WBC featherweight champion—who faces top challenger Joseph Diaz Jr. Saturday night on Showtime—makes sure younger brothers and amateur boxers at his Maryland-based gym have the financial support to train and travel.
Gary Russell Jr. (28-1, 17 KOs) knows something about the benefits of having supportive people in one’s life. Well before he became the WBC featherweight champion of the world, he was a young athlete working toward his ultimate goal of making it to the Olympic Games.
“My father and my mom were great support,” Russell said. “I watched my mother and father spend tons of dollars on trips, to drive to get me a little bit of experience in these smoker shows in different states. I’d overhear my parents talk about how they gotta come out of pocket with some more money to keep competing in these tournaments.”
Boxing has long been a family affair for the Russells. Gary Jr. has four brothers who also practice the sweet science and have since childhood. Their father, Gary Sr., had the insight to recognize the need for the sport, but also the potential heights the boys could reach.
“We were naturally aggressive children, and my father realized that very early,” Russell said. “And he decided, let’s target it into something that’s gonna be productive. We did it, and we loved it. We stuck with it.”
That support has taken Russell to the top of the featherweight division and garnered him a world championship.
Russell of Capitol Heights, Maryland faces his mandatory challenger, Joseph “JoJo” Diaz (26-0, 14 KOs) this Saturday in a Showtime-televised card (10 p.m. ET/PT) at MGM National Harbor near his home in Oxon Hill, Maryland.
“I take my hat off to JoJo Diaz because as a young, up-and-coming fighter, he wants to fight the best,” Russell said. “He’s made the statement himself that I am the best fighter in the division. All the other world champions in the division don’t want to compete against me. He’s willing to do that. So I have to respect him in that manner as an individual, as a fighter, as a friend, as a fellow warrior.’’
While Russell has been a world champion for over three years, that wasn’t always the direction he saw himself going.
“It’s funny, because I never really had a goal to become a world champion. My goal was always to become an Olympian. Me and my family would sit down and watch the Olympics. I remember it was just so cool to watch it. I was like, man, I want to be an Olympian.”
Russell achieved his goal, but it was bittersweet.
“I ended up being an Olympian in Beijing in 2008. I wasn’t able to compete because the air in Beijing was so polluted. Everybody was getting sick, vomiting and stuff. It was crazy because that happened to me and I didn’t get a chance to compete in the Olympics. I won my way all the way to the Olympic Games. I was one of the favorites to actually medal. And I got all the way to Beijing, got ill, and couldn’t even compete.”
Such a devastating blow may have caused some people to abandon their dream, but Gary Jr. showed what sets him apart. He persevered and set a new goal for himself.
“There were so many people who’d supported me,” Russell said. “I didn’t want them to feel their support was in vain. The only way to make it up to them was to become a world champion.”
The 29-year-old is a natural lefty, though he didn’t always fight in the southpaw stance. He started out orthodox, but felt more comfortable going lefty. The fact that he’s ambidextrous helped. His father relented and it worked out.
Russell has mastered his craft from all angles and all ranges. While some boxers are comfortable either at in close or long range, Russell prides himself on being able to perform at the distance that gives him an advantage.
“ I watched my mother, my father do everything in their power to make sure that I had the ability to compete in these tournaments, to get the experience. This is my way of somewhat paying it forward ” WBC Featherweight World Champion Gary Russell Jr.
He also takes a very philosophical approach to the sport.
“Boxing is intellect manifested in physical form. In most cases, the more intelligent person should win. It’s not just throwing punches. It’s not just hitting hard,’’ Russell said. “What happens when both fighters have equal amount of speed, punching power? Who wins the fight then? The more intelligent fighter. The one that can make the necessary adjustments.
“I was taught that two fighters that had a war, a knock down, drag out fight, are two stupid fighters. Those are two fighters that didn’t have the ability to make the adjustments to make the fight easier.”
Russell admires old school fighters like Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis because of their ring creativity and versatility.
He is sharing his knowledge and his philosophy by sponsoring a group of amateur boxers called “Team Russell.’’
“All the kids on my team are either number one or number two in their weight class right now,” Russell said. “Whenever they get ready for a tournament, I’ll pay for their hotel fees, their plane fees for them and their parents. Every year we’ll do like a camp and bring the kids down to my gym for about a week or so. We’ll do a week’s training camp. We’ll work on certain stuff.”
It’s the kind of support he picked up from his parents.
“I watched my mother, my father do everything in their power to make sure that I had the ability to compete in these tournaments, to get the experience. This is my way of somewhat paying it forward,” he said.
Looking to the future, Russell would like to get on the business side of the sport to further help boxers.
“I feel as though boxers have somewhat of a black eye as being ignorant or brutes,” he said. “I think that’s because fighters just aren’t educated on the concept of business. I want to use this as an opportunity. Any fighters I promote, I would want them to learn about the business aspect of the sport.”
For a closer look at Russell vs Diaz, take a look at our fight page.