- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2007

They anointed him as a phenom at age 2.

That’s when Gary Allen Russell Jr. started accompanying his father to amateur and professional boxing matches in the D.C. area.

Before the fights started at the old Hillcrest Heights Arena, the sport’s gray heads urged Gary Russell Sr. to throw his son in the ring for a couple of minutes. There they watched him shadow box, marveled at the toddler’s form and prophesied of greatness.

Russell Sr., the nephew of former light heavyweight champ Bob Foster (1968 to 1974), had pro boxing aspirations himself. With his family living in a rough part of Northwest, he kept his son in the gym with him, using boxing to instill structure and discipline while serving as a safeguard from a life of violence.

“Little Gary” hit the local junior circuit at the age of 7.

“It was cute, ya know?” recalls Russell Sr., who later moved his family to Capitol Heights and had his boxing career derailed by a hunting accident. “They were little kids, had the big headgear on, and they didn’t hit that hard. It was just fun and cute.”

But the cuteness eventually ended.

After dominating the junior ranks for nine years, Russell Jr. elected to bypass the novice level and instead jump to the open division.

“Ain’t no little boys fighting no more,” Russell says of the division, which pairs boxers by weight class instead of categorizing by age group. “You’re talking 28-year-old men with wives and two babies. Sixteen? I was the youngest one there. But I wasn’t scared.”

In his first open fight, Russell faced a 29-year-old from the Navy. Navy’s team dominated the tournament, but he beat his opponent and finished as the only non-Naval champion.

Some 15 years after they were spoken over Gary Russell Jr., the prophecies have begun to come to fruition.

For the second straight year, the 5-foot-5 Russell ranks first in USA Boxing’s bantamweight division (119 pounds). In 2005, USA Boxing named him its athlete of the year after he won his weight class at both the U.S. championships and the Golden Gloves national tournament. He also became the youngest boxer ever to make the U.S. elite.

Russell boasts a 40-1 record in open division boxing. The lone defeat came at the 2005 world championships in Moscow. He lost by decision to Germany’s 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, Rustamhodza Rahimov, before rebounding to claim the bronze medal.

By winning his second national title in October, Russell qualified for the Olympic trials, which take place in August.

But Russell appears unfazed by the success.

“He knows, and I always tell him, he can’t claim accomplishment until he accomplishes something,” says Russell Sr., who serves as his son’s coach. “He hasn’t reached his goal yet. I tell him, ‘The fat lady ain’t sang, yet.’ ”

Russell Jr. has his sights set on winning the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing. He wastes little time reflecting on the accolades and victories collected along the way — all of which he says came as no surprise.

“I work so hard, man. I knew it’d happen,” says Russell, who trains each morning at Hillcrest Gym in Maryland and every evening at Nomis Community Boxing Center in Northeast. “Most people are searching for who they are. Me? I know who I am and what I’m capable of doing. I can go toe to toe with anyone. They weigh 280? Hey, let’s go. I know I’ve got a 50-50 chance of coming out on top. And I know in a fight, the odds are in my favor.”

Although confident, Russell — who runs three miles a day, does 700 situps and pushups a training session and can bench press 210 pounds — remains far from cocky.

He doesn’t walk with the swagger of a world-class athlete. Instead, he carries himself in a laid back, unassuming manner.

“He’s very humble,” says Robert Simon, who owns and runs Nomis. “This is an outreach center for youth, so I don’t let just anybody train here. A lot of guys have that attitude, walk around cussing. So I turn them away. But Gary, he’s a role model, very respectful. He doesn’t let what he’s done go to his head negatively. He’s not out there in the streets.”

Russell chose to avoid that lifestyle after observing the downfalls of others. Street life ruined the boxing dreams of both of his older half-brothers. One is incarcerated. The second had qualified for the Olympic trials but was fatally shot two years ago.

“I can’t be in the streets. I surround myself with positive people,” says Russell, who continues to choose to live with his parents despite already graduating from high school. “It’d be easy for me to go out on my own, but I might lose track of who I am without my family. I feel like I’m more rooted this way. And constant winning builds who I am. Can’t nobody peer-pressure me into doing anything.”

Boxing, for Russell, truly is a family affair. Four of his five brothers — Gary Allen III, 17; Gary Antonio, 14; Gary Antwanne, 11; and Gary Isaiah, 6 — also box. The fifth, 13-year-old Gary Darreke, plays basketball. All but Russell Jr. go by their middle names.

Each evening, Russell Sr. loads his boxing sons into their minivan, picks up his wife, Lawan, from work and heads to Nomis.

“I don’t see my home until 10 o’clock most nights,” Lawan says. “But this is our life, our family. It’s the highlight of my day. I’ve watched my boys grow up in boxing. I can’t imagine it any other way.”

In all, Russell Sr. coaches nine of the 54 boxers who train at Nomis. Russell Jr., however, easily stands out, according to Simon.

“He’s the fastest I’ve seen,” says Simon, whose 1,300-square-foot facility is tucked away on the second floor of 10th Street Auto Repair. “He trains so hard, and his work ethic is unbelievable. A lot of guys shadow box all slow. But him? He trains with speed. Pop, pop, pop!”

The high-speed training translates into fights, in which Russell dismantles opponents with a rare blend of quickness and power.

He often dances around the ring with excellent footwork, giving foes a difficult target. When opponents lunge for a jab or hook, Russell plants his feet and ducks his head to either side or leans away, making his challenger miss.

“Slipping punches, that messes with their head,” he says. “They’ll be thinking, ‘Dang, I can’t hit that man!’ ”

By “slipping” punches rather than deflecting them with his gloves, Russell can attack more quickly. Then comes the power as Russell fires off a combination while his opponents are still following through on their failed punches.

Russell attended a camp at the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs last summer and tested his abilities on a power punching meter.

According to his father, he had the third-highest rating of any boxer there, including heavyweights.

“Gary’s got the power of a light heavyweight and the speed of a featherweight,” says Donnell Miller, a 25-year-old Prince George’s County resident who often spars with Russell. “Fighting a guy like that, you have to be so much faster. It’s like a chess match. You gotta think two, three moves ahead. Blink and you can get hit seven times.”

Russell broke both of his hands at the national championships in October, but he didn’t realize it until after he had claimed his title and went to the hospital a few days later. After nearly a two-month layoff, he resumed training in December, working toward the Golden Gloves tournament and the U.S. championships in May and June, respectively. The tournaments will serve as tuneups for the Olympic trials, which put Russell one step closer to his ultimate goal of becoming an Olympic gold medalist.

“I know it’s a difficult goal, but it’s achievable for me,” Russell says. “Most people wanna go pro, but that’s not my focus. It’s easy to go pro. But having the whole country on your shoulders, fighting against the best in the world? Don’t get any better than that.”

Russell says he has received many offers to fight professionally. But that would prevent him from competing in the Olympics. Instead, USA Boxing gives Russell — and all elite team members — a monthly stipend of $1,500 so he can train full-time rather than have to find a job or consider turning pro.

“I’ll go pro eventually; the offers are there,” Russell says. “At tournaments, they always ask to take me out to dinner and stuff, and I go and listen and take my father and don’t tell them but know darn well I’m not taking their money.

“When I do go pro, it won’t be for that long. I might fight 20 fights, just long enough to establish myself financially, then get into real estate.”

But that’s a ways down the road, Russell points out. For now, his focus remains on proving himself again as the nation’s best bantamweight fighter and then wearing the red, white and blue in Beijing in 2008.

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