Just more than a year ago, Gary Russell Jr. found himself at a low point of his decorated boxing career.
The D.C. native and resident of Capitol Heights had spent the majority of his life training to fight for an Olympic gold medal - a dream passed on to him by his father and coach, Gary Russell Sr.
The younger Russell, who had dominated the youth boxing ranks from the time he was 9, overcame two hand injuries and improbably rebounded from an opening-round defeat at the U.S. team trials to win the 119-pound class and punch his ticket to the Olympics - a feat previously accomplished by only Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Despite frequent disagreements with national coach Dan Campbell, Russell headed to Beijing intent on returning home with a medal, an accomplishment he saw as a springboard to a strong professional career.
Russell’s defining moment never happened. He collapsed from apparent dehydration the morning of Olympic weigh-ins and was found unconscious by his roommate. Russell was loaded up with fluids and missed the weigh-ins, thus ending his gold-medal quest.
He could have remained an amateur and given his dream another shot in 2012. But after returning home, he and his father decided rather than spending another four years training for the Olympics, the best thing for Russell Jr. was to go pro. The Russells had long spurned offers for pro contracts so he could pursue the Olympic dream. So they believed that even without a medal, Gary Russell Jr. could land a lucrative offer and orchestrate a successful career.
On Dec. 11, Russell signed with powerful boxing manager Al Haymon, whose clients include Floyd Mayweather Jr., Jermain Taylor, Andre Berto, Paul Williams and Cristobal Arreola. Haymon didn’t return a voice mail left for him, but according to Russell and his father, the manager gave the prospect a contract that included an upfront lump sum of “upper six figures.”
The contract gave a much-needed boost to a family of eight - Russell Jr. is the oldest of five sons - that struggled financially after Russell Sr. was injured in a hunting accident 14 years ago and put on disability.
Russell kicked off his pro career in victorious fashion Jan. 17, defeating featherweight Antonio Reyes by technical knockout in three rounds. On Aug. 7 - two days shy of the first anniversary of his Beijing collapse - Russell improved to 4-0 as a pro with a TKO of Jason Jones in just 28 seconds.
Thanks to the signing bonus and his winnings - he reportedly earned about $40,000 a fight - Russell and his family’s financial situation has drastically improved. And his prospects are as bright as ever.
Little else has changed about the 5-foot-6, 126-pound Russell, who seems nonchalant about his success.
“I’m not really surprised,” the 21-year-old said Thursday before a training session at Keystone Boxing Gym in Temple Hills. Russell works out daily at Keystone with his four brothers, one of whom, 19-year-old Gary Allen Russell III, ranks sixth nationally in the 141-pound division and has his sights set on the 2012 Olympics.
“Other than when I got that big check, it feels the same as if it’s amateur fights,” Russell said. “I didn’t change anything. I know I prepare myself to the best of my ability, and I know whoever it is I’m going against they’re not coming into it with better than what I’ve got.”
If anything, the last year has been a learning experience for both Russell and his father, who remains his coach and partners with Haymon in making fighting and business decisions for Russell.
Russell spends little time dwelling on the business side of the sport, choosing instead to focus on training and preparation. Russell and his father hired financial advisors to help them with investment decisions. Russell Sr., in addition to making sure his son is primed for success, strives to educate himself on the ins and outs of pro boxing.
“I’m learning a lot,” said Russell Sr., who had pro boxing aspirations of his own until his hunting accident. “You have to deal with the politics and all that. It can be a dirty business. But I have complete confidence in our manager, Al Haymon. He’s really sharp and is more of a behind the scenes type of manager rather than trying to get the spotlight. I’m still trying to learn all the points of contact in the business because that’s how you get the big fights.”
The Russells chose not to sign with a promoter, a decision intended to give them greater freedom and control over Russell Jr.’s career. And they’ve kept their circle small, employing the services of only a public relations representative and someone to handle clerical work.
The family continues to live in the same house in Capitol Heights. And rather than moving out when he signed his big deal, Russell Jr. had the basement completely renovated for him, his girlfriend, Agnes Chase, and his 6-month-old daughter, Sacred, to live in.
He says his only splurge has been to buy himself a new motorcycle, four-wheelers for his brothers for Christmas and a motorcycle for his father’s 50th birthday.
“I never was a big spender,” Russell Jr. said. “Probably 95 percent of the money I’ve gotten, I’ve still got. My job’s to take care of my family. Guys get in this business and blow their money. I’m hoping to do this until I’m about 28, then get out and be financially set to provide for my family.”
Said Russell Sr.: “You have to make your money and put it up, invest it. Develop responsibility. I could tell you countless stories of prospects in this sport that are now cleaning bathrooms at Wal-Mart or driving a cab with the back window broken out.”
With four fights under his belt, Russell wants to fight at least five more times this year and hopes that by this time next year he can position himself to contend for his first title.
“A year from now, I hope to be 15-0 and getting ready to fight for a title,” he said. “I’m aiming for [Yuriorkis] Gamboa,” who at 15-0 with 13 knockouts is perhaps the best in the featherweight division.
If and when that happens, Russell expects to maintain the same grounded approach, fueled by the motivation of providing for his family and setting an example for his brothers. But through it all, he insists he feels no burden on his sinewy shoulders.
“This is what I always wanted to do, so there’s no pressure,” Russell said. “I honestly believe that everybody has a preset destiny, a certain gift that’s gonna get them by in life. I feel like if God sees you’re not taking that gift for granted, he’ll bless you even more.”