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Gary Russell Jr. retains WBC belt with unanimous decision over Joseph Diaz

Gary Russell Jr., right, hits Joseph Diaz during the WBC featherweight title fight in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, May 19, 2018. Russell won by unanimous decision. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
Gary Russell Jr., right, hits Joseph Diaz during the WBC featherweight title fight in Oxon Hill, Md., Saturday, May 19, 2018. Russell won by unanimous decision. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)
Associated Press

OXON HILL, Md. – Gary Russell Jr. and Joseph Diaz didn’t dare raise their arms in victory after their 12-round title bout.

It was only when the words “unanimous decision” came over the MGM National Harbor PA that Russell pounded his chest, finally knowing he had completed a difficult third defense of his WBC featherweight title.

Despite sustaining an early hand injury, Russell (29-1) outlasted Diaz (26-1), taking a 117-111 victory on two scorecards and a 115-113 win on the third.

“We had to make the adjustments,” Russell said about the injury. “He couldn’t get past my jab. When he got close, we made sure to smother him. Then we reset and got back on the stick.”

Whether it’s the 29-year-old’s last defense at this weight remains to be seen. On Thursday, Russell said he could move as high as 140 pounds if he can’t make a featherweight unification bout next.

Earlier Saturday in England, Josh Warrington beat Lee Selby by split decision to become IBF 126-pound champion.

“We want a unification,” said Russell, who has averaged less than a fight a year since first winning the WBC belt in March 2015. “We want to unify this division, or we’re moving up in weight for another title. I want another belt.”

Diaz also appeared to know he had been second best over the 12 rounds, despite some promising early moments in his first professional title bout. He and his camp clapped the decision after it was announced.

“This will just make me a hungrier fighter,” Diaz said. “I hope I got the respect of a lot of fight fans. . Tonight wasn’t my night but I’m going to bounce back harder and I’ll be champion soon.”

In a bout between left-handed former U.S. Olympic team fighters, Russell gained control as it progressed.

He perhaps came closest to a knockdown when he connected with a flurry of shots late in the fourth that Diaz survived, and then again with a right hook that sent Diaz briefly stumbling backward in the 10th.

The latter came after Russell briefly slipped onto the canvas, and Diaz’s fans briefly believed it was a knockdown.

A similar moment came in the 12th, and although Diaz pressed on and had Russell on the ropes late, he couldn’t do the damage or find the knockout he needed.

“We train to survive those body shots,” Russell said. “We put the work in every day in the ring. We consistently grind and push ourselves to be great. We push ourselves to the limit.”

This was Russell’s second consecutive defense here with his brothers fighting on the undercard, just a few miles from their hometown of Capital Heights.

Early, bantamweight Gary Antonio Russell (11-0, 9 KOs) posted a fifth-round knockout of Jonathan Lecona (17-20-4). Later, junior welterweight Gary Antuanne Russell (6-0, 6 KOs) stopped Wilmer Rodriguez (9-3) with six seconds remaining in the first round.

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