Last night at the Palms Casino of Las Vegas, WBC featherweight champion Jhonny Gonzalez attempted the fourth defense of his belt against rising star Gary Russell Jr. A power vs speed duel was expected for Gonzalez vs Russell Jr., pitting the challenger’s impressive hand speed and ring mobility against the champion’s fearsome left hook. In fact, most observers believed Russell could only snatch victory by focusing on defense to outbox Gonzalez from a distance. On the other hand, the Mexican champion was expected to apply pressure and force the action to land his heavy fists.
Both fighters carried extra luggage going into the fight. Gonzalez’ was legal, in the form of a million dollar lawsuit that his former promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, filed against him this week for breach of contract. Alternatively, Russell’s second challenge for a world title came only one fight removed from his first professional loss at the hands of WBO champ Vasyl Lomachenko last June. While displaying tremendous potential since his amateur days, Russell had yet to deliver a signature win that validated his status as a top talent. The fight against Gonzalez—who completely outclassed Jorge Arce in his previous outing—provided him with a shot at redemption.
In full control since the opening bell and making great use of his most valuable asset, Russell dazzled Gonzalez with quick combinations thrown from his southpaw stance. Setting up his left cross with a disciplined right jab, the challenger jumped in and landed accurately and frequently, while the Mexican struggled to time his opponent and keep up with his activity rate. Russell made it clear from early on that he wouldn’t retreat from Gonzalez’ power shots, and would capitalize on his speed advantage.
The second and third rounds saw more of the same, with Johnny landing almost nothing of substance, save for the occasional body shot and maybe a couple of right hands. But these failed to alter Russell’s fight plan in any way, and he continued to score at will. Towards the end of the third stanza, the challenger showed that his dazzle has pop, catching Gonzalez with a left cross-right hook combo that sent the champion to the canvas. Visibly shaken, Gonzalez got back up on his feet only for the bell to ring.
Russell came out fired up for the fourth round, determined to make it a short night. The challenger unleashed combinations on Gonzalez, who tried to fire back as best he could. But it was all for naught, as the Mexican still hadn’t recovered from the third-round knockdown and his senses were clearly diminished. Referee Tony Weeks stopped the action after two more knockdowns, granting Russell the TKO win, as well as the WBC belt.
The Take Away
Redemption was the name of the game for Gary Russell Jr., who bested a wily, powerful veteran in Gonzalez in impressive fashion. Before stepping up last year to face Lomachenko, Russell’s critics decried his mediocre level of opposition while his fans extolled his hand speed and natural talent. Last night in Las Vegas, the 26-year-old Russell showed not only that his hand speed can dazzle a champion, but that it can also disarm him entirely, thus signalling his arrival as a top featherweight. The new WBC champion went a long way towards validating the hype that followed him for so long, and gained more than a few fans at the same time.
That being said, Johnny Gonzalez is just one of several big names in the featherweight division, and to prove he is an elite fighter, Russell will have to face more of them. Nicholas Walters, Abner Mares, and even a rematch against Vasyl Lomachenko would all be worthy challenges for the newly crowned champion. Mares is the most likely opponent for Russell in the near future—the same Mares who got knocked out in one round by Gonzalez back in 2013—given their common manager in Al Haymon. Even though Abner has come a long way since his dominating displays against Joseph Agbeko, Anselmo Moreno, and Daniel Ponce de Leon, his versatility and power should make for an intriguing fight against Russell.
Meanwhile, 33-year-old Johnny Gonzalez was stopped for the fourth time in his career, suffering his ninth loss as a professional. The knee-jerk reaction would be to pin the defeat on his ring age and diminished fighting quality. But truthfully, Gonzalez has always had problems with southpaws, and compounded by Russell’s speed, last night’s challenge was a recipe for disaster for the Mexican veteran. While he rebounded following losses to Israel Vazquez, Toshiaki Nishioka and Daniel Ponce de Leon, it’s hard to see Gonzalez regaining the sort of prominence his KO of Mares brought him. But it would also be wrong to completely write him off, as his name and proven durability will serve as stiff challenges for up-and-coming fighters. The hope is that if Gonzalez fights on, it will be because he chooses to do so, and not out of necessity. Unfortunately, in that regard Oscar’s lawsuit certainly doesn’t help.