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Why Vasyl Lomachenko vs. Gary Russell Jr. is a fascinating study in boxing

Gary Russell Jr.
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Gary Russell Jr. is 24-0 with 14 knockouts, but his competition has been lacking. (Getty Images)

The WBO featherweight title fight between Gary Russell Jr. and Vasyl Lomachenko offers a marked contrast in styles.

It's not so much that they're vastly different in the ring, but how they've gotten to where they want to be.

Both men are 26 – Lomachenko is four months older – and both are among the most physically gifted fighters in the world.

Russell has chosen a slow, guarded approach. He's 24-0 with 14 knockouts and has been chosen as Prospect of the Year by many media outlets, including Yahoo Sports.

I believe, deeply, that Russell will become a major figure in boxing, but part of that is a leap of faith based on the fast hands he shows, his punching accuracy and his sense of timing and distance in the ring. However, it can be a challenge assessing those qualities since he's fought primarily a bunch of tomato cans.

Russell's been regularly derided for his lack of quality opposition, but the undeniable fact is that he's fighting Lomachenko on Showtime on Saturday at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., without ever having shared the ring with a top 10 contender previously.

Lomachenko has taken the opposite approach. This is a guy who, after going 396-1 and winning gold medals at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and in London in 2012, wanted to fight for a world title in his first pro bout.

That couldn't quite be arranged. Instead he met Orlando Salido for the WBO featherweight belt in his second pro fight in San Antonio in March.

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Vasyl Lomachenko, left, struggled in a close loss to the experienced Orlando Salido, right, in March. (AP Photo)

Vasyl Lomachenko, left, struggled in a close loss to the experienced Orlando Salido, right, in March. (AP Phot …

It was obvious early in that bout that Lomachenko was, by far, the more gifted fighter. But it was equally obvious that Salido understood the pro game far better and used that knowledge to throw off Lomachenko.

The result was that Lomachenko's long winning streak ended via split decision.

But he got a reprieve, and on Saturday, in his next bout, he'll meet Russell for the belt once again.

That leads to the question of which path is best.

The long, slow path taken by Russell is far more traditional, though Russell's management team may have skipped a few important factors.

When Floyd Mayweather turned pro after the 1996 Olympics, he was fed some no-hopers in his early outings. But matchmaker Bruce Trampler did a brilliant thing in pushing Mayweather along. He exposed him to every style he could possibly find.

Mayweather fought guys who were fast and guys who hit hard. He felt lefties and righties and tall guys and muscular guys. When it looked like he might one day face Diego Corrales, the power-puncher who was unusually tall for 130-pounds, Trampler paired Mayweather with veteran Tony Pep. Pep was actually taller than Corrales, and more experienced.

Mayweather won the world title in the fight after he beat Pep, and his own tremendous natural ability led him there. But he was matched expertly and was ready for anything by the time his title shot came around.

Russell got rounds and paychecks, but he didn't face nearly such an eclectic group, and the matchmaking wasn't as precise.

The most important experiences Russell got were in the gym, working with his father, Gary Russell Sr., though the fighter isn't complaining and simply shrugs at the critics of his opposition.

"Oh, man, there's going to be criticism anyway," Russell said. "My Dad told me you could never please everybody. You know we wanted to get to maybe 23- 0, you know 22-, 23-0 before we competed for a world title. And one of the reasons why is based on the fact that you can be an elite amateur, but when you go into professional [boxing], it's a completely different world.

"You know you're going 10, 12 hard rounds with guys that are putting in that extra work, and this is the only way that you can gain experience by getting these rounds in. We don’t want to take things like that for granted by not getting the rounds in."

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Gary Russell Jr., right, landing against Miguel Tamayo in January, is one of boxing's best prospects. (Getty Images)

Gary Russell Jr., right, landing against Miguel Tamayo in January, is one of boxing's best prospects. (Getty I …

Lomachenko insists he's gotten the rounds in, even though he's fought just over 15 full rounds as a pro and Russell has fought more than 80.

But Russell has never gone 12 rounds, which Lomachenko did against Salido.

"I learned how to adjust to professional boxing, because I'd never been in the ring so much," Lomachenko said. "But I think just fighting the 12 rounds with Orlando Salido, I got to experience more [than I would have] if I would [have been] fighting just regular-level guys for two years."

Russell has been frustrating to watch over the past two years because of that slow and steady road he's been on. The boxing world, it seemed, felt he was ready for big things far sooner than he did.

But he doesn't face the same type of pressure that Lomachenko does on Saturday. Another loss wouldn't make him a bust, but it would put him in an odd position.

He'd be 1-2 with back-to-back title losses. He'd probably have to settle for taking on the kind of fighters Russell has because guys close to a title shot probably wouldn't want to fight him knowing there would be great risk for little reward.

The winner of Saturday's bout will emerge as a superstar-in-waiting, while the loser will need to regroup.

Much is going to be at stake, and that's exactly what we want a championship fight to be: Two talented boxers risking everything to earn the title.

The outcome, though, won't validate either approach. Not many fighters are as ready, or as eager, as Lomachenko to take on top opposition immediately upon turning pro. Neither are many willing to be as patient as Russell in seeking that first elite opponent.

May the best man, and the best approach, win.

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