Over the first seven years of his career, Capitol Heights boxer Gary Russell Jr. did not fight in the D.C. area, indicating he would do so only when he became a world champion.
With that assignment completed in 2015, the World Boxing Council featherweight titleholder is set to defend his belt just a short drive from his home town for a second straight time when Russell (28-1, 17 knockouts) faces undefeated Joseph “JoJo” Diaz Jr. on May 19 at MGM National Harbor.
Diaz (26-0, 14 KOs) is the mandatory challenger for the fight airing live on Showtime as part of a split-site doubleheader that will include light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson meeting Badou Jack at Bell Centre in Montreal.
“This is the reason I didn’t fight at home for so long. I didn’t want to come home empty-handed,” Russell said during a news conference on Tuesday afternoon at the casino property in Oxon Hill. “We got the strap. We’re bringing it here. I wanted to do it at least one more time here.”
Russell, 29, is making his third title defense since beating Jhonny Gonzalez on March 28, 2015, via fourth-round technical knockout at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas to claim the WBC belt.
His most recent title defense came against Oscar Escandon at MGM National Harbor on May 20, 2017, which also happened to be the birthday of his father and trainer Gary Russell Sr.
Russell Jr. won in a seventh-round TKO when he connected with a hard right to the temple, sending Escandon wobbling backward and then to the canvas. Referee Harvey Dock halted the proceedings at 59 seconds in the round, and fans celebrated by singing “Happy Birthday” to Russell Sr.
“JoJo is a good fighter,” Russell Sr. said of his eldest son’s next opponent. “He has superb timing, but that timing can be upset by speed. If you have timing for going 40 miles and then someone stops and throws an 80-mile speedball at you, it’s hard to keep up with that timing.”
Russell Jr. is highly regarded for his lateral quickness, hand speed and ring smarts but also possesses the power to end bouts early, as he predicted he would do against Diaz, 25, who like Russell was an Olympian.
Diaz was a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team that also included Errol Spence Jr., the International Boxing Federation welterweight champion who most recently beat District native and former unified 140-pound champion Lamont Peterson.
Russell was part of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in Beijing but never fought because he collapsed from severe dehydration while trying to shed a little more than a pound to make the 119-pound weight limit.
Russell and Diaz share another boxing similarity in that both are southpaws.
“Gary Russell Jr. is by far the best featherweight in the world,” Diaz said. “Leo Santa Cruz, Abner Mares, Lee Selby, none of these [other 126-pound champions] want to fight Russell. They’re afraid the speed and the counter shots. But I know what I’m capable of doing, and I’ll showcase it May 19.”
More from The Post: