- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

The father conceived the dream more than two decades ago.

Gold-encrusted boxing gloves. Red, white and blue backdrop. A weighty gold medal around the neck of one of his sons. Olympic greatness.

The dream already had passed over Gary Russell Sr., once an aspiring heavyweight and the nephew of former heavyweight champ Bob Foster. A hunting accident ended his career.

So Russell aimed to use his knowledge and experiences to mold one of his offspring into an Olympic champion.

He watched sadly as life on the streets derailed the boxing careers of two sons. One is in prison. The second qualified for the Olympic trials but was fatally shot three years ago.

But a third - he is the anointed one, Russell and the grayheads of the sport insist.

The oldest of five boys born to Gary Sr. and Lawan Russell, Gary Russell Jr. is his father’s - and America’s - hope for a gold medal in the 119-pound (bantamweight) division in this month’s Beijing Olympics.

On Aug. 12, the 19-year-old Capitol Heights resident will begin his quest to bring his father’s dreams to fruition and complete a journey that began some 17 years ago.

Birth of a phenom

Gary Russell Jr. first found himself thrust into the spotlight at the age of 2. One night his father toted him to the old Hillcrest Heights Arena to watch the local upstart pro fighters in action.

While waiting for the fights to start, someone urged Russell Sr. to put “Little Gary” in the ring to shadow box. Junior wowed the spectators with his crisp form, quickness and footwork.

The boxing masters called him the Next Great One and prophesied of lucrative contracts that would change the lifestyle of the Russell family, which at the time resided in Northwest.

But Russell Sr. had higher aspirations for his son.

“Anybody can go pro,” he said. “But having the whole country on your shoulders, fighting against the best in the world? It doesn’t get any better than that.”

At the age of 7, Little Gary hit the local junior boxing circuit. He thrived immediately, further stoking the hopes of his father and the members of the District’s boxing community.

“The first time I saw him fight is still etched in my memory,” said Henry “Discombobulating” Jones, who has announced pro fights for more than 20 years. “Gary was 8 years old, and he was in an amateur tournament called Platinum Gloves at the old Convention Center. It was so mesmerizing to see this young man and his ring generalship. He was named outstanding boxer of the night, and that was even with the Peterson brothers there on the same card. He stood out over everybody.”

The dazzling display was the product of a lot of things - genetics, the knowledge and drive of Gary Russell Sr.

He knew for his son to do it right, to achieve the heights he desired, the Russell family - which included four more sons, all named Gary - would have to dedicate itself to the sport.

That meant two-a-day training sessions, one early in the morning before school and one every evening. They started out in the basement but soon outgrew it, graduating to small gyms tucked away in various corners of the District.

The work paid off.

After nine years of dominating the junior ranks, Russell Jr. bypassed the novice level and began fighting in the open division, a move that pitted the then-16-year-old against grown men.

“You’re talking 28-year-old men with wives and two babies,” the 5-foot-5 Russell Jr. said. “I was the youngest one there. But I wasn’t scared.”

With lightning-quick hands and an extraordinary strength that rivals that of a light heavyweight, Russell kicked off his open division action with a bout with a 29-year-old from the Navy. Russell handled his foe and finished as the only non-Navy champion of the tournament.

Russell has held the top ranking in USA Boxing’s bantamweight division in each of the last three years. In 2005, USA Boxing named Russell athlete of the year and awarded him a spot on the U.S. elite team after he won his weight class at both the U.S. Championships and the Golden Gloves national tournament.

Despite the accolades, Russell maintained a hunger that could only be satisfied with Olympic gold. He and his father have received a steady stream of professional contract offers since he was 17. But they have turned down each one, putting off a pro contract for now so they can focus instead on the Olympics.

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

Trying year

Gary Russell Jr. entered 2007 with a 40-1 record in open-division competition and an apparent lock on a berth on the U.S. Olympic team for Beijing. His lone loss came against Germany’s eventual 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, Rustamhodza Rahimov, at the 2005 World Games.

Russell’s path to Beijing at first glance seemed simple, at least according to his standards: Place among the top three at the U.S. championships in June, win the U.S. team trials in August and place among the top eight at the World Games in October. Do that, and his ticket would be punched.

Having previously worked over every foe that would appear on the bracket during the U.S. championships, Russell headed to Colorado Springs expecting yet another national title.

