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Blood Sport: Gary Russell Jnr was a man born to fight

Gary Russell
Part of a famed fighting family, boxing has always coursed through Gary Russell Jnr’s veins. Here, he details his journey from a basement gym to a world title

MY earliest memory of boxing is from when I was about four years old. My father, Gary Russell Snr, used to box professionally. I remember going to shows with him and shadow-boxing for the crowd. Guys like Riddick Bowe, Sharmba Mitchell and Keith Holmes would give me money to get in the ring and perform exhibitions before the matches started.

I’m the eldest of six brothers, and we’re all called Gary Russell like our father! He taught us all how to box. When we lived in Washington, D.C, he used to train us in the lobby of the apartment building that we were living in. The lobby was our gym. When we relocated to Capitol Heights, Maryland when I was about 13 or 14, the basement in our house became our gym. We had the heavy bags hooked up to the beams, so whenever we hit them, the whole floor would shake upstairs in the living room. You couldn’t even watch the TV up there because of the noise. It used to drive my mother crazy!

My brothers and I won multiple tournaments training out of our basement. Two of my brothers, Gary Antonio and Gary Antuanne, have gone on to become professionals. My father has trained all three of us for our entire careers. Gary Antuanne boxed at the 2016 Olympics and I qualified for the 2008 Olympics. Not many people can say that they’ve trained two boxers completely from scratch all the way to qualifying for the Olympics. That speaks volumes for my father’s coaching pedigree.

I always had fast hands, even back when I was a kid. It’s a natural, God-given trait, but I’ve also worked on it a lot with my father over the years. If you want to perfect anything then you’ve got to put the work into it. I was known as a big puncher coming up in the amateurs, but when I began to suffer hand injuries I had to start relying on my speed a bit more.

I had my first fight when I was seven. I wasn’t nervous for it because I’d been doing stuff from the age of four that you didn’t see other children do. I was always training and always going to shows – all the local boxing officials knew me. I used to cry because they wouldn’t let me fight, as I had to be eight in order to compete. But they made an exception for me and let me fight when I turned seven. I lost the fight but I thought I deserved to win it. I sparred the guy later on when we were older and it was a very different outcome.

I had over 200 fights as an amateur and only lost a handful of them. Most of my losses came early on, before I was 16. I used to go into other people’s backyards, as I just wanted to fight. I’d take on the local favourite and they’d end up getting a hometown decision. That happened a few times.

It was during my time as an amateur – in March 2004 – that my [half-]brother, Devaun Drayton, was murdered. We were close in age – he was 17 and I was 15. He was a special talent in the ring. I’m sure that if he was competing now, he’d be right alongside me at the top of the game. I would’ve loved to have seen him compete as a professional. I’ll never forget my brother. His energy hasn’t died, it’s just transferred to me. I feel like he lives through me. I utilise his energy and use it as fuel to help me to keep pushing and keep grinding. Everything in life happens for a reason. We’ve just got to figure out what that reason is and use it to the best of our ability.

I won a gold medal at the 2004 Junior Olympics, but it was obviously an extremely tough year because of my brother’s death. The next year, in 2005, I won the US National Championships and the National Golden Gloves. I also won a bronze medal at the World Championships in China. I was only 17 when I competed at the Worlds. It was cool to broaden my horizons and experience a different country. If we have the means to, I think we should all take the time to visit other places and sample other cultures. It’s important to educate ourselves in this way because we’re all on this planet together.

After winning the US National Championships for the second year running in 2006, I came out on top at the US Olympic Trials in 2007, despite losing my first fight at the tournament. Before me, the only fighters in history who had gone on to qualify for the US Olympic team after losing their first fight at the Trials were Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jnr and Floyd Mayweather, so I was in good company. I then reached the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Championships in Chicago and secured my spot at the 2008 Olympic Games in China.

