By Rob Andrew Dongiapon

PHOTO: CBS Sports Digital

Bestriding on an unbeaten slate and a dream to become a world champion one day, Mark Magsayo has one sturdy order to answer come Sunday afternoon, Manila time. The hurdle comes in the form of WBC featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr. (31-1) — a fighter who had only lost once and has been regarded as having one of the fastest pairs of artillery in boxing today.

“This is the fight that I want and have been working hard to get for years. I am going to come to win and to make the most of this chance, “ Magsayo told BoxingScene. “There is a reason Gary is a champion, just like there is a reason I became the mandatory challenger.”

Regarded as an underdog heading to the fight, Magsayo, a 26-year-old blue-chip prospect under the MP Promotions, offers a formidable challenge for Russell, climbing up the rankings since going under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Freddie Roach with wins over Rigoberto Hermosillo, Pablo Cruz, and Julio Ceja, whom he floored in terrific fashion in the 10th round to earn Premier Boxing Champions’ 2021 knockout of the year honors.

On those fights, Magsayo, a 23-0 fighter from Tagbilaran City, Bohol, showed the makings of a future world champion — overcoming adversities, manifesting killer instincts, and showcasing brute power among others — but the deficiencies on his game remains apparent in his most recent stretch, leaving much to be desired entering the first world title challenge of his career. 

Fighting a southpaw of a caliber of Russell, who has not fought since February 2020, Magsayo has demonstrated his elite-level weaponry against opponents considered to be contenders on the precipice of the division's highest echelon. Versus the southpaw Hermosillo (then 11-2-1), the Filipino flaunted his ever-reliable right hooks, hitting the former from all kinds of angles then countering Hermosillo effectively to offset his much taller foe’s punching activity. 

Magsayo won that fight via split decision, but it wasn't a smooth sailing ride like his new promotional banner would have hoped. 

Despite landing the more convincing hits, the reasons for one judge to nod against Magsayo were as glaring as the damage the Filipino inflicted.

Magsayo struggled when Hermosillo rained down punches on his body, exploiting the subpar defense that apparently caused a sense of concern in the corner of the Filipino. Locked in on hitting as many strikes as possible on the torso, Hermosillo ejected 585 power punches, landing only at a rate of 27.4%, according to CompuBox. Though connecting his power punches more precisely at 37.6%, his foe’s constant bombarding served as an acid test for Magsayo against heavy-handed sluggers on the horizon, especially considering the parallelism of Hermosillo and Russell in terms of stance. 

Magsayo has also shown to have a tendency to leave his guards open, making him susceptible to potential combinations and counters from angles a championship-level fighter would easily distinguish. These defensive slips could be a dangerous proposition once Russell finds his mark. 

These faults were also overt and even more magnified when pitted against a former World Champion and a crafty inside puncher in Ceja (32-5-1), who, like Hermosillo, almost exclusively attacked Magsayo in the body. 

The body has been Magsayo’s most targeted anatomy, which correlates to his most perceived flaw — stamina. Magsayo often looked gassed past rounds four and five, waning on stretches where his opponents regained momentum to take control of the bout. One factor can also be attributed to his oft-wasted throws of power, which in return softens up his guard. 

This has been a long-standing dilemma for Magsayo, however, and the improvements ever since he signed under MP promotions were subtle, if not promising. But, these detrimental imprints manifest once in a while — perhaps once too many as soon as Russell starts to cash in his blows. 

But unlike all of Magsayo’s previous opponents, Russell plays a first-rate game that emphasizes more on the range, distance, and ring generalship. With hands as fast as a cat and actions as slick as a snake, Russell Jr. is exactly what Magsayo needs and desires — an ultimate mettle tester. 

Russell uses pistol-like jabs to keep his opponents at bay, throwing 468 in his last fight against Mongolian Tugstsogt Nyambayar in a time when masks and social distancing were not even part of societal norms. Winning by a decent margin on scorecards, Russell controlled the entire fight with lightning-quick hits and a left hand that neutralizes every danger he senses. 

Since then, his near two-year inactivity raises questions and eyebrows on the fighter whose only blemish was courtesy of Vasyl Lomachenko. 

Styles like that of Russell often raise pressure and stir up adversity on their opponents. Still, Magsayo has proved his fiber against distress, remaining undefeated even with increasingly difficult counterparts. His tenacity should enable him to move forward while still having to be wary of body blows and counters from Russell, who operates less effectively when one tries to close the gap. 

Feints remain an x-factor for Magsayo — a potentially disrupting weapon against the jab-heavy Russell. Facing speed and smooth-running generalship, the Filipino has his counterpunching to lean on in an attempt to prove the prevailing theory of timing beats speed. 

Yet the bottom line remains: Magsayo has a much different kettle of fish in front of him once the bell rings. 

All stats are courtesy of CompuBox.
Clips from PBC