If it is any consolation, the loss should look better in time. The fighter that worked him over like a laundry wallah last night at StubHub Center in Carson, California, is poised to give any number of esteemed men similar thrashings. The truth remains, however, that faced with the only opponent of his career not handpicked to lay down, Gary Russell, Jr., lost. He dropped a majority decision to Vasyl Lomachenko, who easily outclassed the Uber-Prospect Emeritus.
A fight for the boxing hipsters, Russell-Lomachenko pitted a fighter who had seen his once burgeoning popularity wane enough that it was again cool to like him against an underground sensation with “the look” but not the mainstream popularity (and the inevitable backlash that accompanies it). Whoever came out on top would be “on trend” if for no other reason than having proved his merits, the hipsters could say they had recognized them all along. But this was not a symposium on fixed-gear bikes or pretentious mustaches: Russell-Lomachenko was a genuinely intriguing fight, regardless of how little attention it garnered.
Long regarded as one of the premier, yet unproven, talents in boxing, Russell, Capitol, Heights, Maryland, has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. His development stagnated, his activity declined, and explanations for both ran unchecked. There were problems with his brittle hands, yes, but whispers spoke more of Russell’s constitutional fragility. That Russell’s fights—as competitive as a one-man game of tetherball—were being televised only fanned the flames of suspicion. He was long overdue for a test, and when the chance to win a belt over a fighter with two professional fights and a .500 record was presented—a chance Golden Boy paid over a million dollars to promote—Russell was ready to test himself.
If the Russell camp took Lomachenko lightly, however, they did so at their own peril. A two-time Olympic gold medalist with an astounding 396-1 amateur record, Lomachenko went twelve edifying rounds with Orlando Salido in only his second pro bout; proving more in that crucible than Russell had in twenty-four outings. Yes, the Ukrainian now fighting out of Marina Del Ray, California, dropped a decision to Salido, but after a poor start, had his foot on the throat of a fighter typically known for carrying the later rounds. For all of his toughness and guile, however, Salido had none of Russell’s flash and athleticism, and it was how Lomachenko responded to these weapons that would determine his success.
Lomachenko, 125 1/2, did not struggle at all, providing boxing with another clinic on the limitations and inflated value of hand speed. Russell had his moments, strafing Lomachenko with his invisible blows, but for much of the fight Russell’s offense consisted of barks and pitty-pat arm punches that did little to give Lomachenko pause. How did Lomachenko so quickly disarm his blazing opponent?
For starters, Lomachenko adjusted to Russell’s speed surprisingly early into the bout, and began exchanging with his faster opponent instead of simply covering up. Unlike Russell’s gratuitous volleys, Lomachenko sat down on jabs, hooks and looping left hands that snapped Russell’s head back and drove him out of range. Lomachenko also used a blend of slips, feints, and movement to keep Russell guessing and unable to counter.
In March, Salido put on a clinic of infighting and body punching against Lomachenko, who was wholly unprepared for the evil a man with his head on your shoulder can accomplish. Against Russell, Lomachenko paid those brutal lessons forward, and it was this bodywork, this act of daring against his shorter, speedier opponent more than any other that powered Lomachenko to victory. Having never gone twelve rounds before, the body shots Russell absorbed served as a force multiplier for his exhaustion. Lomachenko meanwhile, finished with the same fervor he showed against Salido, culminating his efforts with a relentless run in the championship rounds. Judge Lisa Giampa saw the fight 114-114, while Max De Luca and Pat Russell awarded Lomachenko the victory by scores of 116-112.
While perhaps the easy or obvious explanation, the argument that Russell fell short because of his poor development is difficult to prove. It could be that Lomachenko is simply the better fighter, and that no amount of seasoning was going to propel Russell to victory; it may be more than coincidence that Russell’s best rounds bore a striking resemblance to rounds Lomachenko took off. But whatever the reason, Russell was out of his depth against Lomachenko, and it is hard to argue that better competition would not have improved Russell’s chances. Still, hammered throughout the fight, Russell, 24-1 (14), answered questions about his chin and toughness. Nor did he fold mentally when Lomachenko went for the kill. To his credit, Russell was thoughtful and gracious in defeat, pinpointing the flaws in his performance and their role in his failure.
But while Russell is aware of his shortcomings, it is too early to say whether he will address them. The Al Haymon business model, the same thinking that disregarded Russell’s development while lining his pockets, has always prioritized earnings over, well, anything. If Russell wants to be more than overcompensated, if he wants to actualize his long-hyped potential, he, and no one else, will have to enforce those grand designs.
Lomachenko, 2-1 (1), reached the first milestone in his own grand designs Saturday, winning a title in his third professional fight. It was undoubtedly a sweet victory for promoter Top Rank as well, who lost the purse bid for Russell-Lomachenko but had their fighter come away with the win and an off- brand, yet valuable, belt on another company’s dime. Back under the guidance of Top Rank, it will be interesting to see what comes of Lomachenko’s ambition. Was winning the title the goal, or simply a step in a plan for greatness? If it is greatness Lomachenko wants, he might target fellow Olympian Guillermo Rigondeaux, should the latter tire of clowning junior featherweights, or Nonito Donaire, a fighter with all of Lomachenko’s talent but half his super-sized ambition. There are compelling fights to make for Lomachenko, to be sure, and with three fights under his belt, what could he possibly be waiting for?