Gary Russell Jr. vs Joseph Diaz Jr.: Fire and Ice at 126 pounds

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WBC featherweight champion says he faces a strong challenge Saturday night on Showtime, but one he plans on passing with flying colors in front of his home fans.

In one of boxing's most stacked and talented weight classes, no time is being wasted on getting the best in the ring with the best. The featherweight division—full of elite-level fighters in their full physical primes—is settling things the old-school way.

Gary Russell, Jr. and Joseph Diaz will continue this refreshing trend when Russell defends his WBC featherweight title Saturday night on a Showtime-televised card (10 p.m. ET/PT) from MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. This is a classic battle of established star versus hungry young lion.

In a superb 126-pound class, no one is as naturally gifted as Gary Russell Jr. (28-1, 17 KOs). Blessed with, arguably, the fastest hands in all of boxing, the 2008 U.S. Olympian is rooted in solid fundamentals and efficiency. Unlike other athletically gifted fighters, Russell opts to mostly stay in the pocket against his foes, utilizing smart movement and short steps to create angles for offense. His hand speed and general willingness to let his hands go make the defending WBC titlist one of the most compelling fighters in the sport.

But injuries, inactivity, and the shadow cast from a majority decision loss to Vasyl Lomachenko in 2014 have worked against the 29-year-old southpaw, keeping him from becoming the star he should've become.

Beating the supremely skilled and hungry Diaz Jr. will get Russell back on track and erase much of the criticism hurled his way as an elite-level fighter with only three bouts and thirteen rounds under his belt since December of 2014.

"I welcome the fact that Diaz wants the fight. As a world champion, I wouldn't want or expect anything less," Russell said. "I want a competitor that's ready to fight and that's going to bring their best ... I know that Diaz is young, he's hungry. He's the number one contender. He has eight weeks to prepare for nobody else but me."

Fighting for the second straight time in his hometown, Russell will be making the third defense of the belt he won from Jhonny Gonzalez via a devastating fourth-round TKO in 2015. This upcoming bout also represents his highest level of opposition since Lomachenko.

Diaz (26-0, 14 KOs) is not as naturally gifted as Russell, but has earned his way to the mandatory contender position as a well-schooled fighter with impeccable fundamentals and true old-school tricks of the trade. Despite being trained by his father, a novice trainer who learned the in’s and out’s of the craft from books and videos, the 25-year-old southpaw and 2012 US Olympian is almost textbook-perfect in his execution of skills.

A combination puncher with good balance and a sharp, efficient offense backed by a subtly effective defense, Diaz has great natural instincts for the sport and an ice-cold temperament.

Up to this point, though, Diaz has been more athletically gifted than all of his opposition, wielding advantages in hand and foot speed against tough, but conventional fighters like Jayson Velez, Horacio Garcia, and Victor Terrazas. In Russell, Diaz will be facing, for the first time ever, someone whose physical limitations won't play into Diaz's technical and tactical strengths.

I have the strength, the speed, the power, ring generalship, boxing IQ—all of that will come together on the 19th. WBC Featherweight World Champion Gary Russell Jr.

As a thinker by nature, the South El Monte, California native has also shown himself a bit risk-averse and too bound to the skills that he has perfected. It remains to be seen how he reacts when having to throw caution to the wind, change course, and come back against an opponent able to get off to an early lead. The only bad habit Diaz has in the ring—a penchant for taking his foot off the pedal and coasting for large portions of fights—suggests that he is a bit of a front runner, more comfortable in command than in pursuit. But as someone who hasn't ever had to really come from behind in a fight, the question lingers as to whether it's in his character to turn a tide, especially against someone as talented as Russell.

Diaz's best strategy against the defending champ would be to overwhelm him early, jump to a quick lead, and never allow him the time or space to get off any sort of sustained offensive push. Russell's inactivity could provide for an early window of opportunity to do just that.

"He's been inactive and used to fighting just once a year now," Diaz said. "But what makes him so dangerous is he's very, very speedy and has great hand speed ... (but) I'm like Pernell Whitaker and an Oscar De La Hoya mix. Pernell because he's fast and Oscar because he applies the pressure and throws combinations. That's what I plan on bringing to this fight. Applying the pressure and taking him to a point where he's never been before."

Up until now, however, only the mega-talented Lomachenko has been able to shut Russell down for long stretches of time to seize control of a fight. It's questionable whether Diaz's solid skill set and disciplined mind can do to Russell what Lomachenko's next-level athleticism and improvisational abilities did to him four years ago.

On paper, Gary Russell Jr. and Joseph Diaz Jr. have a lot in common. They are both highly-skilled southpaws and U.S. Olympians trained by their fathers. They are also highly-ranked, highly-regarded featherweights sitting at or near the top of a stacked division packed with names such as Leo Santa Cruz, Carl Frampton, Abner Mares, Oscar Valdez, and Lee Selby.

In practice, however, one fighter may prove to be too much for the other. Will Russell's raw talent and fan-friendly aggression prevail over a smart, but physically overmatched Diaz or will Diaz's calculated precision and impeccable skills gain him a victory over a rusty and overconfident defending titlist?

"I have the strength, the speed, the power, ring generalship, boxing IQ—all of that will come together on the 19th," Russell said.

On May 19 we find the answer to all questions and we get to eliminate one more player in the pursuit of a unified 126-pound champion.

For a closer look at Russell vs Diaz, check out our fight page.

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