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Gary Russell Jr. misses his ailing father, mourns his brother ahead of Saturday’s fight

Gary Russell Jr. will be fighting for the first time in two years when he defends his World Boxing Council featherweight title Saturday night. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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During every training camp in his professional boxing career, D.C.-born Gary Russell Jr. had been able to turn to his father and trainer, Gary Sr., for guidance and one of his younger brothers, Gary Boosa Russell, for support at the family’s Enigma Gym in Capitol Heights, Md.

Yet when Russell began shifting his attention to his next opponent, the World Boxing Council featherweight champion barely saw Gary Sr., who was managing severe health issues, and continued to mourn his brother, who died in 2020 of cardiac arrest less than two weeks before Christmas.

Thus for the first time, Russell (31-1, 18 knockouts) has often trained in solitude in advance of his bout against mandatory challenger Mark Magsayo (23-0, 16 KOs) of the Philippines on Saturday night at Borgata Event Center in Atlantic City, N.J.

“It has been very difficult, but I tell people all the time, life is like boxing,” Russell said. “You’ve got to keep your chin down and your hands up, and you’ve got to fire when you’ve got an opening. I’m grateful that I have the mental capacity. I’m mentally strong when it comes to stuff like this.”

Although the plan is for Gary Sr. to be in his usual spot on fight night, it’s unclear whether he will be able to do so following a foot amputation stemming from Type 2 diabetes. He recently left the hospital against doctors’ recommendations to take part in training camp in person rather than via Zoom.

Gary Sr. has been in his son’s corner for every bout since Gary Jr.’s pro debut in 2009.

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He also has overseen the development of all the fighting Russell brothers, beginning with eldest son Gary Jr., 33, whose only loss was to Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2014 for the then-vacant World Boxing Organization title. Gary Antonio Russell, 28, fights in the 118-pound division and Gary Antuanne Russell, 25, at 140 pounds.

“Me and my dad, there’s just a certain level of chemistry that’s just innate, and I think that right there plays a big factor,” said Russell, whose hands are among the quickest in the sport. “I refuse to have someone else train me other than my dad, so for some of this training camp, I’ve honestly trained myself.”

The two were the first to embrace in the ring when Russell won the WBC 126-pound belt in March 2015 with a fourth-round knockout of Jhonny Gonzalez in Las Vegas. Russell since has beaten five straight opponents as the division’s longest active reigning champion.

Most recently he scored a unanimous decision over Tugstsogt Nyambayar on Feb. 8, 2020, at PPL Center in Allentown, Pa. The current layoff of nearly two years is the lengthiest of Russell’s career, which has been marked by infrequent activity since he claimed the WBC title.

Russell — whose bout will be televised live on Showtime, with the main card beginning at 9 p.m. — attributes his dearth of opponents to higher-profile fighters avoiding him. A bout against Rey Vargas, for instance, was in the works last year until negotiations broke down. The undefeated Vargas moved up to featherweight after he won the 122-pound title in 2019.

Russell also has mentioned moving up multiple divisions to face Gervonta Davis in what would be one of the most anticipated showdowns in the sport. Other fighters he has called out at 135 pounds include Devin Haney and Ryan Garcia.

But Russell remains adamant about not vacating his belt unless he is assured of fighting for a title in a heavier weight class.

“I don’t think Gary has faced anyone since he became champion that has the skills that I have,” said Magsayo, who is coming off a 10th-round knockout of Julio Ceja in August. “I’m going to go in there and show him something he’s never seen before, and we’ll see how he reacts.”

In addition to managing his career while his father was receiving treatment, Russell also bore much of the responsibility in comforting Gary Antonio and Gary Antuanne after their brother passed away, the second time the family has buried one of its own.

In 2004 another brother, Devaun Drayton, then 17, was fatally shot in Northeast. District police did not make an arrest until 13 years later, and the killer was sentenced to 52 years in prison in 2019.

Only Gary Antonio has fought since Gary Boosa’s death, and after he defeated Alejandro Santiago by a majority decision in November in Las Vegas, Russell was ringside to share an emotional family moment.

“It shows you that time waits for no one,” Russell said. “You have to give it everything that you can. I wish I had more time with my younger brother. Unfortunately I can’t get it back. All I can do is allow him to live through me at this point by continuing to be the best that I possibly can be.”

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