The one thing that is unique about boxers, from the tomato cans who get pummeled around like a punching bag to the supremely gifted men who define the sport, is that, outwardly, at least, they project a great sense of confidence. Gary Russell Jr., in that regard, is no different. Russell believes implicitly in his talent and speaks easily and openly about it.
But there is a difference between Russell and about, oh, 99.998 percent of the men who box professionally for a living. When Russell talks about becoming the best fighter in the world and achieving legendary status, it's not hard to take him seriously.
He's hardly a big name, and he has no recognizable scalps on his resume, but he's that gifted. It's hardly inconceivable that within a couple of years, he'll be regarded by boxing experts the way Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao are now.
The casual boxing fan will get his or her first look at Russell on Saturday when he meets veteran Leonilo Miranda in a 10-round featherweight bout in the opener of a televised doubleheader on HBO from Biloxi, Miss.
"I truly believe that if everything goes right for him, there is no limit to what he can do in boxing," said Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Eric Gomez, a man not prone to hyperbole. "This guy is going to be exceptional."
Russell is arguably the game's best prospect. What's not in dispute is that he has the sport's fastest hands, and that's saying something with guys like Mayweather around.
Russell appeared to be standing still in front of Eric Estrada on July 23 in the ring at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. But because the arena was nearly empty, a familiar sound – "Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!" – resonated around the building.
It was the sound of Russell's blindingly quick combinations bouncing off Estrada's head.
Russell (17-0, 10 KOs) may not make it, because more prospects fizzle than fulfill their promise, but if he doesn't, it's not going to be because he lacks the physical gifts. He has those, in abundance.
And he also has a deep-seated belief in his ability.
"I've been doing this a long time," said Russell, one of seven sons of trainer Gary Russell Sr. who have the first name Gary. "With that, comes experience, and I've learned to relax and not get caught up in the hype. Yeah, it's my first time on HBO, and that's good. But you can't get caught up in, 'Oh, I'm fighting on HBO,' or 'Oh, I'm fighting on this huge card,' or 'I am fighting in front of a huge crowd,' because then you lose sight of what the true objective is, which is to perform and win.
"I want to be the best, and I feel that I can be the best. This is all I do, all I work for. God has gifted me with skill and timing to compete on this stage, and I'm trying to take advantage of what He's given me and improve on it."
Golden Boy has tried to match Russell against numerous styles to help prepare him for the day when he is a champion and has to take on all comers.
He's passed every test easily. The only question yet to be answered is one that he may get the chance to answer on Saturday.
Russell has never had to prove whether he has a quality chin and can take a good blow and keep on fighting. That quality, the ability to take a punch and keep fighting at the same level, is often what separates the superstars from the also-rans.
Early in a top prospect's development, he's often so much better physically than his opponents that he often never gets hit. It's not until he's in with fighters with a much higher skill level that the chin ever gets tested.
Miranda is 32-3 with 30 knockouts and could be the guy who tests the quality of Russell's chin.
"He's got the speed, he's got the moves, he's got the power, he's got the style," Gomez said. "This is going to be his coming-out party, I believe, but still, the only question I have about him is that he hasn't been hit on the chin with a solid shot from a guy who can punch. That's a question that's always out there about a guy until he shows you he can do it."
Russell certainly is eager for the challenge, as well as for bigger ones. If he defeats Miranda on Saturday, he's hopeful for a fight against another blindingly quick featherweight, world champion Yuriorkis Gamboa.
Gamboa is 11th in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings and has blazingly fast hands. He fights veteran Daniel Ponce de Leon on Sept. 10 in Atlantic City, and Russell will be openly rooting for him to win.
Gamboa, 29, is 20-0 with 16 knockouts and Russell doesn't want him to lose before they fight. He wants to be the one to hand Gamboa that first defeat.
"Everyone who wants to be great needs a great opponent to make them," Russell said. "You wouldn't have had [Muhammad] Ali without Joe Frazier. You got Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. Even now, you have Floyd and Manny. Gamboa, I think, is that guy for me. He's a great fighter and he's the guy I want, because beating him would be what would establish my name.
"I get nervous when he fights, because he is somewhat reckless and he's vulnerable when he's that way. I want to be the one to expose that. I believe I'm a faster fighter. He has exceptional punching power, but I have the equalizer for his power. I think I have equal power, but I'm faster, more precise."
Whether he'll get that is open to debate. Top Rank's Bob Arum, who promotes Gamboa, despises Al Haymon, Russell's manager. The Bengals might win the Super Bowl before Arum puts one of his guys in with a Haymon fighter.
"As far as Gary Russell is concerned, I never saw him fight, and it seems to me to be another Al Haymon invention," Arum said on a conference call Monday to discuss the Gamboa-Ponce de Leon fight.
Arum, though, would be advised to tune in to HBO on Saturday to take a peek at Russell. He's far from a finished product, but he's clearly more than an "Al Haymon invention."
"He's got everything you would want to see in a fighter," Gomez said. "He's not one of those guys who runs away, either. He's so fast, but he'll stand right in front of guys. He's knocked out guys who don't get knocked out. He's just one of those guys who comes along just every so often. He's got it all."
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- Gary Russell