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Preview: Gary Russell Jr facing legitimate contender in Tugstsogt Nyambayar on Saturday

Russell’s Showtime main event title defense this weekend is nothing to scoff at or ignore.

Gary Russell Jr. v Joseph Diaz Jr. Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

At 31, Gary Russell Jr has had a good pro career. If you’re Gary Russell Jr, you’d perhaps say it’s been a great one. He’s made money, he’s won a world title and defended it four times, and he’s been considered one of the best featherweights in the sport for years.

But Russell’s career has been missing something, and finally in 2019, we saw the frustration bubble out of the skilled southpaw. After years of criticism from fans and media for his inactive schedule and the generally weak opposition he faced when he did fight, Russell finally got vocal.

He called out fellow titleholder Leo Santa Cruz. He declared he was a free agent who could go outside PBC and fight top featherweights with other promoters. He indicated a willingness to move up to 130 and fight Gervonta Davis.

He’s not getting Santa Cruz, who has moved up to 130 himself, and he’s not getting Davis, who has now moved up to 135. And Saturday’s return is under the PBC banner once more, as he headlines in Allentown, Pennsylvania, not exactly a major fight hub.

Russell will be making a mandatory defense, which often times is a flashing red sign that you can go ahead and ignore a fight.

I wouldn’t ignore this one, though. This is no gimme. This is no soft touch. This is not some otherwise unknown goober plucked out of obscurity and given a title shot.

Gary Russell Jr. v Patrick Hyland Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The skills of Russell (30-1, 18 KO) have never really been in dispute. Throughout his entire 11-year pro career, he’s been a strong contender for fastest hands in the game, and from 2009-14 he was lighting up his opponents, who simply couldn’t get a handle on him. They were overmatched guys for the most part, yes, but Russell did what he should have with the opponents.

The former American amateur standout — who made the 2008 Olympic team but didn’t compete in Beijing — looked like the real deal. In June 2014, he got his first crack at a world title, and it wasn’t going to come easy, as he was matched with amateur legend Vasiliy Lomachenko with the vacant WBO featherweight title at stake.

Russell lost the fight, without question, and it was not as close as the majority decision result might lead you to believe. Lisa Giampa’s 114-114 card was wildly favorable to Russell, and the 116-112 cards turned in by Max DeLuca and Pat Russell were probably even a round or two closer than most scored it.

Lomachenko was, simply put, the better fighter, and Russell expressed his respect for Lomachenko in the ring, complimenting his opponent’s skills and execution. A couple of years later, he told me that he had no energy in the ring, that he felt Lomachenko should have stopped him given the shape he was in that night, blaming a faulty scale used throughout training camp that had him thinking he was over five pounds lighter than he really was, thus requiring a late crash down to make weight.

Whatever happened that fight week, Lomachenko left with the belt, and Russell returned six months later for a shutout win over veteran Christopher Martin, which led to a Mar. 2015 fight with Jhonny Gonzalez for the WBC featherweight title.

Gonzalez, one of the more decorated fighters of his time, had upset Abner Mares to win the belt in 2013, and made a couple of easy defenses in Mexico. Russell, however, was just too fast for him, flooring Gonzalez three times en route to a fourth round stoppage and his first world title.

Now comes the bad part, at least for fight fans. Russell wouldn’t fight again for 13 months, and when he returned it was an ugly mismatch against Patrick Hyland, who had no business fighting for a world title. He then was out another 13 months, and beat underwhelming challenger Oscar Escandon.

12 months later, he beat Joseph Diaz Jr, in what has been Russell’s one good title defense. Another 12 months, and he fought and defeated fading vet Kiko Martinez.

Once a year, since 2015. Why do fans care so much? I think in part — and I can at least say this for myself — it’s because many of us would like to see more of Gary Russell, even if it were a high-end modern standard of twice a year. He’s a good fighter. He can be fun to watch. He matches up well with anyone who’s been at featherweight recently. Watching him blow past overmatched opposition one time a year seems a waste of his talent.

On Saturday, he faces Mongolia’s Tugstsogt Nyambayar. The name may be new to you, and it may be weird for you to type or say or spell, and you might note that Mongolia doesn’t have a huge track record for producing top pro fighters.

Keith Thurman v Josesito Lopez - Media Workout Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

But Mongolia’s amateur program in recent years has been pretty good, and “King Tug” may be the best of the lot. He won silver at London 2012, losing a very competitive gold medal match to the Cuban phenom Robeisy Ramirez, and he beat top-seeded Russian Misha Aloyan in the semifinals.

Now 27, Nyambayar turned pro in 2015, linking up with PBC right off the bat. He took a couple of easy fights before at least getting in with some half-decent club guys, and he marched through the lot of them from 2015-17, when he faced fellow unbeaten prospect Harmonito Dela Torre.

Dela Torre dropped Nyambayar in their Nov. 2017 fight, but Nyambayar came off the canvas in round two to win a convincing decision. And he was more dominant in his next bout, a May 2018 win over Oscar Escandon, where he stopped Escandon in three.

