Gary Russell, Jr. vs. Vasyl Lomachenko airing Saturday on Showtime is a fight that shouldn’t be happening for so many reasons, and now that it is, it’s nearly impossible to make any sense of it. It is the most mystifying fight of 2014, and therefore one of its most alluring, outshining the main event by a considerable margin.
Russell, the consensus 2011 Prospect of the Year — say that again, Two Thousand and Eleven — has done almost nothing since winning that acclaim, often fighting opponents worse than those he met prior to his award-winning year. Now, suddenly, he’s facing the other best pure untapped talent in the featherweight division. Lomachenko suffered a pro loss against top contender Orlando Salido in an impossibly daring second fight since leaving the amateurs, a bout that was as unwise as it was brave — and to follow that bout by facing Russell, when he should’ve reset and taken a more traditional slow rise, is just plain reckless in all the best ways. And Lomachenko is represented by Top Rank, mortal enemy at the time the fight was signed with Golden Boy and Al Haymon, which represents Russell.
Yet, somehow, we’re here. And anyone’s best guess about who will win is still just a guess. You’ll find people who will insist Lomachenko is a future pound-for-pound talent, and people who will insist the same of Russell, but the sample size for both men upon which to make an estimation is minute. Lomachenko has two total fights since turning pro full-time. Russell has 24 fights, none of them a fraction as dangerous as Lomachenko’s bout against Salido. Both were outstanding amateurs and have exhibited outrageous potential, and we’re about to find out what happens when all that Russell talent and schooling is pitted against all of Lomachenko’s talent and schooling.
Style-wise, there’s a chance it will be on the tactical side. Lomachenko is patient to a fault. Russell is a natural counterpuncher. Somebody will have to do something to make a fight happen. Lomachenko said he has learned from the Salido fight, where he was too patient early before becoming aggressive enough to start winning rounds and hurting the Mexican; Russell said he’ll be happy if Lomachenko strips off that excess patience, because it will give him a chance to show how much of an animal he can be.
Right now, we don’t know what kind of animal Russell can be. Every opponent has been hopeless, and not simply because of Russell’s overwhelming talent. We do have a finer understanding of what Lomachenko can do when challenged, because he rose to Salido’s challenge over the back half of their fight.
But we don’t know how Lomachenko will fare as a pro against the kind of talent Russell has. Salido was rough. Salido was persistent. Salido was tough. Salido had a slew of pro tricks Russell hadn’t encountered, and by “pro tricks” I mean, mostly, low blows, but also a sort of unconventional know-how in movement and strategy on both offense and defense. But Salido, for all his experience and grit and savvy, never got where he got on sheer ability. Russell has gotten everywhere he’s gotten with that, namely his speed, which is — I don’t even think there’s an argument any more — tops in the sport. But he also has explosive power, the kind that can render a Knockout of the Year candidate any time out against anyone of the caliber he has faced so far. He gets pretty far with all that, with his defense heavily based on his superior reflexes. But he’s also skilled, particularly on offense, with a very sharp, accurate jab and a lovely double right hand to the head and body.
Oh, and as if to make the whole fight all the more upside down, both men are southpaws.
Lomachenko is more than adequate physically, with speed and athletic qualities not always seen in Eastern European fighters. Where he excels is in his versatility and in his fundamentals. He doesn’t get hit by anything stupid, or particularly clean, although he’s oddly willing to get punched in the body, perhaps because it has no effect on him. He varies his defense, dipping to his left, his right and forward, stepping around at angles, keeping his gloves up. He had trouble getting his jab going against Salido at first, but then began to find the range, and once he did, he would turn it into 1-2s with a left upstairs or downstairs. His power is serious enough to have hurt Salido to the head in the final round, even if it was probably aided by Salido being a touch weight-drained, and he stopped his first opponent, Jose Ramirez, with a body shot. He held up well over 12 rounds with Salido for someone who has spent most of his life in three-round fights, perhaps because he conserves energy with his patience but also likely because he’s very well-conditioned.
Besides not having faced anyone as experienced (mostly at the amateur level) or skilled as Lomachenko, Russell’s flaws include chronically injured hands and short arms — his reach is 61″. Lomachenko’s reach isn’t available, but it’s better than that, and is probably actively good for the division. Lomachenko’s biggest flaw looks to be how recently removed he is from his amateur mindset, with a desire to land everything just right for scoring purposes and do little in between. We don’t know how either man will hold up against the power the other brings to bear.
Oddly enough, despite how much more proven Lomachenko is in his one fight than Russell is against anyone he has faced, the years of adjusting to the pro style have indeed served Russell well — when he says he’s better now than when he began, it’s true, since I watched both his pro debut and his most recent bout against Miguel Tamayo. His movement is more refined, his aggression more calculated, his tendency to get hit less pronounced. Maybe there’s more to be gained by being a pro for years against anyone than being a pro for a handful of rounds against someone really good.
The biggest problem for Lomachenko will be that speed. It’s ridiculous. Expect Lomachenko to start more aggressively than he did against Salido, only to find the speed is hard to contend with. Then, as the fight goes into the later rounds, watch Lomachenko start to figure out what to do about it. Both men might be wobbled or dropped. But by the time the fight ends, Russell ought to have done more in more rounds, enough to win a clear unanimous decision.