Predicting Russell's rise: speedy
There's a tired adage in sports when referring to a star baseball slugger or, in boxing, a dynamic power puncher: It just sounds different when he hits.
But for red-hot prospect Gary Russell Jr., there's just no other way to describe him. Only it isn't the 23-year-old featherweight's power that's got fans buzzing -- it's his frightening hand speed.
The sound of Russell (18-0, 10 KOs) peppering opponents with lightning-fast combinations reaching upwards of eight punches is hard to define. The melody is best described as something between the sound of an assault rifle with a silencer and a posse of Old West cowboys simultaneously spewing tobacco into a spittoon.
Russell, in just two-plus years as a professional, has proved he possesses the fastest hands in the sport. He has what I call "ask your grandfather" speed, the kind that requires the opinion of someone who actually witnessed the legends of old in their prime and can equate a reasonable comparison.
But while the notion that speed kills still rings true, quick hands alone aren't enough to anoint anyone an all-time great, or even just the pick of the litter among top prospects.
Still, even in limited moments of national exposure, Russell has proved he brings more than sizzling speed to the table. And although he remains untested enough to prevent any form of premature hyperbole, it's no sin to speculate about -- if not salivate over -- his frightening potential.
As a 5-foot-5 southpaw, Russell is muscular and compact. He sits down on his punches, has excellent footwork and displays what HBO's Max Kellerman astutely describes as a "responsible" level of defense considering his explosive offensive arsenal.
Although Russell has yet to display one-punch knockout power (or be the first future star to battle hand issues at a young age), Russell overwhelms with angles, suffocating combinations and, yes, unrivaled speed.
He also has the pedigree and decorated amateur background to warrant lofty expectations. A member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in Beijing, Russell is one of seven sons to be trained by his father, Gary Russell Sr., who, a la George Foreman, christened all seven with the first name, Gary.
Until he gets hit flush on the chin by a credible opponent, Russell will continue to be labeled by cynics as protected and overrated, due in part to his association with oft-criticized manager and media recluse Al Haymon. But the reality is, Russell's ascension is only a matter of time.
With a responsible head on his shoulders and a demeanor properly balanced between humble and confident, Russell is destined to turn scary potential into pound-for-pound greatness.
A star? Not so fast
Gary Russell Jr. will be taking on veteran Heriberto Ruiz on the undercard of Adrien Broner's super featherweight title tilt Saturday in Cincinnati.
It's a decent matchup, and just the kind of opposition you want a young prospect to face: Whereas the undefeated Russell has just 18 professional contests, Ruiz has had 60, and in his time has been in with the likes of Rey Bautista, Eric Morel, Steve Molitor and Rafael Marquez. He hasn't been brought to Ohio to win, but he should have the kind of experience and durability to pose questions of the youngster.
If one were feeling uncharitable, one could say: Well, it's about time. More reasonably, one might argue that it's the first big step up of what will likely be many for a young man who has a bright career ahead of him, but who has a way's to go yet before justifying some of the praise that has been heaped on him already.
Look, I don't want to diminish Russell in any way. He has caught the attention of a lot of boxing insiders and fans, and for legitimate reasons. His hand speed is exceptional, his combinations flow beautifully. He has excellent balance and he fights compactly and efficiently. There is every reason to believe he will win a featherweight title in the not-too-distant future and that he has the natural ability to be a champion for a long period of time.
But such is the relative paucity of American boxing talent that the flashes of undoubted brilliance that Russell has shown have caused far too many people to overburden the young man with expectation and predictions of greatness before he's ready. As good as he is and has the potential to be, there is still some way to go before he truly breaks out as a star, if indeed he ever does.
For one thing, he is a featherweight, and although that doesn't inherently disqualify him from fame and fortune, those featherweights who have made a mark in recent years -- the Naseem Hameds, Marco Antonio Barreras and Manny Pacquiaos of the world -- have done so by knocking people out, not outfoxing them with silky smooth boxing skills. Heck, when he was just four pounds north of featherweight, even Floyd Mayweather Jr. was stopping his opponents as often as not. And despite having 10 stoppages in his 18 contests, heavy-handedness does not appear to be Russell's forte.
To his credit, he attacked his last opponent, Leonilo Miranda, in the early going; it isn't that Russell doesn't attempt to be exciting, it's just that at the moment there is some question about whether he has the power to match his determination.
That isn't to say that he never will; some technical adjustments that result in him sitting down more on his power punches may be enough for him to finish what he starts. Or maybe he won't; maybe his future is to be a supreme boxer, one over whom hard-core fans drool. We don't yet know.
Which is the point: When it comes to Russell, we just don't know. I paraphrase, but following his win over Miranda, I saw a few commenters speculating online as to whether a young prospect has ever been so complete at such an early stage of his career. To which the answer is: Well, yes.
After 18 fights, Mayweather was a world champion, and had become so by dominating a very good titlist indeed in Genaro Hernandez. Hernandez suffered only one other defeat in his pro career, to Oscar De La Hoya, in De La Hoya's 19th paid outing. By that point, the Golden Boy was already a two-time titlist. By contrast, Russell's 19th fight, this Saturday, will be the first time he has even gone 10 rounds.
And that's OK. Different fighters take different paths, which last different periods of time. What matters is the destination. So let's relax, let Gary be Gary, and watch as he does his thing and hones his craft. All things being well, in 2012 and 2013, he'll step up some more and move from prospect to contender and contender to champion.
That is when we can start to talk about how good he really is.
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