When the MGM National Harbor opened in December 2016, I expected it to be a boxing hotbed, with nationally-televised championship bouts on a regular basis.
After all, the MGM has long been a player in the boxing business, and the Washington area needed the right location to host top-rated fights.
For whatever reason, they have fallen far short of those expectations.
Saturday night, world featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr. — from the local boxing Russell family — will defend his World Boxing Council belt in a Showtime Championship Boxing show there. It will be just the fifth boxing show at the casino-hotel.
It will be the first one since Lamont Roach Jr. — another local contender — fought Rey Perez on an ESPN2 card in November 2016.
There should be more activity for such a prime location, but it’s been hit and miss. National Harbor opened up with three nationally-televised championship fights in its first five months, and it seemed it was on its way to raising the profile of live boxing in the area, perhaps on a national level.
But since those opening three shows, there has been just the Roach card in November – one in the past 12 months.
Now, ironically, Russell returns to the MGM National Harbor, where he made his last title defense one year ago — in a debacle that resulted in a brawl that spilled out into the crowd from an undercard bout between Jose Uzcategui and Andre Dirrell, when Uzcategui was disqualified for landing a shot after the bell rang to end the eighth round.
Leon Lawson, Jr., identified as Dirrell’s uncle, jumped into the ring and nailed Uzcategui with a shot to his chin, which set off a brawl between corners in the ring, spilling out into the crowd. It nearly escalated into a riot, but order was restored and Russell was able to get into the ring for the main event, knocking out Oscar Escandon in the seventh round.
Maybe that scene was the reason MGM officials seemed to back away from live boxing at the casino, though privately they have denied that.
It was also the last time Russell was in the ring — not exactly an active career for someone who hopes to leave their mark as a great featherweight champion.
Russell (28-1, 17 knockouts) will be making his third defense of the 126-pound title since he won it from Jhonny Gonzalez in March 2015, stopping him in four rounds. He is facing Joseph “JoJo” Diaz, Jr. (26-0, 14 knockouts) on a show that also features his brothers, Gary Antonio and Gary Antuanne, both unbeaten — part of the fighting Russell family that includes their father, who trains them.
The fighting Russells train just a few miles from National Harbor at the Enigma Boxing Gym in Capitol Heights. In an open workout and meet with reporters last week, Russell — as he did nearly a year to the day — spoke about fighting in his backyard.
“Sometimes you tend to magnify an event because of the fact that it’s in your hometown and it’s on a major card,” Russell, who turns 30 next month, said. “It tends to take away from the true goal and the true purpose. I just need to focus on what the objective is. We never magnify the events. I think it’s cool that the neighbors and the mail lady and the people who honk their horns as they see me jogging down the street have the ability to get in their car and drive 15 minutes down the road to be a part of everything that’s going on and get to see a product of their environment.
“I draw my energy from my family, my friends, the true fans of Gary Russell Jr.,” he said. “That’s what I ultimately do it for. Regardless of what our profession is, we try to have a sense of financial stability for our families and that’s my objective as well. That’s what keeps me motivated.”
But to leave a legacy behind as one of the great champions from the DMV – and for the MGM National Harbor to become a national stage for boxing — it will require more than an annual event.
⦁ Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network