Gary Russell, Jr., faces Vasyl Lomachenko in the opener of a Showtime triple-header from the StubHub Center in Carson, California, on Saturday night—and fittingly so. Not because Russell’s uninspired career is as gawk-worthy as a garage sale, or because Lomachenko has as many wins as fingers needed to flip someone off—although both are acceptable reasons for low billing. No, this matchup of unknown variables is an appropriate opener because it is a fight between two men who have jumped the line to Clipart title shots. Where better to slot it then, than first?
Russell, 24-0 (14), has done nothing but slap up the hapless since turning pro in 2009, engaging in fights that appear devoid of any purpose beyond having him smack around opponents who share the same initials—TBA—before they share the same fate. Of course, he is going through the motions with the support of Golden Boy Promotions, Showtime, and Al Haymon, which is all the justification Russell really needs.
Lomachenko, fighting out of Marina Del Ray, California, but originally from Ukraine, has taken a decidedly different path. In March, in only his second professional fight, the two-time Olympic gold medalist faced gnarled titleholder Orlando Salido. Despite struggling with Salido’s unorthodox and unsavoury tricks, Lomachenko dragged the cagey Mexican just steps short of the woodshed in the twelfth round. It was an impressive performance from Lomachenko, but one that showed both his lack of seasoning—as well as that of his management team. Salido came in heavy, and then taught Lomachenko that there is more to the paid ranks than longer fights and lighter gloves. The end result of that education was Lomachenko’s first professional loss. An Alphabet Group ranking, however, is enough to get Lomachenko, 1-1 (1), another bogus shot at a bogus belt.
There are perhaps more deserving contenders than Russell and Lomachenko, fighters who would darken their futures for a bright Saturday night. If you find such injustice appalling, look away if you must, but do so knowing you are missing one of the rarer matchups in boxing: an even one. Both Russell and Lomachenko have questions to answer, and both men are equipped to ask those questions of the other. Oddsmakers have Lomachenko a slight favourite, based on his performance against Salido—easily the best fighter either man has faced—and Russell’s slow development. With one meaningful fight between them, the odds also reflect how little we know about both fighters.
This much we know: speed is Russell’s game. Russell throws his blazing combinations at a rate of increase akin to that of the Fibonacci sequence. This is not flashy filibustering either—Russell can wipe a man out with his right hook. Yes, he has lived on a pabulum diet, and any assessment must keep his woeful competition in mind; but the southpaw from Capitol Heights, Maryland, is a special talent. Nor is his failure to yet maximize that talent an argument against his ceiling, so much as a criticism of the time he is taking to reach it. Talent is not enough at the highest level, however, and Russell’s bewildering matchmaking has prompted questions about his chin, his durability (Russell has been plagued by hand injuries), even his zest for boxing. Moreover, Russell has never been in a scheduled twelve-round fight, let alone a twelve-round fight, and has never been the underdog. It is difficult to say how he will perform against a tough adversary. But does he expect to face one? Russell and his handlers might very well view Lomachenko—amateur experience aside—as the easiest path to a title. With their truffle pig’s nose for soft touches, Team Russell could very well be right.
It is doubtful Lomachenko thinks in the same calculating terms. He has had tunnel vision since turning pro, fixating on shiny things like a featherweight Gollum. This obsession with trinkets makes sense considering all the gold Lomachenko pulled as an amateur (where he compiled a staggering 396-1 record). His stumble out of the gate notwithstanding, Lomachenko proved against Salido that he can take a punch, go twelve hard rounds, and finish strong. But there are reasons to doubt Lomachenko as well. His matchmaking is compelling, even admirable, but it is fair to question whether his development is suffering from it.
Stylistically, Salido and Russell are polar opposites, and Lomachenko may still lack the experience to disarm a blinding puncher like Russell. Scaling back his opposition would allow Lomachenko to add the inside game he lacked against Salido, facing faster fighters would help him acclimatize to speed, even getting his bell rung would be a valuable experience to log before facing Russell. Nevertheless, in a fight that could be decided by experience, punch resistance, and conditioning, Lomachenko is the more proven commodity. If he can handle a fellow southpaw early and avoid getting caught by something he has not seen and does not see, Lomachenko can capture the title that has eluded him his entire nine-month career.
Mind you, Russell might just be waiting for the right time to show and prove. He might be waiting for Saturday night.