By MARK F. GRAY, Special to the AFRO

From the start WBC Featherweight Champion Gary Russell, Jr. has meticulously crafted his ascent to the world championship. Under shrewd leadership from the patriarch of Team Gary Russell – Gary Sr. – Gary Jr. has only one glitch on the road to his title but apparently the countdown to life after boxing starts with his next title defense at home.

The Capitol Heights native faces another mandatory challenger “Jo Jo” Diaz at MGM National Harbor in Fort Washington May 19 as part of a nationally televised Showtime Television fight night.  This is the second consecutive year that the Russell family will headline the local fight card that brings international publicity and a world class fight to the DMV. Last May he defeated Oscar Escandon via seventh round TKO in a dominant effort winning every round on a card where his brother Gary Antuanne also fought.

WBC Featherweight Champion Gary Russell, Jr. faces challenger “Jo Jo” Diaz at MGM National Harbor in Fort Washington May 19. (Courtesy Photo)

“I got maybe six more fights left in me,” said Russell, Jr. during the press conference to promote the fight.  “I fought my first fight when I was seven-years-old. I’ve been fighting for a long time and I want to prepare to spend time with my family”.

Russell, Jr. and Diaz are mirror images of each other. They are former Olympians who are trained by fathers who’ve stewarded their careers without interfering. Both are southpaws who have incredible hand speed and devastating power.  However, Diaz is hoping that his first title shot doesn’t end the way Russell’s did when he lost to fellow southpaw Vasyl Lomanchenko in 2014.

“Gary Russell Jr. is by far the best featherweight in the world,” Diaz said.  “But I know what I can do and I will showcase it on May 19”.

Russell, Jr. has only fought twice since winning the title in 2015.  He was reluctant to fight in his hometown before winning a championship.  However, now that he’s placed a six- fight limit on the rest of his career he may have risen beyond his earning potential fighting in the DMV.  While there is a hometown advantage when he fights at MGM National Harbor, he may have to explore fighting in bigger venues such as Las Vegas to make championship bouts against the fighters he claims are avoiding him.

“I guess I’m the gate keeper,” Russell, Jr. said. “They keep putting out the mandatory challengers since those other champions don’t want to fight me.  It has been irritating because none of the other champions want to get into to the ring with me”.

Russell, Jr. seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on his career doesn’t mean he is looking beyond Diaz.  There is a clash of opponents’ styles.  Diaz is preparing for a long night where he looks to impose his will on Russell, Jr. and capitalize in later rounds. Russell, Jr. has never been one to initiate verbal jabs but set the tone for this fight by intimating that strategy would lead to a premature end to the evening.

“He says that that he’s training for a long fight,” said Russell.  “If he gets reckless it could end early”.

When Russell, Jr. steps into the ring next month it will have been 364 days since his last fight.  He hopes to deliver his father with another birthday present victory while fighting on the same card with brothers Gary Antuanne and Gary Antonio as he did last year perhaps for the final time at home.

“I love that all my friends, fans, and the people who honk at me when they see me running can hop in their cars rather than get on a plane to come see me fight”.