- The Washington Times
Thursday, January 20, 2022

Gary Russell Jr. began training camp two months ago with an unusual setup. His longtime trainer — his father, Gary Sr. — had been in and out of the hospital after getting his foot amputated due to complications from diabetes. The health problems meant the father often couldn’t physically be in the gym.

So the two came up with a workaround, albeit one that wasn’t ideal: Russell conducted workouts while another person held a phone up nearby — letting his father watch remotely via video to provide instruction if needed. 

“At first it was a little frustrating,” the younger Russell said. “But we’re a resilient people, man. Nothing ever came easy for us.” 

After going through what he called the toughest camp of his career, Russell finally returns Saturday for the first time in almost two years. The Capitol Heights, Maryland, native defends his WBC featherweight title against the undefeated Mark Magsayo (23-0, 16 knockouts) in Atlantic City, New Jersey on Showtime. 

In the boxing world, Russell’s inactivity is arguably what he’s most known for. The 33-year-old is actually the sport’s longest-reigning titleholder. But since winning his belt in 2015, Russell (31-0, 18 KOs) has fought only five times. As a result, frustration has set in — from fans and analysts who want Russell to fight more and from Russell, who’s clamoring for showdowns with the top fighters in and around his division. 

The biggest battles, though, for Russell have come outside the ring. On top of his father’s health problems, Russell’s younger brother, Gary “Boosa” Russell, unexpectedly died of a heart attack in December 2020 at just 27 years old. While Russell attributes his latest inactivity to boxing politics, the sudden death still created an impact. The family was left to grieve. 

But Russell fights on. He saw no other option.

“I look at my babies,” Russell said. “I have six babies. And I don’t know anyone else who can cover for them. I have to live by example. Certain things that I would want for my children … Sense of integrity, all of that stuff, honor. All of that stuff matters

“It’s one thing for them to have it within them, but it’s another for me to actually showcase it and live by example for them.”

Russell, who has four daughters and two sons, said he wants to show his children how to handle adversity. Even there, his actions go beyond the ring. 

When Boosa died, Russell thought a lot about how he wanted to honor his younger brother. He shuddered at the idea of just putting his brother’s face on a t-shirt as he had seen others do when losing loved ones. “I thought that was my beneath my younger brother,” Russell said. 

So, he went a step further. Russell petitioned the mayor and councilmembers in Capitol Heights with a request: He wanted to change “Omaha St.” — the street where his parents live and the street where Boosa died — to “Boosa St.”  

By February, the street name was changed. 

“I didn’t tell anybody,” Russell said. “I didn’t tell my mom. I didn’t tell my father. I didn’t tell my brothers. I didn’t let anyone I know I had gotten it done until I got the letter in the mail to actually say, ‘OK, on this particular date, it will be changed to this.’”

Atlantic City is roughly 200 miles from Boosa Street. There, Russell will face off Saturday against Magsayo in a fight in which Russell is favored.  

The past few months haven’t been easy. Beyond the nontraditional training setup, Russell revealed that he’s nursing a slight injury as he heads into the bout. He won’t disclose exactly what it is, of course, as to not completely tip off his opponent.

Instead, Russell brings up the injury as a way to let people know he refuses to let that stop him from getting back in the ring. Boxing is what he loves, he says, and he wants to showcase his skills after being away for so long. 

“Adversity comes from us at all angles,” Russell says, “and it’s up to us how we deal with it.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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