Featherweight world titleholder Gary Russell Jr. and mandatory challenger Joseph "JoJo" Diaz Jr. finally have a done deal and a site for their fight: May 19 at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a Washington suburb.
The fight, which was announced Friday, was made without the need for a purse bid and is a rare bout negotiated between adversaries Al Haymon, Russell's adviser, and Golden Boy Promotions, which represents Diaz.
The fight will air live on Showtime as part of a split-site doubleheader that will also include the previously announced bout between light heavyweight world champion Adonis Stevenson (29-1, 24 KOs), making his ninth title defense, and former titlist Badou Jack (21-1-3, 13 KOs). They will meet at the Bell Centre in Stevenson's hometown of Montreal.
Russell-Diaz takes the place of a Keith Thurman welterweight fight at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. That bout was originally scheduled for one-half of the split-site telecast before Thurman gave up the date because of a hand injury.
"The featherweight division is one of the most talent laden in boxing and Gary Russell Jr. is at the head of a class of terrific boxers at 126 pounds,'' said Tom Brown of TGB Promotions, which is promoting the fight. "Joseph Diaz Jr. is young, hungry and undefeated and he's coming for the title and he's going to have to beat Russell in front of his hometown crowd to take it."
Russell (28-1, 17 KOs), 29, who is from Capitol Heights, Maryland, will have the hometown advantage for his third title defense, but he has been chronically inactive. He won the 126-pound belt from Jhonny Gonzalez in March 2015 but has fought only twice since, easy knockouts of Patrick Hyland in 2016 and then-interim titlist Oscar Escandon last May, a fight that was also at the MGM National Harbor.
Russell, a 2008 Olympian, is confident that he'll handle 2012 Olympian Diaz.
"I don't see this being a long night," Russell said. "If he gets reckless, it might end early. I don't plan on going the distance with anyone I step in the ring with. I know he's in for a rude awakening. I don't feel as though he has the punching power, the hand speed or the ring IQ to do anything to me. At the end of the day he'll have the opportunity to say he got in the ring with Mr. Gary Russell Jr."
Diaz (26-0, 14 KOs), 25, of South El Monte, California, earned the mandatory fight with a one-sided decision win against Rafael Rivera on the Canelo Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin undercard in September and has been calling out Russell.
"I'm happy to be fighting for my first world title against the best 126-pound world champion," Diaz said. "I'll prove to everyone that I belong on that featherweight throne come May 19. I will be the bigger man come fight night, and I will break him down physically and mentally. He just better give me the credit I deserve once I beat him, and not blame his inactivity for being a factor in his loss."
Russell's younger brothers, bantamweight Gary Antonio Russell (10-0, 8 KOs), 25, and junior welterweight Gary Antuanne Russell (4-0, 4 KOs), who was a 2016 U.S. Olympian, will box on the undercard. All three of them are trained by their father, Gary Russell Sr.
Last year, Russell Sr. celebrated his birthday on the same day that Gary Jr. knocked out Escandon. This year, Russell Sr.'s birthday is the day before his son's fight with Diaz.
"It will be an early birthday gift for my dad. Last year I fought on his birthday, May 20. That's pretty cool," said Russell Jr., who is aiming for his fifth win in a row since losing a majority decision to Vasiliy Lomachenko in a vacant featherweight world title fight in 2014.
"I love fighting at the MGM. I love the convenience. I love that all my friends and fans, and the people who honk at me from their cars when I'm running can hop in their cars rather get on a plane to come and see me fight."