By Mark F. Gray, Special to the AFRO

Team Gary Russell finished their second fight card with another undefeated performance before a partisan home crowd at the MGM National Harbor Theatre May 19.

With a champion in the fold and two rising contenders part of the cast it was indeed “showtime” and they staged a great one. The stars aligned for the perfect evening as Gary Antonio and Gary Antuanne charged the crowd with electrifying knockouts in less than six rounds combined. However, it was big brother’s resilient effort against his youthful opponent who tested his will that was the fitting conclusion to the spectacular evening.

WBC World Featherweight Champion and Capitol Heights native Gary Russell, Jr. retained his belt with a 12 round unanimous decision over number one contender Jo Jo Diaz at MGM National Harbor Theatre. (Courtesy Clearmotion Studios) ​

For a champion who wants to unify the featherweight division Gary Russell, Jr. couldn’t have found a more accommodating opponent than Jo Jo Diaz.  Diaz pushed the oldest of the Russell boxing trio to his limit with a performance that may have earned him more respect than any of his three previous title defenses. Russell, Jr. solidified his place as the best fighter in the division and proved he could take and dish out punishment to retain the championship by unanimous decision.

“I was disappointed in my performance, because I wasn’t planning on going the distance,” Russell, Jr. told the AFRO. “We want a unification. We want to unify this division, or we’re moving up in weight for another title. I want another belt.”

Russell, Jr. – who said afterwards he injured his hand in the second round – wanted a knockout and predicted that if Diaz wanted to make it a street fight he would end things early.  He did his best to deliver by aggressively using his jab starting in the first round putting a rosy hue on the challenger’s face. However, in his first title fight Diaz remained composed and was never really hurt by the relentless assault of the champion.

WBC World Featherweight Champion and Capitol Heights native Gary Russell, Jr. retained his belt with a 12 round unanimous decision over number one contender Jo Jo Diaz at MGM National Harbor Theatre. (Courtesy: Clearmotion Studios)

“I hurt the right hand in the second or third round, but I still had to use it, because he could not get past my jab”, said Russell, Jr.  “The jab definitely dictated everything I did. My speed offset everything he tried to do coming forward.”

The Diaz formula – counter shots to the body following the Russell jabs – did appear to slow the champion down.  He walked through the initial onslaught before tagging Russell, Jr. with a series of punches to the ribs and kidneys but he couldn’t maintain the activity throughout the fight which ultimately cost him the unanimous decision.

“The game plan was to break him down with the body shots and start attacking him more in the later rounds,” Diaz said. “But I started attacking him too late. I didn’t pick it up until the 8th or 9th round.”

With devastating precision and hand speed difficult to see with the naked eye the rising contenders set the stage for the evening from the outset. Gary Jr. was the lead man in the corner for both undercard bouts.

Antonio masterfully displayed the traits that his Olympian brothers bring to the ring. He shrank the ring against Mexican Johnathan Lecona and peppered him with jabs that kept the more experienced fighter off balance for the first three and a half rounds.  Antonio deftly avoided danger against a fighter who entered the night with 30 more professional bouts on his resume before ending Lecona’s night for good in the fifth round.

Antuanne wasted little time dispatching Wilmer Rodriguez while hardly breaking a sweat. He attacked with a barrage of combinations to the head and body that were never answered before a hook to the stomach sent Rodriguez to the canvas for good at 2:34 of the first round.