• Steve Bunce

Points to prove

Steve Bunce June 17, 2014
Gary Russell is unbeaten in 24 fights © Getty Images

They found Gary Russell unconscious in the middle of the night and that was the end of his Beijing Olympics.

It would also explain why he claims that he had never heard of Vasyl Lomachenko before the Ukrainian turned professional late last year. Lomachenko, you see, breezed to an Olympic gold at the same time as Russell was being re-hydrated and shipped home embarrassed but unmarked.

"That was a bad time," admitted Russell, who had a real chance of a good medal in Beijing. "When the Olympics were over I decided not to wait another four years." Russell was 20 after the Games and the offer to turn professional from the mysterious and elusive and wealthy Al Haymon was said to be close to a million dollars.

Russell was at the time, make no mistake, the "next big thing", but that was in December 2008, which is a long time in the boxing life of the "next big thing". Now, Russell is unbeaten in 24 fights and the criticism that he has received for taking easy fights will end on Saturday when he meets Lomachenko for the vacant WBO featherweight title in Carson, California. It has been an odd and low-key journey for the bright young thing of the USA amateurs.

Gary Russell claims that he had never heard of Vasyl Lomachenko before he turned professional © Getty Images

Meanwhile, Lomachenko is the brilliant amateur who dared to fight for a real world title in just his second pro fight; he lost a close decision to the seasoned Orlando Salido for the same WBO title back in March. It was close but Salido simply knew too much, was too rugged and deserved the win. However, Salido failed to make the weight on the night, the title remained vacant and Russell, the number one contender since last October, was matched against Lomachenko.

Now, I like a fairy tale, but I'm stunned that the world's best featherweights are not complaining and screaming about Lomachenko getting not one but two bites at the title without really deserving either. I can understand nobody saying a word last time - imagine if Lomachenko walked through Salido? However, that never happened and there were rounds when Lomachenko was badly manhandled by Salido, who is a real pro. Barry Jones, by the way, tipped Salido big at the time.

Russell, to be fair, has said a few things: "It was disrespectful to all the other fighters when [Lomachenko] got the chance. He still fights like an amateur. He hasn't had the rounds and the rounds make the fighter. I have the rounds and he doesn't - it's that simple and right now he is in a different world."

Russell, it should be noted, once held a different view and had initially talked boldly of a world title after about 15 fights. He said this in 2009: "In a year I will be 15-0 and aiming at people like [Yuriorkis] Gamboa." At the time Gamboa, also a brilliant amateur, had just won the world title in his 15th professional fight.

Russell is right and it was a new world that Lomachenko struggled with during his second pro fight: he allowed Salido, a veteran of 55 fights, to control most of the fight, including some rounds that he lost. Lomachenko accepted defeat with a silent shrug - it was just his second loss in a total of 405 fights as an amateur and a pro and the acceptance of defeat surprised some people in the game. It looked to me like he knew that he had been given a lesson and that the judge in his favour, which was an odd score that allowed some people to moan, had simply got it wrong.

That was then and this is now. Russell is not Salido and I have a feeling that Lomachenko will want to impress against a fighter that nobody really knows for sure just how good he is. I also think that there is some resentment towards the people that were quick to celebrate his loss, but were slow coming forward to be critical before the Salido fight. We call 'em aftertimers in the boxing business.

Lomachenko at his best is a perfect fighting machine of exquisite balance and power and we will, I think, get to see a masterclass on Saturday. Russell has had 24 fights but I would argue that he has not had twelve rounds like Salido gave Lomachenko - it sounds crazy, but the man with two professional fights will take the championship experience into the ring on Saturday.

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Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.