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Gary Russell Jr.’s nearly seven-year championship reign comes to an end in Atlantic City

Gary Russell Jr. (31-2), left, held the WBC featherweight title for six years and 10 months before losing the belt to Mark Magsayo on Saturday night in Atlantic City. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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District-born boxer Gary Russell Jr. was facing an undisclosed injury, a series of family crises and a career-long layoff of nearly two years entering the sixth defense of his featherweight title Saturday night in Atlantic City.

Those circumstances, particularly his compromised physical status revealed after the fight to be perhaps a torn right shoulder tendon, proved too much to overcome in a loss to undefeated Filipino Mark Magsayo via 12-round majority decision, ending the longest active championship reign in the sport.

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Two judges awarded the fight to Magsayo with scores of 115-113 while a third scored it a draw, delivering the mandatory challenger the World Boxing Council championship that Russell (31-2, 18 knockouts) had held for 6 years 10 months 126 days.

“This is what true champions do,” Russell said in the ring during an interview with Showtime boxing reporter Jim Gray after his first loss since 2014. “I wanted to step into the ring and display my superiority regardless of an injury or what not. We did that.”

The fight turned in the fourth round when Russell grimaced after delivering a jab, the punch with which he sets up the rest of his arsenal. Clearly in distress at that moment, Russell threw just one jab in the fifth round and none in any of the subsequent rounds.

Russell averaged 37 jabs per round throughout his career entering the weekend but threw just 64 total during the entire fight, according to Showtime statistics. Still, he landed 11 jabs compared to just 10 for Magsayo (24-0, 16 KOs), whose reach advantage forced Russell to take more chances fighting on the inside.

That Russell made the proceedings competitive despite, for all practical purposes, the use of only one arm underscored just how skilled and resilient the resident of Capitol Heights is in the ring. But his impaired status also allowed Magsayo to claim virtually every round beginning with the sixth.

“I gave him a boxing lesson the whole way through,” said Russell, who indicated he thinks the injury originally occurred roughly two weeks ago. “I landed clean whenever I wanted to. I couldn’t use my right arm, but I was able to throw effective shots and touch him at will.”

It’s unclear if a rematch will be forthcoming, although Russell asked for as much after the fight. Magsayo, however, did not commit to a rematch, instead referring questions about his first title defense to his team, including legendary trainer Freddie Roach, who worked with Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao.

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It certainly would have been understandable, perhaps even expected, for Russell not to have been in peak condition either physically, mentally or emotionally given the personal travails he has had to navigate over the past two years.

Most recently Russell’s father and trainer, Gary Russell Sr., had his left foot amputated because of complications stemming from type 2 diabetes. The surgery took place several weeks before Christmas, and Russell Sr. left the hospital early, defying recommendations of doctors, to be back in training camp.

Russell Sr.’s communication with his son during the weeks leading up to the fight had been mostly through Zoom calls while receiving treatment. Russell Jr., meanwhile, resorted to working out on his own at the family’s Enigma Gym in Prince George’s County rather than turning to a substitute trainer.

That Russell Sr. was able to be with his eldest son at the Borgata Event Center, even if it was from a wheelchair in the front row instead of in his corner, provided a sense of comfort and normalcy, especially with the family still trying to process the untimely death of one of its own.

Russell Jr. has been using the memory of his brother, Gary “Boosa” Russell, who died of cardiac arrest in 2020 less than two weeks before Christmas, to fuel his training. “Boosa” Russell died at the age of 25 outside a friend’s house on the same street where his parents live and where Gary Jr. owns properties.

Russell Jr. also had another brother, Devaun Drayton, then 17, die of a fatal gunshot wound to the head in 2004.

Russell Jr. was fighting for the first time since defeating Mongolian Tugstsogt Nyambayar via unanimous decision Feb. 8, 2020, at PPL Center in Allentown, Pa., in what was yet another bout against a mandatory challenger and just his sixth fight in as many years.

The string of one fight per year since claiming the 126-pound championship with a fourth-round knockout of Jhonny Gonzalez March 28, 2015, in Las Vegas has been largely because top level opponents have been avoiding him, according to Russell Jr.

He has made overtures, in some instances pushing the envelope of civility, to try to get the likes of Gervonta “Tank” Davis, who holds the World Boxing Association lightweight belt, into the ring for what would be one of the more anticipated matchups in the sport.

Russell also has spoken extensively about perhaps moving up multiple weight classes, but only if he’s assured of fighting for a title.

“If I’m going to move up in weight, I want to fight the champion,” Russell said. “I’m not planning to move up in weight class just to stand in line. I’m fighting Magsayo because he moved up in the rankings and earned this spot. Everyone who I’ve competed against has been the next best guy under the champion.”

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