refuse to gain weight and have to leave my title and then compete to possibly fight the champion. I refuse to do that.
“If I Can’t” [Davis or Lomachenko], then I would like to have an association match with everyone who is in the division.”
And just maybe 2022 will be a year of justification for Russell. If Colbert beats Gutierrez, a potential win by Russell over Colbert at junior lightweight would make him a two-division champion. He would also, once and for all, end the inactivity that he says has frustrated his fans.
“Of course I share their frustration,” he said. “Hell yeah, I’d be willing to fight. I definitely have time to fight if I have someone who’s willing to fight, let’s make it happen.”