The undefeated super lightweight takes on the toughest challenge of his pro career when he faces two-time champ Rances Barthelemy Saturday night on PBC on SHOWTIME and he does so without his father and trainer, Gary Russell Sr.
Gary Antuanne Russell finds it cathartic to laugh. It relieves tension. It eases pain. The 26-year-old super lightweight misses that yelling long face, who would perch his chubby chin up on his folded forearms on the rim of the ring and bark instructions he felt his son was ignoring.
It became almost a daily ritual: Gary Russell Sr. would yell at Gary Antuanne, “You’re not throwing your combinations right! Damn it! You might as well teach your own damn self! What am I here for? I’m leaving; I’m not watching any more of this sparring!”
And as if on cue, Gary Sr. would charge toward the glass double doors of the Enigma Boxing Gym, in Capitol Heights, Maryland, screaming in his gravelly voice over his back feigning disgust.
Gary Antuanne would continue sparring. A few minutes later, invariably, Gary Sr. would poke his head back through the doors, a puff of cigarette smoke following him. Before long, Gary Antuanne, without changing a thing, would hear his father sneak back into the gym, shouting as he neared, “That’s what I’m talking about!”
“I still hear his voice and miss that every day,” Gary Antuanne said, choking back the emotional twinge in his voice.
On Saturday, Russell (15-0, 15 KOs) takes on former two-division champion Rances Barthelemy (29-1-1, 15 KOs) in a 10-round super lightweight showdown to kick off the SHOWTIME tripleheader (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, in a Premier Boxing Champions event.
The fight holds great professional and personal significance for Gary Antuanne, a 2016 U.S. Olympian at the Rio Games. Professionally, this will be Gary Antuanne’s toughest task to date. Personally, and of far deeper importance, it will be the first time Gary Antuanne will be fighting as a pro without his father, the esteemed, beloved trainer Gary Russell Sr., the patriarch of the Russell family who died on Monday, May 23 at the age of 63 after years of struggle with Type 2 diabetes and several minor strokes.
“This hasn’t been easy,” admitted Gary Antuanne, who is being trained by his brothers, Gary Russell Jr. and Gary Allen Russell. “Even as an amateur, I would always let my dad know what was going on with an iPad. This is going to be emotional when I walk out there Saturday night, knowing my dad won’t be there. I’ll hear his voice saying, ‘You’re chosen! You’re unique! You’re built for this!’ The Russell style is no style. We don’t define our style. It’s what our dad taught us. It’s up to me and my brothers to continue that Russell tradition.
“But I need this fight. This is an important first step for me. You never get over a death. But you can move forward from it, and that’s what this fight means for me. It’s what my dad would want me to do. I have to do it for him and for my brother, Gary Boosa Russell (who died in December 2020 of cardiac arrest).”
“ My dad directed us on a path... We have to take the Russell torch and keep it going. ” Undefeated Super Lightweight Contender - Gary Antuanne Russell
Gary Antuanne said this has been a difficult training camp, filled with starts and stops. He would get going and then something would remind him of his father. He would get struck with a pang of emotion and stop. He would go someplace to gather himself again, wipe the tears away and start over.
He wants to get back to a routine.
He’s tried submerging himself in road work, hitting the speed bag, sparring, though no matter how much he plunges himself into training, no one will replace his father.
If you listen close enough, you can hear Gary Sr. through Gary Antuanne.
“No one could push me and critique me the way my father did, and that’s the toughest part,” Gary Antuanne said. “I’m fortunate, really, really fortunate to be working with my brothers. I know my brothers will push me and they have high ring IQs. They have great eyes to see what’s going on. My father always questioned me. He had the eyes of a coach. We’re getting through this.
“I’ll say this, Barthelemy has no idea what’s coming at him on Saturday night. I know he’s crafty and the Cubans have that slick style. He’s never faced anyone like me before, and the kind of energy I’ll bring into the ring. He can try to simulate me as much as he can, but he doesn’t know what kind of style I have, because I have no style. I do know that I’m going to need to overcome my emotions that night.”
It does take great strength for Gary Antuanne to openly speak about his father and the rage of emotions he’s still dealing with two months after his father’s death.
What helps is to laugh.
What’s aided him is the memory of how his father would go crazy on him during training camp.
“My father would not want any of us crying over him,” Gary Antuanne stressed. “It helps thinking back at all of the times he would go yelling and screaming when I would spar, yelling about teaching ourselves, and all the times he would walk out the front door and poke his head back in so he would see the rest of our sparring. I still laugh every time I think about my dad cursing at us, like we didn’t see him peeking at us through the door. I wouldn’t change a damn thing, and my dad would still yell at us, ‘That’s what I’m talking about!’
“My brothers are on me like my father was. If they’re not yelling and screaming at me, I know something is wrong. My father prepared us for everything, and his goal was to keep us humble and honest. I think I deserve a title shot. My goal is to fight two more times before the end of the year. This is a big step Saturday night. I want to transform into something greater. I’m obligated to do that. My dad directed us on a path. It’s up to me and my brothers. We have to take the Russell torch and keep it going.”
For a closer look at Gary Antuanne Russell, check out his fighter page.