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Not long after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, had concluded, Gary Russell Sr. was attending a professional boxing card in Los Angeles.
A reporter approached and shook his hand, offering condolences. His son, Gary Jr., was one of the elite amateurs in the world and a medal favorite, but Gary Jr. failed to make weight in Beijing and didn’t compete.
The reporter said, “I’m sorry,” but the elder Russell wanted none of that.
We’re not going to hang our heads and mope about it, he said. Life doesn’t owe you anything and this is something to learn from.
Gary Jr. went on to become the world featherweight champion and one of the most gifted pros in the game.
Gary Sr. was one of the most renowned trainers in the country, though he was known by many primarily for giving five of his six sons the first name Gary.
But Russell Sr. saw boxing as a way to change and save lives and he did that for countless numbers of young men in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area. He died of Type 2 diabetes in May, though in January, only a few weeks after having a foot amputated, he was in a wheelchair in Gary Jr.’s corner for a title defense against Mark Magsayo.
“My father touched so many people in the sport of boxing and played some role in where so many people have gotten in their careers,” Gary Jr. said. “Whether it’s fighters or coaches, he was never shy about passing along jewels of information.”
On Saturday, two of his sons will follow in his footsteps. Gary Antuanne Russell will fight former champion Rances Barthelemy at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, in a bout televised by Showtime.
It will be the first time his father is not in his corner, but there will be a familiar voice. Gary Jr. is serving as his younger brother’s trainer.
He knew the day was coming his father wouldn’t be there and he studied to be able to step in as his surrogate, if not as his replacement.
“Our father was not just a magnificent father, but a teacher and a mentor,” Gary Jr. said. “He molded not just men, but soldiers. He gave us the tools, the skills and the wit to properly maneuver through this jungle that we’re in. The biggest thing that our father taught us was versatility. That’s the biggest key with anything you do in life. I’m a great fighter because I’m versatile. A lot of these fighters are just really good at one thing. I don’t want to see someone who’s only good at fighting one style.
“I was always side-by-side working with my father when it came to working with my younger brothers. Even before I was going to fight, if they were on my undercard, I would work their corners as well. I think my father was somewhat always preparing me for this.”
Gary Antuanne is 15-0 with 15 knockouts and followed in his brother’s footsteps as an Olympian. Gary Antuanne, who was the valedictorian of his high school class, reached the Olympic quarterfinals in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, before being eliminated.
But he’ll face a stern test against Barthelemy, a two-division champion who is 29-1-1 with one no-contest. Up to this point, Viktor Postol was by far the best opponent Gary Antuanne had faced. He stopped Postol in the 10th round on Feb. 26, but it wasn’t the prime Postol. He entered that fight 3-3 in his last six and was clearly on the back nine of his career.
Barthelemy is still fighting at a high level, but Russell is confident.
“We train for perfection every day,” Gary Antuanne said. “We know that execution is what wins fights. If our opponent can’t make the necessary adjustments to keep us off them, then that’s on them. This sport is a battle of wits. My will versus your will and my intelligence versus yours.”
He said Barthelemy is somewhat similar to Postol, so some of the lessons he learned in the Postol fight will be applicable on Saturday against Barthelemy.
It will be somewhat of a melancholy feeling for the Russells to be in a ring without their father at their side, but death is a part of life and they want to carry on his legacy.
One of those things is to always be prepared for any eventuality.
“In the Postol fight, he tried to use his length to keep me at bay,” Gary Antuanne said. “But we executed our game plan. It wasn’t about overanalyzing our opponent, but we saw that we could exploit his flaws. He pulled back a lot and he didn’t want to fight on the inside. We tried to keep ourselves in comfortable positions.”
Gary Sr. made them uncomfortable in so many ways as he guided their lives and their careers. He pushed and prodded and poked, always looking to get the best out of their sons.
The best way they can repay him is by going out and doing what he always wanted them to do: Be professional, be prepared and execute the plan. That will be top of mind for both brothers on Saturday.