Through 28 professional fights Gary Russell Jr. has fought all over the country — in places such as Tulsa, Oklahoma; Hinckley, Minnesota; Primm, Nevada; Biloxi, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Brooklyn, New York, among others.
But Russell, a Washington, D.C. native now living in the suburb of Capitol Heights, Maryland, has never had a fight in his home region, be it in Washington, Maryland or Virginia.
Until now, and to make his homecoming even sweeter he will perform on what will amount to family night at the fights.
Russell, a 2008 U.S. Olympian, will make the second defense of his featherweight world title when he squares off with interim titleholder and mandatory challenger Oscar Escandon on Saturday (Showtime, 6 p.m. ET) at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a 20-minute drive from Russell’s home.
In addition to the 28-year-old Russell’s title defense, two of his younger brothers will also be in untelevised bouts on the card: 24-year-old junior featherweight Gary Antonio Russell (7-0, 5 KOs) against Puerto Rico’s Jovany Fuentes (7-8, 6 KOs) in a six-rounder and Gary Antuanne Russell, a 21-year-old 2016 U.S. Olympian, in his professional debut against Joshua Ross (2-3-4, 9 KOs), of Monroe, Louisiana, in a scheduled four-round bout.
Another brother, 26-year-old Gary Allan, a top amateur who has not turned pro, will work their corners as an assistant trainer to head trainer — you guessed it — Gary Russell Sr., who turns 58 on fight day. Gary Sr. and wife Lawan also celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this week.
Talk about a family affair. They call themselves the “Gary Gang.”
“It’s going to be history in the making,” Gary Jr. said. “We’re in familiar territory with making history. We were the first set of four brothers (including Gary Allen) to win the National Golden Gloves and now we’re going to make a name as a family in the pros. I believe in a dynasty and I’m excited for my dad to see all of his hard work come together on fight night.
“Our motivation is each other. A lot of fighters go out of town for training camps to get away from their family, but that’s something we never have to do. I draw my energy from my family. My brothers are my best friends. If I’m not with my wife and children, you’ll definitely see me with at least one of my brothers.
“I believe in my ability but also the ability of my brothers. So I’m not nervous for them. I know what they’ve been taught. They conduct themselves like young men in and out of the ring.
The other brothers are also excited to fight on the same card with each other.
“Having your brothers with you every day is the best thing possible,” Gary Antonio said. “You can’t ask for anything better. Our dad knows his job is to push us to the limit and he can do that because we all get so much motivation from each other.
“Our motivation is each other. A lot of fighters go out of town for training camps to get away from their family, but that’s something we never have to do. I draw my energy from my family. My brothers are my best friends. If I’m not with my wife and children, you’ll definitely see me with at least one of my brothers.”
Gary Russell Jr.
“I’m really excited about this fight and competing alongside my brothers. It feels good to come home and fight. My family and friends will be in the building.”
Said Gary Antuanne, his high school’s class valedictorian, “We’re all equal and we get our energy from one another. We enlighten each other. It’s never about saying I’m better at this than one of my brothers.”
Gary Sr. is a man of few words but has embraced the opportunity for his sons to perform together.
“I’m really happy about this opportunity,” he said. “We can get it all done in one night and put on a great show for everyone.”
Gary Jr., coming off a 13-month layoff, in part because the fight with Escandon has been delayed multiple times for various reasons, is the star of the show and ready to get back into the ring.
“I’m 100 percent physically and mentally ready for the challenge and I’m on top of everything I can be,” he said. “When you get caught up in the hype, it’s a deficiency in yourself. You have to be able to focus on the objective over everything else.
“I look at each fighter as their own individual. We don’t prepare the same way for every opponent. He (Escandon) is a tough fighter who comes forward. He’s very physical and I expect him to be at his best on Saturday. It’s up to me to counteract what he does. I love this sport. I love what I do. I love being able to prepare for no one else but the person across the ring and then dismantling him.”
The split-site four-fight card will open at the Copper Box Arena in London, where junior lightweight titlist Gervonta “Tank” Davis (17-0, 16 KOs) will make his first defense against England’s Liam Walsh (21-0, 14 KOs), the mandatory challenger.
Then action will shift to the MGM National Harbor for three more bouts: a junior welterweight world title eliminator between former lightweight and junior lightweight titlist Rances Barthelemy (25-0, 13 KOs), who is moving up in weight, and former world title challenger Kiryl Relikh (21-1, 19 KOs); then a vacant interim super middleweight title bout between Andre Dirrell (25-2, 16 KOs) and Jose Uzcategui (26-1, 22 KOs); and finally the main event between Russell (27-1, 16 KOs) and Escandon (25-2, 17 KOs).
Russell has won three fights in a row since he lost a decision to Vasyl Lomachenko for a vacant world title in 2014. Russell went on to knock out Jhonny Gonzalez in the fourth round to win a world title in 2015 and retained it in his first defense, a second-round knockout of Patrick Hyland 13 months ago.
Should he defeat Escandon, the prohibitive underdog, Russell wants a unification fight. It’s a deep weight class boasting titleholders Leo Santa Cruz, Lee Selby and Oscar Valdez and secondary titlist Abner Mares. Santa Cruz, Selby and Mares are all with adviser Al Haymon, as is Russell, which would make putting those fights together relatively easy.
“I love this sport. I love what I do. I love being able to prepare for no one else but the person across the ring and then dismantling him.”
Gary Russell Jr.
“I want a unification bout after this. I’m ready for any of the other world champions,” Russell said. We can line them all up in the same night if you want. If I can’t get those fights, I’m going to move up in weight and bully around these bigger guys.”
Escandon, 32, of Colombia, is coming off a 14-month layoff since winning the vacant interim belt by seventh-round knockout of Robinson Castellanos in March 2016. The fight with Russell is easily the biggest of his career and Escandon knows it.
“This is a very important fight for my career,” he said. “This is going to elevate me to where I want to be and give me the platform to do anything in the sport. I’m very well prepared for this. I feel strong and healthy at 126 pounds. I’m focused on this fight. I’ll fight anyone but right now I have to get past Gary Russell Jr. In my last fight I was the underdog. People counted me out. Same thing applies here. I’ve done the work and I’m confident that I’m going to win.”
“I don’t like to talk much but I will say that I’m coming to bring this world title back to Colombia. I respect Gary but my mindset is that I’m taking this title home.”
Russell has heard opponents talk plenty in the past. He’s just ready to fight Escandon and to take care of his business on family night at the fights.
“I never magnify an event, even though it’s at home,” he said. “The end objective is still the same. But I think it’s cool that everyone in our neighborhood has the opportunity to be in the arena and see what we do.”