OXON HILL, Md. -- Gary Russell Jr.'s hand speed made all the difference.
His nonstop punching to the head and body was more than enough to overcome the big heart and game effort from mandatory challenger Joseph Diaz Jr., as Russell won a unanimous decision to retain his featherweight world title on Saturday at the MGM National Harbor.
Two judges scored the fight 117-111, and the third had it a surprisingly close 115-113 for Russell, who made his third title defense. ESPN.com also had it 117-111 for Russell, who was unhappy with his performance despite dominating the fight.
"I was disappointed in my performance because I wasn't planning on going the distance," he said. "I hurt the right hand, but I still had to use it because he could not get past my jab."
Russell has been chronically inactive, having fought only once in 2015, when he won a 126-pound title from Jhonny Gonzalez, and once each in 2016 and 2017 in dominant victories. In his first fight of 2018 -- he hopes to fight once more -- he was once again sharp, despite another one-year layoff since he defended his title in the same venue last May.
Russell, a 2008 U.S. Olympian from nearby Capitol Heights, Maryland, once again gave his father and trainer, Gary Russell Sr., a win on his birthday weekend despite an injured hand.
"I hurt my right hand in the second or third round, so we had to make the adjustments," said Russell, who has had hand injuries throughout his career. "He couldn't get past my jab. When he got close, we made sure to smother him. Then we reset and got back on the stick."
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Russell, a southpaw like Diaz, landed 199 of 992 punches (20 percent), and Diaz connected with 192 of 491 shots (39 percent). But Russell's jab was a major factor. He landed 61 of 587, while Diaz landed only 41 of 128. As Russell said, Diaz had a hard time getting past it, even when it missed.
Diaz's lack of activity hurt him, and he knew it.
"The game plan was to break him down with the body shots and start attacking him more in the later rounds, but I started attacking him too late," Diaz said. "I didn't pick it up until the eighth or ninth round. Gary Russell Jr. is a tremendous fighter, and he did a great job keeping me at bay.
"This will just make me a hungrier fighter. I hope I got the respect of a lot of fight fans. I wanted to become champion against the best featherweight fighter in the world. Tonight wasn't my night, but I'm going to bounce back harder, and I'll be champion soon."
Russell Jr. opened the fight as expected -- pumping his jab and going to work on Diaz's body. Russell continued in the second round as he opened up, showing off his blazing hand speed by firing combinations that connected on Diaz and forced him back. But Diaz showed resolve and came right back, working Russell over to the body and landing some heavy punches.
"We train to survive those body shots. We put the work in every day in the ring," Russell said. "We consistently grind and push ourselves to be great. We push ourselves to the limit.
"The jab definitely dictated everything I did. My speed offset everything he tried to do coming forward."
As the fight settled into a rhythm, they traded back and forth, with Russell (29-1, 17 KOs) trying to stick his jab and Diaz (26-1, 14 KOs) trying to get inside to work the body and the head in a very crowd-pleasing fight.
By the fifth round, Diaz's left eye was beginning to swell as Russell continuously fired jabs in his face.
In the sixth round, a dominant one for Russell, 29, his hand speed was the difference, as he ripped off numerous punches before the slower Diaz, 25, a 2012 U.S. Olympian from South El Monte, California, even knew what hit him. It stayed that way for most of the round.
Diaz had few answers, as Russell continued to put his punches together in rapid combination while Diaz was often a sitting duck for the shots.
Russell, whose lone loss was a one-sided decision to Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2014 for a vacant world title, opened the 10th round with yet another quick combination that tattooed Diaz upstairs and downstairs. Diaz's response was just one punch at a time that seemed to have little impact on Russell. Later in the round, Russell connected with a clean right hand to the face.
After Russell slipped to the mat in the 11th round, he and Diaz stood toe to toe in a fierce exchange that Russell got the better of before he moved back outside and continued to discombobulate Diaz with a never-ending stream of jabs.
Russell was in clear control as the final round opened, and his hometown crowd began chanting "Gary! Gary! Gary!" He had come to put on a show, and he did just that, despite Diaz's best efforts to land a home run punch in the final three minutes.
Diaz's loss extended a rough patch for his promoter, Golden Boy Promotions. Its biggest star, Canelo Alvarez, is suspended and had his May 5 mega pay-per-view rematch with unified middleweight world champion Gennady Golovkin canceled. On May 12, two of the company's key fighters suffered knockout losses: junior middleweight world titleholder Sadam Ali lost his belt by one-sided fourth-round knockout to Jaime Munguia, and lightweight world champion Jorge Linares lost his title by 10th-round knockout to Vasiliy Lomachenko. Now Diaz has gone down to defeat.
"He was throwing a lot of pitter patter jabs to keep me at bay," Diaz said. "He was trying to keep me guessing and make sure I had to think about coming in. Overall, it was a good learning experience, and I'll definitely be back. I had a feeling he would try to stand with me and give the fans a knockout. I didn't think he would move quite as much as he did.
"He wasn't hurting me with any shots. He was just very fast. It was keeping me guessing. When he threw combinations, I wasn't able to set my shots. I was a little bit hesitant."
With the win in the bank, Russell said he hopes to fight a unification fight later in the year, ideally against the winner of the rematch between titleholder Leo Santa Cruz and secondary titlist Abner Mares. They are scheduled to meet on June 9 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Making a fight between the winner and Russell should be relatively easy if the fighters want it because Russell, Santa Cruz and Mares are all with adviser Al Haymon.
"We want a unification. We want to unify this division, or we're moving up in weight for another title," Russell said. "I want another belt."