He received a bye in the tournament’s first two rounds, then faced Jessy Cruz of Miami. Russell dropped Cruz twice in the second round of that fight. In the third, he felt a shot of pain in his right hand after a vicious double-hook to Cruz’s head.

“Damn, I did it again,” Russell remembers thinking, but he kept on fighting and ended up winning 37-14 in four rounds.


Russell fractured his right hand between the first and second knuckles against Cruz. The previous October, Russell had suffered the same injury in both hands en route to the championship at the National Police Athletic League tournament.

He stopped training for two months to heal, skipping even the May 2007 national Golden Gloves tournament.

The instant Gary Russell Sr. learned of the discomfort, he pulled his son from the U.S. championships. Russell Jr.’s victory over Cruz earned him a spot at the Olympic team trials, so it seemed unwise to risk further injury.

The Russell camp approached the two months leading up to the August 2007 Olympic Team Trials with caution. With such a short time frame, surgery wasn’t an option. Changing Russell’s power-punching style wasn’t either.

“Gary punches extremely hard, and this is just something that happens with a boxer like him,” Russell Sr. said after pulling his son out of the U.S. championships. “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.”

Aiming to avoid further injury to Russell’s hand, Russell Sr. limited his son’s training almost exclusively to cardio. The only bag work the southpaw would go through involved his left hand, which was fully healthy.

On Aug. 20, Russell arrived in Houston for the Olympic team trials refreshed, his right hand healed, ready to take on the task of winning his division to clinch a spot on the U.S. team.

The unexpected - of a different type - struck again.

Russell blew a first-round lead and opened the tournament with a loss to Roberto Marroquin of Dallas - his first defeat in the United States in five years.

Shocked and reeling, Russell bolted from the arena and ran on the Houston streets for an hour in the pouring rain.

“It’d been so long since I had lost. I was so mad,” Russell said. “So hot that I bet steam was coming off me with each raindrop that fell on me.”

Gary Russell Sr. and assistants Robert Martin and Floyd Seymour were as devastated as their boxer.

Russell Jr. had thoroughly dismantled Marroquin en route to his title at the PAL tournament the previous fall, and this time should have been no different.

His right hand felt great, and he had set the tone in the first round of the bout. But then he slipped into a tentative, defensive style instead of maintaining the attack.

The coaching triumvirate agreed that Russell had let the pressure of the tournament and his unfamiliarity with fighting with a computerized scoring system cause him to worry about giving up points to his opponent.

“After that loss, we cried,” Seymour, Russell’s strength coach and a 1992 Olympic boxer for the Bahamas, said the day after the defeat. “Then we quickly had to refocus. I had no doubts about his endurance and conditioning. It was mental.”

Russell rebounded to win the next two fights, setting up a rematch with Marroquin. This time, Russell handily defeated him, then did it again to earn a spot on the Olympic team.

“It feels good,” Russell said minutes after having “Olympic boxer” attached to his name. “My ultimate goal in life is to bring my family happiness, bring God happiness and bring financial stability to my family, and this is a step toward that. My goal was to be an Olympian, and my goal is accomplished. Now my goal is to medal at the Olympics.”

Another new battle

As a member of the Olympic team, Gary Russell Jr. moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in preparation for the World Games, and he would remain there until the Beijing Games.

For Russell, it meant leaving home for an extended period for the first time in his life and training under a new coach - also a first.

The Russell camp wasn’t thrilled with either prospect. This was the first time Olympic boxers had been required to leave their personal coaches and train under the Olympic coach for a year.

The Russells and the coaches of many of the other Olympic hopefuls were concerned that U.S. team coach Dan Campbell would try to change the style that had gotten their boxers to this level. They doubted his qualifications because he had never produced an Olympian.

“My father’s coaching is what I was raised on. That’s what got me to this point,” Russell said before departing for Colorado Springs. “And they think they can raise me to a higher level? [Campbell] has never had a boxer win a national title.”

And thus set up what proved the most challenging battle of Gary Russell Jr.’s career.

A month into life at the training center and on the eve of the World Games - when he preferably would have been sharp, strong and energized - Russell was homesick, slowed by hand and shoulder injuries and at odds with Campbell.

“His attitude stinks,” Campbell said of Russell a week before the World Games. “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. … The kid’s got all the potential in the world, but he’s holding himself back.”

Russell said the violations were misunderstandings. The first incident occurred when his father came to visit in mid-September. 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 after clearing it with a team official.

