Gary Russell Jr. pushes through family tragedies to make his ring return

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  • Gary Russell Jr.
    American boxer

Gary Russell Jr. takes punches for a living but nothing could prepare him for the pain he and his family have experienced over the past 13 months.

Russell lost one of his four brothers, Gary Darreke Russell, at 26 to a heart attack in December 2020. And his 62-year-old father and trainer Gary Russell Sr. is in a pitched battle with diabetes, which resulted in the recent amputation of a foot.

The younger Russell said that his dad should be in the hospital now but has put it off until after Jan. 22, when the 33-year-old from the Washington D.C. area defends his featherweight title against Mark Magsayo in Atlantic City (Showtime).

A less resilient man might’ve postponed his return to the ring under these difficult circumstances. Not Russell. He’s been able to deal with the family crises, train as best he can and remain stoic through it all.

“Like I always say, we’re fighters at heart,” he told Boxing Junkie. “I always say you gotta keep your chin down and your hands up because life is going to throw punches at you.”

Gary Russell Jr. has remained stoic through family tragedies. Amanda Westcott / Showtime

The sudden death of Gary Darreke hit the family extremely hard, especially boxer Gary Antonio. “They were closest in age,” Gary Russell Jr. said.

And his father’s health has been an ongoing crisis in terms of both his role as family patriarch and trainer of his three boxing sons. Gary Sr. was hospitalized for portions of his eldest son’s training camp, which has made it difficult to establish any sense of normalcy.

At times Gary Jr. has trained himself for the sixth defense of his 126-pound title.

“He’s supposed to be in the hospital now but he decided he’s not going to go back to the hospital until after this match,” Gary Jr. said. “He felt he missed enough of the training camp. This is how we’ve been doing our training camp, over Zoom or Duo, you know, because he’s in the hospital.

“… He’ll watch me over the phone and if he sees something he doesn’t like, whoever’s holding the phone will reiterate what he’s saying. Stuff like that. We make it work that way.”

Can we assume then that Russell won’t be at his best when he steps into the ring at the Borgata Hotel Casino?

Well, Russell said he’s never been 100 percent physically going into a fight. For example, he’s had hand problems in the past. However, with the exception of a loss to Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2014, the veteran known for his remarkably quick hands has dominated one opponent after another in his 13-year career.

The fight on Jan. 22, he said, will be more of the same.

“I don’t even want to put a number on that,” said Russell, who was asked to quantify his preparedness. “I’ll let everybody know at the conclusion of the fight. In spite of everything, I’m confident.

“I believe in the skill set I bring, I believe in my ability, I believe in my tenacity and I believe in myself.”

That positive outlook is one reason he has been able to cope with the family tragedies.

The gym and the ring have always been havens for him, he said. He called boxing his “woosah, my peace of mind” even when things outside boxing aren’t going well. However, it seems that his attitude is the key to his resilience.

It has allowed him to take on some of his father’s leadership duties while he has been ill. It has allowed him to be there for his own family, which is his inspiration. And it has allowed him to move on with his career.

“I try my best,” he said. “I try to find the good in a situation and use it as fuel. If you look at it any other way, it could definitely drown you, definitely take you under, to a dark place. Regardless of the situation, I have six beautiful babies who are looking at no one else but daddy.

“Who else is going to be an example of something strong, to create that foundation for them, other than their dad?”

That philosophy doesn’t mean he’s impervious to the weight on his shoulders, which is considerable. He feels it. He simply knows that he’ll survive and grow at the same time.

“Pressure,” he said, “makes diamonds.”