Gary Russell Jr. believes he’s on the fast track toward unifying the titles in the 126-pound division. The 27-year-old world champion also believes he’s on the fast track toward moving on to the next phase of his life.
“That’s definitely accurate that I’m [thinking about] retirement,” he says. “I’ve been fighting for my entire life. I’m 27 years old and I’ve been boxing since I was 7. I have a wife and three daughters ages 7, 3 and 2, and boxing takes a lot away from my time.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to execute a lot of discipline and to obviously not get hit too much as a fighter. But you have a lot of athletes, not just boxers, who continue to compete past their prime. We’re not going to be one of those.”
While his future is clearly in the back of his mind, Gary Russell Jr. (26-1, 15 KOs) is now focused solely on returning to the ring for the first time in more than a year. He’ll make the first defense of his 126-pound title on April 16 against Ireland’s Patrick Hyland (31-1, 15 KOs) at Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Connecticut (Showtime, 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT).
Russell and Hyland are two of several top-notch boxers competing in what has become a loaded division. That includes fellow titleholders Leo Santa Cruz (32-0-1, 18 KOs), who is coming off a fifth-round TKO of Kiko Martinez in February; Lee Selby (21-1, 8 KOs), who makes his second title defense Saturday against Eric Hunter; and Vasyl Lomachenko (5-1, 3 KOs), the only man to defeat Russell.
Then there are guys like Abner Mares (29-2-1, 15 KOs) and Jesus Cuellar (28-1, 21 KOs), who will square off June 25, as well as 122-pound champ Carl Frampton (22-0, 14 KOs), who is slated to move up to 126 to battle Santa Cruz sometime this summer.
“We take no one for granted,” Russell says. “But God willing, honestly, the game plan is that we get past this one particular match right here with Hyland, and after that, we want to unify. Right now, we’re looking at snatching up all of this hardware.”
Russell won his piece of hardware in March 2015, when he scored a fourth-round TKO of Jhonny Gonzalez in Las Vegas. Gonzalez was making the third defense of the crown he won by twice dropping Mares during a first-round knockout win in August 2013.
The bout against Gonzalez was Russell’s only fight last year and followed a 10-round unanimous decision over Christopher Martin in December 2014.
“ You have a lot of athletes, not just boxers, who continue to compete past their prime. We’re not going to be one of those. ” Gary Russell Jr.
Hyland, meanwhile, has won four straight (three by stoppage) since falling by unanimous decision to unbeaten 130-pound champion Javier Fortuna in a 126-pound interim title bout in December 2012. Most recently, the 32-year-old Irishman defeated David Martinez by eighth-round TKO on October 10.
Although just 5-foot-8, Hyland will tower over Russell, who stands just 5-foot-4½.
“[Hyland] is tall, rangy and a pretty good fighter,” Russell says. “Anyone you get into the ring with has the leverage to pull an upset. I do know this: He needs to be at 110 percent for this fight, because I’m going to be ready.”
While giving Hyland his due respect and insisting he won’t look past him, Russell nonetheless has one eye glancing toward potential megafights against the cream of the 126-pound crop.
“Immediately after Hyland, we want to unify against the winner between Lee Selby and Eric Hunter. Immediately after that, of course, we would love to get a Leo Santa Cruz,” says Russell, who lost a majority decision to Lomachenko in June 2014 in his first shot at a world title.
“And then, maybe Abner Mares gets a shot at these titles. I wouldn’t mind going against him, because his fan base is still strong and he still has the revenue that we’re looking for. Then, let’s not forget, before my career is over, Lomachenko has got to see me. That’s pretty much how it is.”
In all, the Washington, D.C., native says that, after facing Hyland, he expects to fight just six more times over a span of about three years before hanging up the gloves for good.
“We’ve prepared for life after boxing,” Russell says. “I’m looking forward to actually getting out of the sport with my health and everything still intact, and being able to live off of all of the hard work and sacrifice that I’ve put into this sport for the past 20 years.
“I want to be able to actually experience staying home with my kids, going to and picking them up from their schools. We’re not there yet, but we’re close and we’re on that path.”
It’s a path his father very much believes is the right one.
“At the end of the day, it’s about business and making wise decisions,” Gary Russell Sr. says. “I give Junior about seven more fights before he calls it quits.”
For full coverage of Russell vs Hyland, check out our fight page.