Earlier this year we saw the long reign WBC Featherweight title reign of Gary Russell Jr, one of the sports premier talents yet most frustrating fighters, come to a surprise end as he was beaten by Filipino fighter Mark Magsayo (24-0, 16). This coming weekend Magsayo looks to build on that career defining victory as he takes on former WBC Super Bantamweight champion Rey Vargas (35-0, 22), in a very tough first defense.
Prior to his win over Russell Jr the talented Magsayo had been earmarked as a special talent. The Filipino, dubbed "Magnifico", had been hyped by the Filipino boxing press straight off the bat and ALA Gym seemed to be grooming him as the net face of their iconic promotion. Sadly though his ascent was a slow one, and despite the early hype his development seemed slow. He debuted in 2013 and beat former contender Chris Avalos in 2016, but then seemed to stall with no significant steps up in class whilst under ALA, who he was with for another 3 fights. He would then split from ALA and spent the entire of 2018 out of the ring, before restarting his career in 2019, picking up a notable win against Pungluang Sor Singyu later in the year. His career really changed in 2020 when he linked up with Freddie Roach and based himself in the US, where he has had his last 4 fights. The first of those was a very close win over gritty under-dog Rigoberto Hermosillo, he was also tested in the third of those bouts, a 10th round come from behind KO win over Julio Ceja, before sneaking past Russell Jr this past January.
In the ring Magsayo, much like Russell Jr, is a frustrating fighter. He is an undeniable talent. The Filipino is a wonderful natural talent, with good hand speed, good movement, and good size. He is also an incredibly determined fighter, with real resiliency, and his wins over Hermosillo and Ceja showed that he has incredible desire to success. Also, despite not being much of a puncher, he can certainly hurt fighters, and his KO of Ceja was a brutal KO, showing him to his hard enough to make a genuine impact, when he lands clean. He has the tools be a fixture on the top of the division for years to come, and aged just 27 he is still improving. He will however need to improve, significantly, if he's to keep the title, and establish his reign. For all his talent he is a very frustrating fighter, with questionable stamina, a lack of a true boxing brain. He switches off a lot, often through the middle of the bout, losing a lot of momentum and control as a result. He is also someone who dislikes pressure, often being put into something of a negative and defensive shell against pressure, and despite being solid defensively, he doesn't appear to have a world class chin, having been down several times already in his career and given the level of fighters he's now expected to face that chin could well be his downfall.
Vargas first made a name for himself in the amateurs, competing at the 2009 World Championships. The following year he began his campaign as a professional, and reeled off 6 wins before the year was over. He would remain relatively active early on and claimed his first title in early 2012, winning the IBF Youth Super Bantamweight title. It was at Super Bantamweight where he would really establish himself over the years that followed. Having ended 2016 with a 29-0 record, including notable wins against the likes of Alexander Muñoz, Christian Esquivel and Sylvester Lopez, he finally got his shot at a world title as he faced Gavin McDonnell for the vacant WBC Super Featherweight title in England. The bout saw Vargas dominate McDonnell en route to a Majority Decision, due to a terrible scorecard from the consistently poor Ian John-Lewis. He would go on to defend that title 5 times, beating the likes of Ronny Rios, Oscar Negrete, Azat Hovhannisyan and Tomoki Kameda. Sadly though a broken leg suffered in 2020 saw Vargas sitting on the side-lines, for well over a year, before returning in November 2021, and beating Leonardo Baez in a bout at Featherweight. That bout was essentially a tune up for a shot at the WBC title, for which he was the mandatory challenger, and loomed in shadows for the winner of Magsayo's bout against Russell Jr.
Vargas is as far from your typical Mexican boxer as you can get. The tall, rangy framed fighter isn't the macho driven tough guy we think of when we think of Mexican fighters, but instead he his a cerebral boxer, using footwork, busy jabs, and his physical tools. He keeps opponents at range, he handcuffs them with volume, and he refuses to be drawn into a war. He is very much a fighter who was groomed as a pure boxer, in part due to a good amateur career. His style can be hugely frustrating to watch, but it's also incredibly effective, and is the epitome of hit and don't get hit. Interestingly he started his career looking like something of a puncher, stopping 15 of his first 16, but has now had just 7 stoppage in his last 19 bouts going the distance in his last 7 and 10 times in his last 12. Despite that he has scored notable decision wins over the likes of McDonnell, Rios, Negrete, Hovhannisyan and Kameda showing his boxing skills to be excellent at the highest level. Technically he may be the best boxer at 126lbs, and it's hard to imagine anyone having an easy time with him, with potentially Emanuel Navarrete being the only fighter who would be strongly favoured against him.
With both fighters entering this one unbeaten, and both being very high level boxers, this is a really interesting match up. The bout is a chance for Magsayo to build on a career best win, show he belongs in and around the top of the division, and didn't just get lucky Vs Russell Jr, who fought much of the bout with an injury. Likewise it's a chance for Vargas to become a 2-division champion, and complete a remarkable comeback from his broken leg to world champion.
Technically the bout will be fought at a high level. Both are pure boxers, and the bout should be a very skilful one. Sadly for Magsayo however we get the feeling that Vargas's style will be a total nightmare for him. We expect to see Vargas establishing control behind his long arms, his quick footwork and his busy work rate. We don't expect to see him hurting Magsayo physically, but mentally force Magsayo to question himself, and over 12 rounds Magsayo will simply not be able to change the flow of the fight, at least not long enough, to over-come Vargas.
