Gary Russell Jr. gave the type of performance expected from a two-time national champion.
He opened his second straight bantamweight title defense in the quarterfinals of last week's U.S. Boxing Championships at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs with authority. After receiving a bye in the tournament's first two rounds, the D.C. native pummeled Miami's Jessy Cruz 37-14 in four rounds last Tuesday.
But after dropping Cruz twice in the second round using a vicious double-right-hook, Russell, 19, experienced the unexpected. The 5-foot-5, 119-pound Russell sent another blow to Cruz's head in the third round and immediately felt a shot of intense pain in his right hand.
It had happened again.
In October, Russell broke his right hand — between the first and second knuckles — in the championship bout at the National Police Athletic League (PAL) tournament, which he won. Russell, who boasts a 41-1 record, stopped training for two months to heal, then began preparing for May's national Golden Gloves tournament.
But after feeling some mild discomfort in his hand, Russell and his father — also his trainer — decided to pass on the Golden Gloves to save the boxer for the U.S. championships, where he needed a top-eight finish to maintain his spot in the Olympic team trials. But the setback they hoped to avoid by skipping the Golden Gloves resurfaced in Colorado Springs.
"I hit him somewhere on his face, felt the pain and was like, 'Dang! I did it again.' " Russell said an hour after the fight. "It's like a sore or something. Draw contact and it busts back open. But I had to keep fighting. Boxing's a violent sport. You've gotta suck it up and deal with the pain. Gotta keep your poker face."
Russell — who in 2005 was named USA Boxing's athlete of the year and in 2006 ranked first in the nation in his weight class — maintained a strong front in the final round-and-a-half of his fight with Cruz.
A fan favorite, he held the attention of the majority of the 850 spectators watching from the stands of the small gymnasium. The fans cheered lustily, often rising to their feet as Russell continued to pepper Cruz with shots.
"Give him that hook again!" screamed one spectator, who like everyone other than Russell had no idea of his injury. "Gary, give him the hook again!"
"Yo, I got it," Russell called back from the ring between jabs, his eyes still trained on Cruz. "I'm straight."
The one-handed fighter cruised to victory but immediately sought medical attention from ringside physician George Palmer III. After consulting with his father, Russell leaned strongly toward pulling out of the tournament.
"If this was the Olympic trials, I would keep fighting," Russell said. "But it'd be silly to keep fighting here and risk further injury when I don't need to. See, I can bend it, but I can't totally ball my fist. See how that knuckle slides to the side when I try to make a fist? It'd be nice to win here, but I can't risk it."
Russell went to a Colorado Springs clinic for X-rays later that evening and Wednesday morning reported to ringside physician Marilyn Boitano to file an official medical disqualification. By withdrawing on medical disqualification as opposed to pulling out of the tournament and losing on forfeit, Russell remained in the Olympic trials.
"Hand injuries are common with boxers, but Gary's is a little less common," Boitano said. "In his situation, he had the fracture, and it was allowed to heal in a suboptimal position. A normal person could go on through life and be fine with their hand the way his is. But a competitor could have some complications.
"Ideally he'd have surgical intervention and have the fracture taken down and reset," Boitano added. "But Gary doesn't have that kind of time. Best thing for him is to rest it as much as possible for August and maybe alter his punch selection. Body and face shots are more forgiving and will cause less damage. Blows to the skull could make it worse. I think he's talented and smart enough to know how to make things uncomfortable for his opponent even if that right hand isn't fully healed."
The injury withdrawal capped a disappointing tournament for the Russell family. The day before Russell's fight, his brother Allen fell one win shy of qualifying for the Olympic trials in the 132-pound division.
But while Allen Russell, 17, must wait another four years to have a shot at the Olympics, Gary Russell Jr. expects a full recovery by the time the trials roll around in August.
"We'll watch it closely, but I think he'll be OK," Gary Russell Sr. said. "If he couldn't bend his fingers. I'd be concerned. But he can. He might have to deal with some discomfort, but he'll be OK."
Russell returned to the District on Saturday after watching the final rounds of the U.S. championships. Two days later he was back in the gym, working to strengthen his left hand while maintaining his conditioning. He will train with specially padded gloves to give his right hand additional protection and apply ice regularly. Besides that, there's not much Russell can do given the timetable he's working with.
"Gary punches extremely hard, and this is just something that happens with a boxer like him," Russell Sr. said. "Year before last, he went to the Olympic Training Center, and they had a pressure meter. Out of all the boxers, lightweight up to heavyweight, Gary had the third-hardest punch. You can't tell him to stop hitting so hard — that's just his style. But I'm not concerned. Ray Leonard and Floyd Mayweather Jr. had the same type of injury in their careers."
The Russells consider the injury a bump in the road, not a career-jeopardizing blow. Even while watching others fight for his title, Russell remained in good spirits, confident he still can achieve his dream of fighting for Olympic gold.
"Man, can't nothing keep me from boxing," Russell said. "This is the calling and purpose on my life. If God wants me to do this, he'll enable me to do it. I know I'm gonna fight in the Olympics, continue in boxing and bring my family financial happiness. This can't get me down."
Russell's focus is locked on the Olympic trials, where he must win an eight-man box-off to make the Olympic team. The trials will take place some time in August, but the location and date has yet to be determined as USA Boxing officials review bids from venues across the country.
If he wins the box-off, Russell will join his Olympic teammates at the world championships, which begin Oct. 17 in Chicago. There, boxers must win their respective weight classes to earn a bid to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
It would mark Russell's second appearance at the world championships. In 2005 he finished third after losing in the semifinals to Germany's 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, Rustamhodza Rahimov.
Finishing first at both the Olympic trials and world championships is a daunting task, especially for a boxer with an injured hand. But Russell isn't just any other boxer, according to those familiar with him.
"I don't see anyone pulling an upset on Gary Russell," says Ray Velez, who trains Brooklyn's Roberto Benitez, the United States' 119-pound representative on the 2004 Olympic team. "I've been watching him since he came up in the junior ranks, and he's been on top of the game for a while now. He punches like a heavyweight and is a pretty entertaining fighter."
Velez, who watched Russell fight last week, can identify with Russell's situation because Benitez, who has since gone pro and boasts a 5-0 record with three knockouts, also is recovering from a broken hand.
"Hand injuries can be a big deal because it's so hard for them to heal, especially when you're making your money with your hands," Velez said. "But I don't think there's any severity to Gary Russell's. They'll take care of it, and it won't factor into the box-offs in August. He should be 100 percent. I expect big things from him. Like I said, there's no one out there better than him. He'll be representing the [United States] at Beijing."
Gary Russell Sr. has no doubts that his son will make a dominant run this fall.
"I know he'll be ready for the trials," he said. "I don't see him being rusty. He spars so much with his brothers that he'll be ready. He hadn't fought since October before coming here and look what he did to Cruz. He'll be ready."