Gary Russell Jr. and Vasyl Lomachenko were both decorated amateurs and Olympians, and they are among the most heralded prospects in boxing, but the paths they have taken to the eve of their showdown could not have been more different.
The southpaws will meet in a fascinating fight for a vacant featherweight world title Saturday (Showtime, 10 p.m. ET, with preliminary bouts on Showtime Extreme beginning at 8 ET/PT) in the middle bout of a tripleheader at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, hoping to reach the vast potential nearly everybody believes they have.
Not only is it as even a matchup on paper as one could ask for, but it's that rare fight pitting a Golden Boy boxer (Russell) and a Top Rank fighter (Lomachenko). The fight was made possible because Golden Boy won a purse bid for the mandatory bout, even though since that time the bitter rival promotional companies are now willing to work together in the wake of the recent reconciliation between Golden Boy president Oscar De La Hoya and Top Rank chairman Bob Arum.
In the scheduled 12-round main event, welterweight contender Robert Guerrero (31-2-1, 18 KOs), 31, of Gilroy, Calif., will return from a 13-month layoff since his lopsided decision loss to pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather Jr. to face Yoshihiro Kamegai (24-1-1, 21 KOs), 31, of Japan. Also, former two-division titleholder Devon Alexander (25-2, 14 KOs), 27, of St. Louis, will look to bounce back from losing his welterweight belt to Shawn Porter in December when he takes on Jesus Soto Karass (28-9-3, 18 KOs), 31, of Mexico, in the 10-round opener.
Russell (24-0, 14 KOs), a 26-year-old from Capitol Heights, Maryland, was a 2008 U.S. Olympian and the 2011 ESPN.com prospect of the year. He has taken the much slower road here.
After being unable to compete in Beijing because he passed out in an effort to make weight and was disqualified before his first Olympic bout, Russell turned pro in 2009. His talent was obvious and his speed remarkable, yet his career moved very slowly.
Even after 24 fights, he has yet to face even a B-level opponent, much less a legitimate contender to earn a title opportunity. There has been a mountain of criticism of his weak opposition, but Russell said it doesn't bother him.
"Oh, man, there's going to be criticism anyway," Russell said. "My dad told me you could never please everybody. You know we wanted to get to maybe 23-0, you know 22-0 before we competed for a world title. And one of the reasons why is based on the fact that you can be an elite amateur, but when you go into professional [boxing] it's a completely different world.
"You're not going three rounds. You're going 10, 12 hard rounds with guys that are putting in that extra work, and this is the only way that you can gain experience, by getting these rounds in. We don't want to take things like that for granted by not getting the rounds in."
Now that Russell has gotten his rounds in, he feels he is ready to fight for a title, despite the thin résumé.
"I feel as though it all goes back into the comfort level of the fighter as far as the level of experience that you get," he said. "I feel as though the experience that we got in with the fighters that we competed against was picture perfect and it will show up on [Saturday]."
As slowly as Russell moved toward a world title shot, Lomachenko's rise was the opposite -- blazing fast, recklessly so, some might say.
But Lomachenko (1-1, 1 KO), 26, was one of boxing's all-time great amateurs, winning Olympic gold medals for Ukraine in 2008 and 2012. So when the 2013 ESPN.com prospect of the year turned pro in October, he wanted to fight for a world title in his debut.
That was not possible, but Arum promised him that if he could defeat a quality opponent in a scheduled 10-rounder, he would line up a title shot for him in his second fight.
Lomachenko was dazzling in his debut, blowing out fringe contender Jose Ramirez in the fourth round, setting the stage for Lomachenko to challenge titleholder Orlando Salido on March 1. Salido failed to make weight and was stripped of the title, but the fight went on with only Lomachenko eligible to win it. He wound up losing a highly competitive split decision in a fight in which he was repeatedly fouled with low blows, even though Salido was not penalized by the referee.
Because Lomachenko fought so well, and given both the fouling and Salido missing weight, he was given an opportunity to fight for the belt again against Russell.
Lomachenko felt he was ready to fight for it against Salido and is just as prepared to try again against Russell.
"I got good experience from my two professional fights," Lomachenko said through manager and translator Egis Klimas. "I came on the last half of my first [title] fight so I think my stamina and conditioning is good. But every fight is different so we'll have to see how it goes on Saturday. I expect a good fight on Saturday and I expect to win."
Said Russell, "We did watch his first professional fight and the Salido fight. He still competes like an amateur. He fights like an amateur that hasn't gotten the rounds in. I think that he's talented, but I think that he's overlooking just the rounds that you have to get in as a professional to get the certain experience in."
But even after just two pro fights, many view Lomachenko's opposition as being better than Russell's.
"I can probably compare a few guys who were close to Jose Ramirez or maybe even with Jose Ramirez, but I've never seen any of them being as [good] as Salido," Lomachenko said. "Of course, I learned how to adjust to professional boxing because I've never been in the ring so much. But I think just fighting the 12 rounds with Orlando Salido I got to experience more than if I would be fighting just regular level guys for two years."
Lomachenko said even after the defeat to Salido, he never thought about perhaps taking a few lower-level fights to gain more pro experience.
"Well, I'm not looking at it like a ladder, like I'm stepping up or stepping down," he said. "I just have another chance to fight for the title and, you know, this is my dream and desire to get one and I have a chance, and, of course, I'm going to take it. After the Salido fight I didn't know who it was going to be, Gary Russell or somebody else. I didn't care. I just said make me the fight for the title."
Russell is supremely confident, believing that his skills and speed will be the difference. He's also looking at the fight as redemption for not being able to compete in the Olympics.
"I was one of the favorites to medal and to not be able to compete was devastating," he said. "The only way that I could make it up to my fans and family was to become a world champion, plain and simple. In this situation I get the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. My competitor fought in the Olympics and I can also become a world champion on this card. I can become a world champion on Saturday as well as beating an Olympian. It's the best of both worlds.
"I don't believe [Lomachenko] has what it takes to win this fight. He's not a volume puncher; he tries to be more accurate. Even if he tries to outbox me he doesn't have the hand speed and boxing ability to make it a tough fight. I am overall physically bigger and stronger and it won't be a good thing for him. He is most definitely a stepping-stone for me. The objective is to get out of the ring with a victory. I will look good and expose this guy."
Lomachenko admitted that Russell is faster but said he has no worries.
"Gary Russell is much faster than me. He's a very quick, speedy fighter, and I won't know until we get into the ring how I plan to deal with it. But we'll find out soon enough," he said. "I fought really fast guys in the amateurs but those were only three-round fights so I didn't have time to try and figure out the style of who I was fighting."
One thing that both agree on is that they are both ready for this tough assignment.
"This is definitely the right time for the title fight," Russell said.
"Not everybody has a chance to go so far, and when I thought I had the chance I worked hard for it, and I think I earned it," Lomachenko said. "Again, somebody can fight five years and not have a single chance to get to a title fight. I'm going to do it. I'm confident I can do it, and I will try to do it."