I have good memories from my first trip to China in 2005, but unfortunately I can’t say the same for my second trip in 2008. There was a lot of pollution in the air. You literally couldn’t see from one building to the next because of the smog. A lot of people at the Olympic Village were getting sick and passing out because of it. I went jogging outside, which made me susceptible to the pollution. I remember being back in my dorm room a few hours before the official tournament weigh-in was due to take place. I started feeling light-headed and dizzy, then I just blacked out. It was terrifying. When I came to, I had no idea what had happened. I didn’t make it to the weigh-in, which meant that I was out of the Olympics.

I’d always wanted to be an Olympian, ever since I was a kid. So for me not to be able to compete at the Olympics was heartbreaking. I felt like I’d let everyone down – all of my friends, family and supporters. I wasn’t even sure whether I wanted to box any more after going through that. I felt like all the work and effort I’d put in had been for nothing. It was around this time that Al Haymon reached out to me. He explained to me that we’re all going to experience challenges in life, but it’s how we react to these challenges that counts. It was at that point that I decided to turn professional, with Al as my manager. After what had happened in China, I vowed to make it up to everyone by becoming a world champion as a pro.

I’d boxed as a bantamweight in the amateurs, but I made my professional debut in early 2009 at featherweight. In my first five years as a pro I won all 24 of my fights. This earned me a shot at the WBO title against Vasyl Lomachenko in 2014. The night before the weigh-in, I was a pound-and-a-half overweight, according to my own scales. That’s not bad at all. You can sleep a pound off. Little did I know, but my scales were completely off. When I got on the actual trial scales that same night, I was five-and-a-half pounds overweight. Having to cut that much weight in a short space of time played a big part in my performance against Lomachenko.

Even after draining myself of all that energy, I still only lost on a majority decision. Looking back with the intelligence that I have now, I shouldn’t have cut all that weight. I should’ve just taken a fine and fought him without having the chance to win the title. Then I would’ve been able to perform in the way that everyone is accustomed to seeing me perform. I wouldn’t have won the title, but I would’ve won the fight. If I fought him 100 times I’d beat him 99.

The following year, in 2015, I got another world title shot, this time for the WBC belt. Jhonny Gonzalez was the champion and I stopped him in the fourth round. Watching that fight compared to my fight with Lomachenko, it’s like two completely different people fighting. Against Gonzalez I had my full energy. Against Lomachenko I didn’t. Winning a world title helped me to overcome some of the disappointment that I still felt from the Olympics.

Five-and-a-half years have passed since beating Gonzalez and I’m still the WBC champion. I’ve retained the title five times and defended it against some high-quality guys. Oscar Escandon was an Olympian. Joseph Diaz was an Olympian who went on to become a world champion. Kiko Martinez was a former world champion. Tugstsogt Nyambayar was an Olympian. I beat them all.

There was a great atmosphere at the Escandon fight in 2017. It was my first fight as a pro in my home state of Maryland and I won by seventh-round stoppage. I’m a product of my environment, so it was great to perform in front of my home fans as a world champion and show them that if you sacrifice and work hard, you can do anything that you want to do. That’s something that I also want to instil into my four daughters and two sons.

Since becoming the WBC champion I’ve been fighting once a year and I’ve been fighting my mandatory challengers – the best available contenders. I would love to be more active but I don’t want to water down the sport by fighting C and D-class fighters. I’m a real competitor and I want real a challenge.

The fans want to see the best fight the best. I’ve been trying to get unification fights against the other champions, but none of them want to fight me. When Shakur Stevenson was a champion he didn’t want to fight me. When I tried to get a fight with Josh Warrington he didn’t want to fight me. Leo Santa Cruz has been ducking me forever. None of them are willing to come this way. This is why I’ve had to start looking outside of the featherweight division. You’ve got Lomachenko up at lightweight, as well as Gervonta Davis and Devin Haney. I want the big fights and if the only way I can get the big fights is by moving up two weight divisions, then so be it.

I have an exceptional skillset and I’ve got the cojones to jump up multiple weight classes, so I’d be happy to move up to welterweight and fight Terence Crawford. A lot has been said about the incident that occurred between us when we were amateurs. The fact is that he approached me in an aggressive manner, so I punched him in the face. And what did he do about it? Nothing. He just held his mouth. I’ve been completely honest about what happened and he’s got a problem with that, so now I’m on his ass.

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