In Jan. 2019, Nyambayar faced his first really stiff test, when he took on Claudio Marrero in a WBC eliminator on the Thurman-Lopez card in Brooklyn. Marrero — who also fights this weekend, going to England to face Kid Galahad in an IBF eliminator — proved capable of hanging with Tug, but dropped the decision over 12 rounds in what was a very close fightin terms of the punch stats and all that, and also was close just, you know, from your eyes watching it. I had it 115-112 for Nyambayar.

At this point, with a bit of an exodus from 126 up to 130 — Leo Santa Cruz, Oscar Valdez, and Carl Frampton all recently moved up — Nyambayar is about as good a contender as is available. Right now, the Mongolian is No. 4 in our rankings at 126, behind titleholders Warrington, Russell, and Shakur Stevenson, and just ahead of WBA titlist Xu Can.

Maybe Nyambayar is really that good, maybe not. He’s got the chance to prove he’s the real deal on Saturday, and this might well be the right time. Russell’s inactivity makes rust a concern every time he fights. This nine-month layoff is his shortest break in years, so he could well come in sharp and fit, but we did see him struggle a bit in the first half of his 2018 fight with JoJo Diaz. Russell adjusted and took Diaz apart in the second half of the fight, but if Nyambayar can get out there, let his hands go, and force the issue, he’s dangerous here.

I think you probably have to see Russell as the favorite here — and indeed the odsdmakers do — but this is no turd mismatch on paper, either. I named it one of the five best matchups of the month last week, and I stand by that. And if nothing else, it’s Russell finally once again in a fight that has some intrigue going in. This might not be the big fight he wanted, but it’s at least the useful matchup we wanted.


Jorge Cota v Jermell Charlo Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

We talked about the amateur exploits of Nyambayar and Russell a bit, but neither of them had an amateur career that compares to that of Guillermo Rigondeaux. That said, Rigondeaux (19-, 13 KO) is now 39 years old, has been off and on the map for years now, and despite world titles at 122 and a big win over Nonito Donaire in 2013, the Cuban never quite caught on with audiences.

Maybe the mistake was trying to make an HBO headliner out of him. Rigondeaux was sort of born to be a pay-per-view undercard fighter, in all honesty. He was a guy with a world title, so you could boast you had a world title fight on the undercard. He couldn’t draw otherwise, so you weren’t necessarily losing any big houses or events. He was, for a time, one of the best in the world pound-for-pound, but he had, in all candor, a boring, clinical style. (If you want to defend it as enjoyable to watch, that’s fine, but you have to understand Rigo’s style is not why most anyone tunes in to watch boxing.)

The last two fights of Rigondeaux’s that anyone really watched were a Dec. 2017 loss to Vasiliy Lomachenko, where Rigo tried to go up from 122 to 130 and got dominated, quitting after six rounds, and last year’s fight with Julio Ceja, which was an uncharacteristic phone booth war, won by Rigondeaux via eighth round stoppage.

The question is whether or not Rigondeaux has lost the legs to move and box the way he used to, or he’s chosen to try and be more fan-friendly in these waning years. Either way, if he fights like he did against Ceja, he’s going to be fun to watch.

That said, he’s also moving down to 118 pounds for this fight, which is a risky move. He’s been a career super bantamweight save for the occasional fight above that, and he’s old to be trying to make a new weight, going down instead of up. Solis (30-5-1, 14 KO) is a 37-year-old Venezuelan scrapper who’s past his best years, too, more likely than not, but gave Jamie McDonnell a good fight in 2016, and dropped Shinsuke Yamanaka twice in their 2016 fight. (Solis lost both bouts.)

This is about seeing if Rigondeaux can fight at 118 or not. If he can, he becomes a potentially interesting addition to a fun division that boasts Naoya Inoue, Nonito Donaire, John Riel Casimero, Nordine Oubaali, and plenty of other talented fighters, and also kinda-maybe Luis Nery.

The Showtime card will also feature a 130-pound eliminator between Jaime Arboleda (15-1, 13 KO) and Jayson Velez (29-5-1, 21 KO).

The 31-year-old Velez is one of many Puerto Rican fighters of the last decade or so who had some prospect hype but just didn’t really pan out, but he does have some grit; he could well have basically hung it up after a four-fight losing streak in 2015-16, but he’s come back to hang around and score a few half-decent wins, though he did lose convincingly to Ryan Garcia in 2018.

Arbolda, 25, is a Panamanian now living in Miami, one of Sampson Lewkowicz’s “discoveries.” His US debut in July 2017 did not go well, as he was knocked out in the third round by Recky Dulay, but he’s won five straight since, and he can punch.

Should this be an eliminator? I mean, no. Not really. Arboleda’s record is completely empty, while we’ve long known what Velez is and isn’t, and “world title contender” is on the “isn’t” pile. It’s an eliminator because it is one — sanctioning bodies have long histories of trying to highlight fighters from the countries that their organization is based in, it is what it is. The winner will be in line for a shot at Leo Santa Cruz or Rene Alvarado or Chris Colbert, who all hold some version of the WBA belt at 130. Alvarado would make more sense, really, but if the winner looks mediocre enough, he might be just the right speed for Santa Cruz and his SUPER! world title.