Campbell was never informed, and when he learned Russell was “missing” he fined him $150.

Two weeks later, Campbell did room checks and couldn’t find Russell. The boxer said he was in the lounge down the hall watching television because the reception was bad in his room. But Campbell fined Russell his $1,600 USA Boxing check for the month of October.

Russell complained that Campbell did try to change his boxing style, and the coach insisted the boxer needed to make adjustments because the techniques used in boxing in the United States differ from those used abroad.

Russell headed to Chicago for the World Games unsure of how he would do because of the distress he believed Russell earned a berth in Beijing, but not in the victorious fashion he once hoped for. He reached the semifinals, then narrowly lost to the eventual champ, Sergey Vodopyanov of Russia. He also re-injured his right hand.

Though disappointed, Russell took comfort in accomplishing what was needed to keep his gold medal hopes alive. And he came away knowing what he needed to change should he face Vodopyanov again.

“This year showed me I still have a lot of things to work on,” Russell said. “I’ve calmed down a lot this past year, grown a little wiser. But I also learned that I have the ability to [rebound from adversity]. It’s been tough, but I know God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Final tuneup

Following the World Games, Russell took two months off from training to rest his tender right hand and sore right shoulder, which will require tendon-repairing surgery following Beijing.

He continued to live at the U.S. training facility and traveled with the team to exhibition tournaments, but he didn’t fight until May 9 during an invitational with Brazil’s team. Russell showed no obvious rust. He jumped up to the 125-pound division to fill in for a teammate and destroyed his opponent 27-8.

The following month, he was permitted to come home for a week and relished the opportunity to brush up on technique under the watchful eye of his father.

When Russell stepped into the ring at Keystone Boxing Gym in Marlow Heights for a sparring session with his 17-year-old brother, Gary “Allen” Russell III, Gary Russell Sr. was appalled.

His son’s hands were slower, his punches less crisp and technique sloppy. Russell Jr., meanwhile, was unaware his talents had slipped.

The father and son proceeded through a frustrating session, Russell Sr. picking him apart and reinforcing the technique and style in which he had originally trained his son.

“I’m not worried,” Russell Jr. said between training rounds. “This is why I needed to come back here. Nobody knows me like my father does. And I’m not too worried if I can’t retain all this right now, because I know I can fall back on my quickness and my power.”

Two weeks later - and unbeknownst to Campbell - Russell Sr. flew to Colorado for one last tuneup. Training his son in the gym at his hotel, Russell Sr. continued to find areas needing improvement.

“It was like doing a tuneup on a car,” he said. “He was running, but it wasn’t very smooth. We were trying to get him to remember positioning and making mental preparations. We took it slow, helping him see where to plant his foot, when to throw a left hand, how to throw his shoulder. These are technical aspects no one can deal with like I can.”

Russell Sr. left Colorado with the assurance that his son is ready for the Games. He wouldn’t predict gold, but he believes his son is capable of winning it all and will at least come away with a medal.

The boxing insiders concur. Some predict Russell will contend for the gold; others project him to take a bronze.

The old ringside announcer Henry “Discombobulating” Jones says it’s unwise to bet against the Russells.

“Gary is the whole package,” he says. “He can box, he can punch, he’s defensive. And you know how in horse racing they say, ‘Don’t bet on the horse, bet on the jockey?’ His father has forgotten more than anyone will ever know about boxing. He’s a mad scientist, and his son is his creation.”

Russell Jr. left last week for Beijing. He won’t see his father until his family arrives in China, but Russell Sr. and Jr. speak daily by telephone.

“I can just tell, just in his demeanor. There’s a certain - not quite arrogance - but confidence in the way he speaks,” Russell Sr. said. “Every night, we speak on something different to work on. It’s perpetual training. He’s sharp mentally.”

On the cusp of his lifelong dream, Russell Jr. remains calm, focused and hungry.

He said he refuses to let the magnitude of the Olympics enter his thoughts and views it as simply another tournament. One fight at a time - but all fights he must win.

“I feel the same way now as I did six months ago,” Russell Jr. said. “I’ve just been working so long for this that I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I might get a little nervous before a fight, but I’m not scared or nothing. This is what I was born to do, what God created me for. Why should I be scared? I’m just going to go out there and try to whip as [many opponents] as possible. I do that, I’m good.”

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