By Robert Aaron Contreras
Gary Russell Jr. (30-1, 18 KO) does not move at the same speed as everybody else. Quick to strike but slow to sign, he finally has another worthy challenger, facing Tugstsogt Nyambayar (11-0, 9 KO) in defense of his WBC featherweight championship, headlining a PBC on Showtime billing on February 8 from the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The fight comes a week after a scalp of Russell’s, that being JoJo Diaz, dethroned former titleholder Tevin Farmer by decision. His own points win over Diaz only looks better in hindsight. And without doubt the oft-criticized American could use the goodwill. Totaling four title defenses since lifting the WBC’s green belt, Russell has routinely maneuvered his way into easy touches and sparse ones at that, turning away Diaz two years ago already.
Fighting on Saturday will be his first since May 2019: par for the course, having fought once a year since 2014. That same year he was wildly outboxed by Vasyl Lomachenko. A year later, in 2015, Russell astonishingly lifted the strap from Jhonny Gonzalez, at the time featherweight’s most lethal hitter.
That was March 2015 when Russell ripped Gonzalez apart, earning a fourth-round TKO. His fists moving in blinding patterns, it was his masterwork. But the frustration surrounding Russell has little to do with him as a fighter instead Russell, the champion, who like his fists, operates at a different frequency, a timetable only he can decipher.
Five years on, Russell, 31, is preparing for just his fifth defense, making an art of inactivity and manipulating time: pushing the sanctioning body’s patience from the sidelines before slipping in a mandatory defense at the eleventh hour. Russell enjoys the throne, transfixed and immovable at the center of a raging continuum. Last May, he even seemed to go backwards in time in order to resurrect Kiko Martinez, presumably from the coffin he had been laying in since his past days as as super bantamweight contender.
Unsurprisingly, Martinez did not last five rounds with Russell. But against every boxer’s will, the clock keeps ticking. Father Time (and gravity, they are related after all) having recently forced out Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton and Oscar Valdez to junior lightweight, Russell is by far the oldest beltholder at 126 pounds. Older than Shakur Stevenson by practically a decade. Of TBRB’s top-8 featherweights in the world, Russell is the only one over the age of 30. Helping round out the Top 10 is Oscar Escandon, 36, who lost three straight before a miraculous upset over Jhack Tepora propelled him into the rankings.
In 2018, Russell pulverized Escandon. It took the champion seven rounds to do it. And that was seven too many for most as the the fight was chided when it was announced. Escandon being only 3-2 in his previous five fights, it was deservedly labeled a squash match.
So what was the difference when a year later Nyambayar, commonly referred to as “King Tug,” did the same thing to Escandon? For starters, Nyambayar did it faster: ending his man’s night in three rounds. Knocking him out in fewer than his previous opponents was just what the former Olympian should aim for. Moreover, the 27-year-old California transplant was just nine bouts into his career, laying the foundation to a healthy career after a notable rise out of Mongolia.
King Tug’s two-handed sequence that left Escandon on his back was a tremendous follow-up to the flash knockdown he suffered just before that against Filipino veteran Harmonito Dela Torre. Nyambayar would otherwise have little trouble, winning a wide decision verdict over eight rounds. But nothing was more impressive than his most recent appearance.
In a WBC eliminator, Nyambayar met Claudio Marrero, who is no slouch of a puncher, and a well scienced southpaw. It was a sink or swim contest for Nyamabar, a hump every blue-chipper has to get over, but not one every blue-chipper welcomes after just 10 fights. He would handle Marrero, stunning him early and eating his opponent’s biggest shots to earn a unanimous decision victory and a date with Russell.
Rigondeaux highlights undercard
In chief support, Guillermo Rigondeaux will be trying his fragile hands at bantamweight. Unlike most aging fighters found ballooning up in age, the 39-year-old Rigo is moving down, from 122 pounds to 118.
Rigondeaux (19-1, 13 KO) will be welcomed to the category with a WBA title fight against Liborio Solis (30-5-1), who years ago briefly held a belt at 115 pounds. The contest will be Rigondeaux’s third performance under the handling of Al Haymon. Opting to sign an exclusive contract with the PBC after calling “no mas” opposite Lomachenko in 2017. The Cuban legend has since won two straight, each by knockout.
Solis 37, is no spring chicken. But his recent run fighting in Latin America, after a failed series of bouts with Jamie McDonnell, has paid off, winning five in a row, including three by KO. Rigondeaoux, despite pushing 40, is still leagues above that competition Solis saw, made up of part-timers and tomato cans.
In other bouts scheduled for the show, Russell’s brothers are also suiting up for action. Sharing the same first name, both Gary Antuanne and Gary Antonio are the undefeated, younger siblings to the featherweight champion. Antuanne, 23, competed in the 2016 Olympics and Antonio, 27, was a runner up in the national amateurs.