At the MGM National Harbor a few miles from Washington DC, the WBC champion and Capitol Heights native Gary Russell Jr. wanted to make an impression on the fans that were there to see him live. He came in confident that his opponent, Joseph Diaz Jr., would not be able to weather the fast punches getting to him. He wanted speed to be the difference in this fight, and it was one of them as Russell was able to win tonight by unanimous decision with two scores of 117-111, and one score of 115-113 to retain the WBC featherweight championship and improve his record to 29-1 while his younger opponent in Diaz suffered the first loss of his career.
It was a good fight from start to finish as Russell wanted to impose his experience in the ring on Diaz early as he was able to throw multiple combinations in the first round. Diaz came in at the beginning with a “bulldog” style as he was coming forward looking to walk through Russell’s punches. Diaz did not even throw a punch for more than a minute in the first round as he tried to get to close quarters. Once he did, then he went to work on his game plan: throw shots to the body, get inside positioning as the bigger man, and break down the champion. When he threw his first set of body shots, they were hard enough for people around the ring to hear them. They started to connect well on Russell, and there were signs that he could be in for a long night.
However, Russell made the adjustments during the fight that switched things back in his favor. He had the speed advantage over “Jo Jo” and the experience was another factor. In the fourth round, Russell used the left jab to the body to stop the forward progress of Diaz and then he threw three and four punch combinations then moved to his left before Diaz could get to the inside. These moves had Russell get the advantage going into the seventh and eighth rounds. After the fight, Russell noted that he suffered an injury early in the fight, but that did not take him away from executing what he wanted to do.
“I hurt my right hand in the second or third round, so we had to make the adjustments,” Russell stated. “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.”
Diaz started to show signs that he was tired, but he was still sticking to his game plan. A few times he was able to touch Russell to the body and be able to do some damage in there. While Russell had a significant lead going into the 10th round, Diaz caught Russell to the body that looked like it was enough to put him to the canvas but referee Kenny Chevalier ruled it a slip. In the 11th round, most the crowd that was there that was supporting the local world champion started chanting “Gary! Gary!” as he wanted to go toe-to-toe with the young lion. Even though he was able to get through that round full of exchanges on the inside, he almost got in trouble again as a body shot by Diaz was landed in the 12th round that looked like it put Russell to the mat again, but that was also ruled a slip. Both guys threw combinations before the end of that round, and when the fight ended it was evident who would come out the victor.
In reference to the plan set by Diaz to attack the body, the WBC champ said that he prepared for those punches in the gym.
“We train to survive those body shots. We put the work in every day in the ring. We consistently grind and push ourselves to be great. We push ourselves to the limit.”
By doing that, he was able to weather the storm by the 2012 Olympian and complete his third title defense. He hopes that he can get a shot at the other champions at featherweight, but it has been difficult for him to get those fights. If he can’t get one this time, he has a plan for his near future.
“We want a unification. We want to unify this division, or we’re moving up in weight for another title. I want another belt.”
On the flip side, Diaz was disappointed that he didn’t become world champion, but he feels that he will get another chance in the near future.
“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.”
Cover photo by Amanda Westcott of Showtime