We expect Vargas to take a round or two to get a read on Magsayo, who does start pretty fast, but by round 4 the challenger will have figured out his man and will go on to control the middle and later portion of the fight to take a clear decision, and the WBC title. Magsayo's only real hope is to force the pace, take risks and land a bomb, as he did on Ceja. Sadly we don't see him doing that here. We don't imagine he will even come close to landing a bomb, with Vargas simply being too good and too smart for him.
Prediction - UD12 Vargas
The first world title fight to contain an Asian this year will see unbeaten Filipino Mark Magsayo (23-0, 16) get his long awaited first shot at a title, as he takes on WBC Featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr (31-1, 18). On paper this is a really good match up, between a top champion, albeit a horrible inactive one who has been wasting his career since winning the title, and an unbeaten contender who is incredibly talented, but also very clearly flawed. It's a bout with a lot of questions about both men going in, and it's a bout which will end with either one man paying for inactivity, or another paying for the flaws which have plagued in recent bouts.
If he was more active there is a very, very genuine chance we'd be talking about Gary Russell Jr as a future hall of famer. His talent is incredible, he's staggeringly quick and he's made good fighters look poor and his performances have had glimpses of boxing genius. He made Jhonny Gonzalez look terrible, when he won the WBC title in 2015, he went on to defend the title against future champions Joseph Diaz and Kiko Martinez, who holds a title in the same division today, and has good wins over the likes of Tugstsogt Nyamabayar. Sadly those those wins are spread over 5 years. Since winning the title, in March 2015, he has only defended it 5 times in almost 7 years, and has shown that whilst he's incredibly skilled, he's lacking hunger to show how good he really is.
Whilst he's not in the ring often enough, for anyone's liking, there is no denying Russell Jr's ability. He is a brilliant boxer, with legitimately scary hand speed, great movement, very impressive reactions and timing, and some of the most blistering combinations in the sport. He's not the biggest puncher out there, but thanks to his speed his shots carry plenty of pop, and stoppages over the likes of Gonzalez and Martinez have come from his speed. Afterall, it's the punches a fighter doesn't see that do the most damage and when Russell lets shots go fighters don't typically see them. When looking for flaws with Russell Jr they are genuinely hard to come by. One of the few is his lack of reach, and that could be a problem if he was to face someone like WBO champion Emanuel Navarrete or Mexican contender Rey Vargas, and another is the fact he slows as fights go on, and if he doesn't stop an opponent, things do tend to get tougher for him in the second half of a fight, an issue likely exacerbated by his inactivity. Even then, when he does slow down, he is still lightning quick, but does often look a little bit human for a few rounds, and that is likely where a top fighter could make him pay.
Aged 26 Mark Magsayo is a fighter coming in to his prime, and he does so with a lot of experience, having debuted back in 2013 at the age of 17. In his early years as a professional the Filipino boxing press were really excited about him and he was seen as a future star of Filipino boxing for ALA Gym, who were the big promoter in the Philippines at the time. Whilst his talent was obvious, he was moved somewhat oddly. His first 13 bouts really didn't see him tested, and then he was thrown in with Chris Avalos in 2016, that was a real test, and saw Magsayo digging deep to pull himself off the canvas to stop Avalos. Then there was some poor opponents again before he was given a real test in 2017 by Japan's Shota Hayashi, in what was much closer than the 116-112 scorecards suggested. Having moved to 17-0 the then 22 year old Magsayo should have been kept on the fringes of world rankings, with more character building bouts against fighters similar to Avalos and Hayashi. Instead however he fell out with ALA and eventually left the Filipino promotional power house, and was out of the ring for over a year. In recent bouts we've seen him finally taking on the sort of bouts he should have had a year or two earlier, including a tough test with Rigoberto Hermosillo and a real gut check over Julio Ceja. Both of which showed he could dig deep, but both also showed that there was a lack in his boxing education and development.
In the ring there is no denying that Magsayo is a talent. He's quick, sharp, has good foot work, lovely variation in his shots, real grit and determination, and it's clear there is the foundation there for a future world champion. Sadly however he often relies too much on his skills and looking good in the ring, and can often look incredibly lazy as a result. He looks brilliant when he lets his hands go, but doesn't do it enough, he can be backed up too easily, giving the view that his opponent is having more success than they really should, and he also looks really bad under pressure. Were it not for his heart and determination it's possible he could have had 3 or 4 losses to his name, in all honesty without his heart we suspect he'd have lost against Avalos, Hayashi, Hermosillo and Ceja, and being truthful they weren't world class, at least not when they fought Magsayo.
Another issue with Magsayo is since linking up with Freddy Roach, he has tried to adapt his style somewhat, and looks like a fighter wanting to conserve energy, making us wonder whether Roach is maybe aware of a stamina issue with Magsayo, something that could explain some of his in ring laziness.
Early on we expect this to be at least a little bit interesting. Magsayo isn't as quick or as sharp as Russell Jr, but there is certainly some speed in his hands, and we suspect he will look to time and counter Russell Jr. Sadly though that will only work for a round or two as Russell Jr takes a look at what Magsayo has to offer, and shakes some ring rust. As we go through the rounds however Magsayo's laziness will show and that will come at the same time as Russell Jr begins to feel more and more confident. When that happens we expect to see the American pick apart the Filipino to force a stoppage in the middle rounds.
Prediction - TKO6 Russell Jr
World Title Previews
The biggest fights get broken down as we try to predict who will come out on top in the up coming world title bouts.