Tonight (March 28), trainer Gary Russell Sr. will lead his son Gary Junior into his second title opportunity in nine months when he faces WBC featherweight titlist Jhonny Gonzalez. Russell Jr. has the unenviable distinction of still having question marks about his potential six years into his career. In what was supposed to be his coming out party last June against Vasyl Lomachencko, Russell Jr. was instead battered and outworked, losing a majority decision. At that point, the harshest critics dismissed Russell Jr. as a physically talented fighter that only looked sensational when feasting on overmatched opposition.
But the narrative isn’t so simple. Russell Sr. gave this exclusive interview to BeatsBoxinMayhem detailing the outside factors that lead to his son’s failure against Lomachenko. And more importantly, he explains why tonight Russell Jr. will quiet the naysayers and redeem his stature by becoming a world champion.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: This fight has divided a lot of people regarding how it’ll play out. Some expect Gary to be too fast while others are looking for Gonzalez’s power to be the difference. How did you see it playing out?
Russell Sr.: It’s a dangerous fight. Gonzalez is strong, can punch and has experience. The hand speed and foot speed are our top advantages going into the fight. They also really underestimate Gary’s punching ability.
After Lomachenko, we really wanted to gauge his endurance and conditioning. He never really sat down on his punches and tried to get his opponent out of there before.
We look to go 12, not for the knockout. We want to put rounds in the bank. After 8-9 rounds of that, then we look to see if the guy gets desperate and make something happen. That’s how you get someone to run into something.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Speaking of endurance and conditioning, your camp has stated Russell was drained for Lomachenko and that was the main reason for the loss. What exactly went down with that situation?
Russell Sr.: That was the only time we ever did anything like that [in hiring a strength and conditioning coach]. I didn’t know what was going on with Gary until the second or third round. First thing he said was “Dad, I feel so tired, so drained.”
I seen his distance not being right. By the fourth round he was looking off as I’m talking to him. Even his brother couldn’t get him focused. His look was so distant. I didn’t know until afterward that the strength and conditioning guy we hired had him sitting in a sauna for three days prior to the weigh-in. We trained in Henry Tillman’s gym in the morning and afterward I’d go to my room and relax. But Gary was going to a 24 Hour fitness gym and sitting in the sauna for an hour everyday to shed pounds. That sauna is like a vampire and you have to be careful. We weren’t.
I was mad because of the sauna and we trusted this one person to help with strength and conditioning. Before, I handled that. Until Lomachenko, he had never lost a round in a fight. It took me a minute to adjust to the fact he lost. For a month afterward, I was like “Damn!” The loss was one thing, but I’m a loyal person and want to do good by people who believe in us. Al Haymon put up a lot of money for that purse bid. He negotiated with Bob Arum and we know about that Cold War. He (Haymon) worked with someone he normally doesn’t deal with [in Bob Arum] to make the Lomachenko fight happen.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: How could this happen without you being aware of what your son and the strength and conditioning coach were doing?
RussellSr.: I was pointing fingers everywhere at first. Then I realized there was enough blame for everyone. I was the one overseeing everything and should have been in charge of what they were doing. My son takes blame for what he did sitting in that sauna. The guy who did the fitness, he left before the weigh-in, just disappeared. We looked for him all morning and no one could find him. He took a flight home. It created a lot of questions. Why would you do this? If you’re a fitness guy, you know what a sauna would do.
I don’t think he’s been affiliated with boxing before; at least not on the level of something like the Lomachenko fight. I don’t want to mention his name, but he knows what he did. Why would you let a fighter in a big fight like that just sit in the sauna? No one came to me and said anything.
We’ve spoken since, but he wouldn’t take responsibility for anything. I couldn’t respect that.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: The other issue with Russell Jr. are his hands. How did they hold up this camp?
Russell Sr.: The hands have always been a problem. We had a few issues this camp but nothing to do with bones or tendons. The wraps had shifted and tore the skin off his right knuckles in the early part of camp. You’d think a little scratch like that wouldn’t be a big problem in a hurt business like boxing, but it caused him a lot of pain. But he’s ok now and ready to go.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Featherweight looks be a division on the rise with upstarts like Lomachenko and Nicholas Walters…
Russell Sr.: It is funny you mention that because we had a talk earlier today and I asked Gary what his aspirations are past this fight. He emphatically told me he just wants this one done before anything else. But featherweight is a sleeper. There are not only great fighters, but exciting fighters at this weight class. A lot of strength and power. It’s a stacked weight class.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: I remember when Seth Mitchell went down in his first loss to Johnathon Banks. Mitchelltold me he asked Al Haymon how far this set him back and he recalled Haymon being very clear with him about what he needed to do to rebound. Did you guys have a similar talk with him after the Lomachenko setback?
Russell Sr.: No, I’ll be honest. The training camp was not the best headed into that fight. There were slight injuries going on. I went to Al about it. He told us, “Gary, you control it. We don’t have to take this fight right now. We can fall back.” I talked to my son about it and him being a pugilist and full of pride, he said “No Dad, I want to fight.” In my gut I’m saying “no.” And on top of that we had the strength and conditioning issue. But I listened to my son.
Al knows Gary. He’s seen 23 of Gary’s fights. One fight he fractured his left knuckle and still won unanimous and broke two CompuBox records. So it was never an issue of Gary not being able to produce. You see in the Lomachenko fight that was not Lil Gary. He was weak, his timing was off and his energy level was gone.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Like you said, Russell Jr. had never lost a round before Lomachenko. Most of the narrative on this fight is whether that bout was an aberration or clear indicator of his ceiling. Has your son truly put everything that happened in and outside the ring against Lomachenko behind him?
Russell Sr.: He has to. We’ve faced bigger adversities. A brother of his was killed. He was not only his brother but sparring partner and friend. He still misses him, but he had to move on with life. Since then he’s gotten married and had two kids. His wife is great and he has a nice home. Time tends to cure all things. Any lingering ill feelings about the Lomachenko outcome will dissipate with time.
Jhonny Gonzalez vs. Gary Russell Jr. airs on Showtime March 28 at 10 pm. ET