Three fights, three Gary Russells: Will Olympic boxing family maintain success in pro ranks?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
(From left to right) Gary Antonio Russell, Gary Allen Russell Sr., Gary Allen Russell Jr. and Gary Antuanne Russell (Courtesy of Gary Russell Jr.)

Gary Antonio Russell interrupts a questioner. He’s a young bantamweight, hoping to improve his record to 8-0 on Saturday when he meets Jovany Fuentes on Saturday at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, in an non-televised bantamweight bout.

Fuentes is 7-8 and nobody’s idea of a contender, or a prospect. Antonio, as he is known in the family of men who all share the first name Gary, will have none of it.

“We’re all knockout artists,” he said. “Any person who prepares themselves and trains and puts those small, eight-ounce gloves on, they’re dangerous. I respect them. I learned a long time ago not to overlook any competitor or disrespect any opponent.

“Y’all want to look at his losses, but did you see how many KOs he has? He’s won almost every fight by knockout. The way I’ve been taught, this fight is as important as a championship fight, because they’re all important. That’s the truth. You can’t look past anyone.”

As he speaks, his brothers, 2016 Olympian Gary Antuanne Russell and WBC featherweight champion Gary Allen Russell Jr., are training in the background.

Antuanne will make his pro debut on Saturday, after being on the wrong side of one of the Rio Olympics’ most unjust decisions. He’ll fight Joshua Ross in an early bout on the card.

In the night’s main event, which will be on Showtime, Gary Allen Russell Jr. will defend his belt against Oscar Escandon.

It’s a big night for the Russell family, but none of them are too emotional. They all were taught to box by their father in the family basement, and they approach the sport mostly as a means to an end.

Some go into boxing because they love to fight. Others do it because they dream of hitting it rich like Floyd Mayweather Jr., did. But the Russells are boxing to prepare themselves for the next stage of their lives, when they’re no longer competing and trying to succeed in the business world.

The brothers have learned to view boxing success differently than most.

“A successful career for Antonio Russell would mean I get in and out of this sport unharmed, brain fully functioning,” Antonio Russell said. “I don’t want to be walking funny or have problems, and I get out of it with something to show for it. But by that, I don’t mean cars, jewelry, clothes, etc. I want me and my family to be financially stable to the point we can be practicing entrepreneurs to make income for me and my family.”

If it sounds like a joyless way to approach the sport, so be it. The brothers have always been goal-oriented and forward-looking.

Antuanne was devastated by a split-decision loss in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament to eventual gold medalist Fazliddin Gaibnazarov. While Michael Conlan garnered significant attention for the bad scoring in his Olympic loss, primarily because of a tweet he sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russell’s loss to Gaibnazarov was just as egregious.

Gary Antuanne Russell suffered a split decision loss to Fazliddin Gaibnazarov at the Olympics. (Getty Images)

He couldn’t bring himself to watch it in the days immediately after returning home from Brazil. And when he finally did decide to look for it, he couldn’t find it. It had been taken offline.

“That’s OK,” he said, jokingly. “I’m not sure I really want to see that anyway. It still hurts just thinking about it.”

It hurt because Russell had predicted he’d win the gold and he couldn’t back up his words. An American boxer winning a gold medal in the Olympics is huge news, and it would have meant a lot of money to Russell and a lot more fanfare for his debut than he’s getting.

That bothers him to a degree, but it’s that part of each of the Russell boys that was drilled into them by their father from an early age: Do your best. Have integrity. Be a man of your word.

“I set the bar high for myself because I had great training and I was focusing my whole life on that and winning [the gold medal],” he said. “I was telling everyone, ‘I’m going to shine,” and the first two nights, I did. I knew I was better than every last one of them guys. It’s not bragging. It’s just the truth. And so going into that last fight, I told everyone I’d shine again, and I didn’t.

“I lost. I lost in front of the whole world after setting the bar so high. So many had high expectations for me, and no one had higher expectations for me than I had for myself. But I feel like I let them down.”

He wasn’t, he said, consoled by the fact that the result was out of his hands.

“I did think I did enough, but it don’t change the result,” he said. “When you’re fighting, you have to do what it takes to get the job done, and I didn’t.”

He’ll get another chance on Saturday to get the job done, as will his brothers. Gary Jr. can retain his belt and keep alive his dreams of a rematch with Vasyl Lomachenko, so he can avenge his only defeat.

Fighting in front of a hometown crowd is nice, but like his brothers, he’s there to do a job and not show off.

“It’s going to be history in the making,” Gary Jr. said. “We’re in familiar territory with making history. We were the first set of four brothers to win the National Golden Gloves and I don’t see anyone breaking our record any time soon. I believe in a dynasty and I’m excited for my Dad to see all of his hard work come together on fight night.

“When you focus on the magnitude of an event you take away from the true focus that we’re supposed to have. My goal is to become victorious. But it’s definitely cool that the people from my hometown will be able to be a part of the event.”

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