When a former high school valedictorian and Olympic boxer born into a fighting family rips off a streak of knockout wins in each of his first 17 professional fights, he should be taken at his word when he claims to be “on a mission.”

Yet the crusades lasted more than two centuries. Alexander the Great took 13 years to conquer the ancient world. Even NASA needed more than eight years to put a man on the moon.

And Gary Antuanne Russell doesn’t have that kind of time.

Russell is set to face the also-unbeaten Albert Puello for an interim junior welterweight title on the undercard of the Gervonta Davis-Frank Martin lightweight title fight on June 15 at the MGM Garden Arena in Las Vegas – and not a moment too soon.

At 27, Russell (17-0, 17 KOs) is an athletic, sonic-handed student of the game who has the benefit of beyond-his-years experience pooled by his father (Gary Russell Sr., a former pro who trained several of his sons) and fighting brothers, including Gary Russell Jr., a former featherweight titleholder who has taken over from his father in Gary Antuanne’s corner. Nicknamed “The Last” – a nod to his place in the Russell boxing lineage – Gary Antuanne may also be the family’s best hope to climb to the sport’s pinnacle.

“I love the bright lights,” Gary Antuanne said in Thursday’s virtual press conference to promote the fight. “It’s part of my life. It’s really second nature. This is my world now. At this point, I just want to excel.”

But Russell has yet to face the brightest of lights in the ring, with stoppages of Viktor Postol and Rances Barthelemy marking his two most significant wins. And the clock is ticking – he has fought just twice in the past two years – as his competition shows little sign of improvement. Last August, in his most recent outing, Russell ran through Kent Cruz inside one round.

Perhaps Puello, a 27-year-old undefeated veteran, is a departure from that trend. His rankings, competition level and knockout rate suggest otherwise, but the even-keeled Russell at least seems to be taking Puello as seriously as any other threat.

“Puello is another opponent who’s in the way,” he said. “There’s a lot of opponents and they’re all in the way. We’re on a mission, and I plan to execute.

“My focus is so locked in right now. It’s hard for me to say he’s got a chance, not to be disrespectful. My father always said there’s three types of fighters: those who need it, those who want it and those who like it. And they all bring a different level of hunger. I’m all three of them, but instead of liking it, I love it.”

Almost exactly two years have passed since Gary Russell Sr. died, at age 63, of complications from diabetes – a loss on the heels of another family tragedy, the death of Gary Antuanne’s brother, Gary Boosa, in 2019 at age 25. The transition in his corner and a hand injury have likely also contributed to Gary Antuanne’s slowed progress.

Still, he has been insistent about targeting titles – and the fighters who hold them. Russell is creeping into position for a shot at 140-pound titleholder Devin Haney, and a rumored promotional switch might expedite his push toward matching up with some of the top names in the division.

“I want to bring boxing back to its natural state,” Russell said. “I want to climb the ladder and fight who I’m supposed to. I want to fight the guys with great credentials. We’re going to keep working toward the top.”

In addition to Haney are Subriel Matias, Regis Prograis and Liam Paro, among others who could give Russell the proving ground he seeks. First, however, the mission calls for a stop in Vegas and at least one more stepping stone. When he faces Puello, Gary Antuanne will have his brother in his corner and the echoes of another voice delivering instructions in his ear.

“I know my dad would tell me to hit and not get hit, keep your hands high, don’t relax,” he said. “Right now he’s here in spirit, and I will spontaneously hear certain things that he’ll say to me. I want to honor his name and make sure that all he worked for does not go in vain.”

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