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Butting heads before Beijing

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Gary Russell Jr. has grown accustomed to adversity during his quest for an Olympic gold medal.

The 19-year-old D.C. native won his first national boxing title in the bantamweight division (119 pounds) in October 2006 but broke his right hand in the title bout.

The hand injury resurfaced at the U.S. championships in June and forced Russell to withdraw in the semifinals.

Russell healed in time to fight at the Olympic team trials in August and was expected to cruise through the field en route to a second national title. But he was upset by Dallas' Roberto Marroquin in the second round and had to battle back through the losers' bracket — and beat Marroquin twice in the championship — just to make the team.

But Russell faces a new type of adversity as he prepares to take another step toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

To advance, Russell — who for the last month has trained at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs — must place among the top eight at the AIBA World Boxing Championships, which features boxers from 120 countries, begins today in Chicago and runs through Nov. 3.

But the boxer is homesick, dinged by mild hand and shoulder injuries and at odds with Olympic boxing coach Dan Campbell.

"It's not going too good, not going well at all," Campbell said of Russell's progress. "He's training, but his attitude stinks. He's had curfew violations a couple of times, and he's only been here three weeks. He's been fined, and if he continues to conduct himself like this, I'll take the steps to get him off the team.

"He's even slacking in training," Campbell continued. "He says his shoulder and hand have bothered him, but his hand and shoulder seem to be OK when he goes out at night. The kid's got all the potential in the world, but he's holding himself back."

A self-proclaimed homebody and creature of habit, Russell admits he has had trouble focusing while removed from his comfort zone.

"Man, I don't never wanna leave my family, leave my home," Russell said in a phone interview last week. "I like being close to the people that keep me grounded and helped get me to where I am. But you can't be one-dimensional, and if you want something in life, you've gotta make sacrifices. I adapt pretty well, but man, it's hard. I feel like I'm in jail."

Russell and his teammates begin each day at the training center — ENT Air Force Base until 1978 — with strength and conditioning from trainer Patrick Borkowski from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. They report for meetings with the nutritionist or psychologist from 11 a.m. to noon and then have an hour for lunch. The boxers return for training with Campbell from 3:30 to 5 p.m. and every other day have sparring sessions from 7 to 9 p.m. Curfew is 10 p.m. during the week and 11 p.m. on the weekends.

Russell insists the violations have been misunderstandings. His father said the first incident happened when he came to visit three weeks ago. Russell had sprained his shoulder and was cleared to sit out a day or two of training. So he went to spend the night at his father's hotel room.

"We spoke to a USA Boxing official before we left, and everything was cool," Russell Sr. said. "I get a call from Dan wondering where Gary is, and I told him that I thought since he was excused from workouts the next day, it was OK to take him with me. He said no problem, but Gary was fined $150."

Then Oct. 16, Campbell did room checks at the training center's dorms and couldn't find Russell a second time. The boxer said he had gone down the hall to watch TV because the reception was bad in his room. Campbell met with his assistants Wednesday — the day before the team left for Chicago — and docked Russell his $1,600 USA Boxing check for October.

"I want a copy of the contract, and where is the money going to?" Russell Sr. said last week. "It's not going to USA Boxing. This is something the coaches set up. And what's breaking curfew? He was on the campus. You can't go down the hall? What if he had been in the bathroom and didn't hear them knock? Is that breaking curfew because he didn't come to the door?

"It's all about control. Gary's a loner, and they don't understand him, so they view it as being challenged," Russell Sr. continued. "Why would you put someone like Gary under such mental duress right when he's trying to prepare for such a crucial task? It's all about control."

Conflict with the national coach comes as no surprise. After Russell won the team trials in Houston, he and his father expressed concern that Campbell would try to change the boxer's style. They also questioned Campbell's qualifications after none of his boxers made this year's team.

"My father's coaching is what I was raised on. That's what got me to this point," Russell said. "And they think they can raise me to a higher level? [Campbell] has never had a boxer win a national title."

Russell Sr. agreed.

"Let's be candid: What has [Campbell] done? Hasn't trained a No. 1 seed, never produced an Olympic champion. He hasn't earned it.

But he added, "I tell Gary, 'You gotta grin and bear it. Don't rock the boat.' And I will say, Dan hasn't tried to change his style this time."

Campbell, who also coached the 2005 U.S. boxing team that went to the World Games in Moscow, where Russell won a bronze medal, said he has stressed the importance of conditioning and made suggestions on only positioning and approach.

The coach said Russell and his teammates have to change their points of attack in the ring if they want to succeed on the international stage.

"These kids are gonna be going up against 30-year-old men. It's not like domestic boxing. Their opponents will be much stronger, so they have to change their angles," Campbell explained. "Gary doesn't wanna hear it. He's used to being able to stand in the middle of the ring, squarely in front of a kid and be able to box from the center of the ring on out and dictate to him. If you're a 18-, 19-year-old kid, you don't wanna be standing directly in front of a 30-year-old man. That's putting yourself at a disadvantage. But ... we'll see how he does."

Russell remains confident in his boxing style and insists he is ready to take on the world despite the conflicts outside the ring. He believes the ups and downs of the past year have made him better prepared to overcome tribulation and box at a high level.

"I have one focus: getting to Beijing," Russell said. "Can't worry about outside [stuff]. I'm my biggest threat. No one else can stop me. I'm ready. I feel good. I gotta go out there with God, get up on points early and win fights. I do that, I'm going to Beijing."

  • June 12: A break in the action

  • September 5: The fight for Beijing

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