Boxing's longest reigning world champ says he's older, wiser and better than ever ahead of his 126-pound showdown versus hard-hitting Mark Magsayo Saturday night on PBC on SHOWTIME.
Gary Russell Jr. could easily envision the thought. He represents that rare breed where a young fighter would trudge through herds of yak and across a barren, icy tundra to seek out his vast wisdom. Russell can see the young fighter atop a snowy Himalayan mountain approaching a smallish man clad in a brown hooded robe underneath a thatched roof of a Tibetan monastery.
The man in the robe is Russell, who pulls down his hood and dispenses his wisdom.
It’s exactly what the WBC featherweight World Champion southpaw plans to do against his Filipino challenger, unbeaten power-puncher Mark Magsayo this Saturday in a PBC on SHOWTiME event on SHOWTIME Championship Boxing (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) from the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Russell is a boxing Yoda.
“That’s honestly how I’m feeling,” said the 33-year-old Russell, laughing. “These young guys see my age, and they’re banking on me getting older or showing a little bit of ring rust. Something like that. I think I’m getting better as I go. I realize that at this point in my career, the things that probably took me more effort to do, I can do the same job with less effort.
“Where I used to spend energy, I don’t now and that comes with experience. I think that goes back to the level of competition that I’ve competed against. These were mandatory challengers, guys like JoJo Diaz and Kiko Martinez, who went on to be world champions. That level matters. A lot of guys in this sport don’t fight that level of competition. They want to pick and choose who they want to fight.”
There is a sagacity in Russell’s voice and demeanor. At this, he bellows a huge laugh again. He equates his maturity to the Neo character in The Matrix. Where every fight was once back-and-forth, experience and maturity have placed him above all other 126-pounders.
This has been, however, a tough time for Russell. He’s almost training himself. The one rock-solid foundation in his life, his father, Gary Russell Sr., had a foot amputated last month due to complications from diabetes. Because of this, Gary Sr. has not been in his son’s camp as frequently as Gary Jr. would like, due to sporadic hospital visits.
Gary Sr. still trains Russell (31-1, 18 KOs) over the phone or virtually on conference calls. Gary Allan Russell III does the physical part. Gary Sr. tells Gary Allan what to do and what he finds missing. Gary Jr. says both Gary Allan and his father will be in his corner against Magsayo.
“My dad is almost there in training, but not quite,” Gary Jr. said. “We’ve been getting the work in. There’s been no whining or complaining. It’s been full progression by any means necessary.”
“ I want that career-defining match where I have been tested, where I have been pushed. ” WBC Featherweight World Champion - Gary Russell Jr.
Gary Jr. admitted he has no concerns about Magsayo (23-0, 16 KOs). His priority is preparing himself to the best of his ability. Russell feels that if he’s on his game he can’t be beat.
“I want (Magsayo) at his best,” Russell said. “I want to be tested. I want that career-defining match where I have been tested, where I have been pushed. I want the opportunity to show and display my skills against someone who is a great fighter.
“When I found out that Gervonta Davis’ opponent (Rolando Romero) fell through, I was willing to step in and take that fight on short notice. I’m always in the gym keeping my wheels turning, and I carry my lifestyle as a fighter and stay in a certain level of condition. I wanted that fight.”
Russell stressed that he’s in the best mental shape of his career. He says his best physical shape came in his early 20s. It doesn’t matter, he said, he’s still sharp and superior to everyone else at 126.
Yet Russell is coming off a 23-month layoff since his last fight, a fifth successful title defense in a unanimous decision over Tugstsogt Nyambayar in February 2020. COVID-19 wiped out numerous opportunities in 2021 and he wants to break free of what’s been a pattern of one fight a year since 2014.
He knows fans would like to see him more frequently.
“God willing, God willing, we’re competing the first month of the year, and God willing, we get this bout through, we get through this guy, and I think we’ll be able to circle back around towards the middle of the year,” Russell said. “And then towards the end of the year. I think the issue is guys don’t want to get in the ring with me.
“I was supposed to fight Rey Vargas. For some weird reason, he fought on Canelo (Alvarez’s) undercard. Vargas was supposed to be my WBC mandatory challenger last year. That didn’t unfold. I can’t force these guys to get into the ring with me. That’s always been the issue.”
Magsayo is willing.
Trained by Hall of Famer Freddie Roach, the sturdy 26-year-old Filipino can box and hit with power. He won a unanimous decision over former world titleholder Pungluang Sor Singyu and got up from a fifth-round knockdown to win his last fight by 10th-round knockout over Julio Ceja in August 2021.
Can Magsayo deal with the master boxer? Is he willing to climb that mountain top to receive wisdom?
“He might be finding out on January 22,” Russell said.
For a closer look at Gary Russell Jr, check out his fighter page.