By Percy Lovell Crawford

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, except in the sport of boxing. Absence is usually met with a restless fan base who will quickly move on to the next big thing.

Although Gary Russell Jr. hasn’t been the most active fighter, he’s kept himself relevant through his Instagram account, where he has posted workout videos and countless call-outs of fellow fighters. Russell returns to Showtime on Jan. 22 for the first time since last February. His WBC featherweight (126 pounds) title will be on the line when he faces Filipino punching machine, Mark Magsayo.

Magsayo is backed by Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao. Russell hopes to get past Magsayo and secure at least two more fights by the year’s end. Russell’s last multi-fight year came in 2014, when the fast-handed southpaw competed three times.

Life outside the ring has been tough on Russell. His brother died and his father, who is also his trainer, has been dealing with health issues. He returns to his sanctuary with hopes of using those adversities as fuel inside the ring.

Zenger caught up with Russell just days before his much-anticipated return to discuss his plans for Saturday night as well as his future plans and options.

Percy Crawford interviewed Gary Russell Jr. for Zenger.

Zenger: How have you been?

Russell Jr: Man… been grinding. Been busy, going through a lot of adversity in life, but what’s life without adversity?

Zenger: You have been dealing with a lot personally, losing your brother, and your father’s health issues. Has that fueled you this camp, or has it been a difficult camp to get through for those reasons?

Russell Jr: It’s definitely fuel. You gotta use it as fuel, and it has definitely been the fuel in my camp. I like to balance everything with forward progression. That’s the only way it works for me.

Percy Crawford interviewed Gary Russell Jr. for Zenger. (Heidi Malone/Zenger)

Zenger: Do you feel like you have been counted out in the boxing world because of your inactivity?

Russell Jr: Nah, I don’t feel counted out. I’ll feel counted out when I count myself out.

Zenger: You seem to stay in the gym year-round. How much has that benefited you, not only through the personal stuff, but the layoffs as well?

Russell Jr: It definitely helps me get through my personal issues. When I’m going through personal issues or whatever is going on, I tend to get in the gym. It helps me focus and keeps me motivated. It’s kind of like my woosah for whatever is going on.

As far as my layoffs, I’m one of them type of people that like to stay in a type of shape anyways, regardless of whether I’m competing or not, I want to stay within a certain level of conditioning. It’s a crazy world out here, man. Seem like society was crashing at one point. I don’t know what was going on. With this pandemic… what if you had to run 3 miles to save your life or your kid’s lives? I want to always be equipped and ready to do that.

Zenger: You are returning Saturday night after being out for over a year, and you’re doing it against an undefeated Mark Magsayo (23–0 with 16 knockouts). Do you know a lot about him, or will you figure him out in the ring?

Russell Jr: I know that he is one of Manny Pacquiao’s fighters. Considering that Manny Pacquiao could be known as a legend in the sport, a legend in the sport of boxing today, that says a lot about his eye for what he considers talent. I think this guy is going to bring his physical best. He’s going to be ready. He’s going to try everything he can. He’s going to try his best to become a world champion that night. I do know that he is even-handed. He has good punching ability, but I think intellect over athleticism any day.

Gary Russell Jr. receives pre-fight instructions before one of his recent bouts. (Amanda Westcott/Showtime)

Zenger: Your hand speed is always the center of attention, but you have knocked out four of your last six opponents. Do you think that speaks toward the power you possess as well?

Russell Jr: Of course! It speaks volumes. It’s crazy because I was known in the amateurs as a boxer-puncher. It wasn’t until I turned professional and I started hurting my hands where I realized, I’m so much better than these guys, I don’t even have to hit them hard or put the full force behind my punches to actually beat these guys. It speaks volumes. I fought a lot of big guys. JoJo [Joseph] Diaz came in there… I don’t know how big JoJo was when it was time for us to fight. He was like a damn middleweight almost.

Zenger: How are your hands holding up now, because you have had issues with them in the past?

Russell Jr: Honestly, my hands are good now. I have no problems with them. I have other little minor injuries going now, but I prefer not to elaborate on them. We true warriors and we dawgs, man. We gonna bump through it. We gonna fight through it.

Zenger: Knowing what you know about Magsayo and knowing what you bring to the table, what type of fight are you expecting from him? Are you expecting a war of attrition, or more of a boxing match?

Russell Jr: A little bit of both. I think with him, that’s his only option. I’m one of those guys, I have options when I compete. He doesn’t have very many options. He don’t have the hand or foot speed to stay away from me or stay on the outside and try to make it a complete boxing match. I’ll outbox him. I think he’s going to try to make it a dogfight, try to be as physical as possible, but I’m just as comfortable in that element as I am keeping a guy outside at the end of my punches.

Once again, it’s going to go back to intellect over athleticism. I think he’s going to try and be a great athlete. You’re going to see two great athletes competing against one another, and one athlete with a great level of intellect on top of that.

Zenger: You posted videos last year of you looking rock solid with a full six-pack while higher in weight — I think as high as 140–147 at times. How much longer can we expect you to stay at feather, given we have seen you in tremendous shape way north of that weight?

Russell Jr: I got the ability to fluctuate my weight. He said, a full six-pack (laughing). You right about that. Opportunity has to present itself. If the opportunity presents itself, of course I don’t mind moving up in weight. It doesn’t make sense for me to move up in weight, vacate my title, just to fight a contender or just to line myself up to compete against the champions.

A lot of these guys aren’t even trying to fight me for the title. I have to fight my mandatory challenges. People who really want to become the champion. People that have fought their way up the rankings to challenge a champion. These guys who I want to compete against who are world champions, they want to pick and choose who they fight. So, if they give me a fight, I can vacate my title and immediately move up to challenge the champion, then I’ll definitely do something. I just refuse to vacate my title just to stand in line.

Zenger: Do we get more than one fight out of you this year?

Russell Jr: To be honest with you, I would love to go three times this year. My inconsistency in the ring isn’t because of me. I’ve been wanting to compete. I was supposed to fight the guy, Rey Vargas, not too long ago. That didn’t materialize or turn into anything. He ended up fighting on Canelo’s [Álvarez] undercard.

We’re fighting in the first month of the year, God willing we get through this thing with no injuries or injury free. Like I said, I got little minor tweaks going right now, but it’s cool. We’re going to get through it. We get through this fight, I get a chance to rehabilitate myself, I think we will be able to go at it again in the middle part of the year in mid-summer, and then we can finish the year out strong.

The only question is, will we have any dancing partners?

Edited by Judith Isacoff and Kristen Butler

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