This is the first part in a six-part WTOP series, Beltway to Brazil, featuring local athletes headed to the Olympics.
WASHINGTON — When light welterweight boxer Gary Antuanne Russell steps in the ring for his first Olympic bout in Rio, he’ll be fighting more than just a singular opponent: He’ll be fighting to make a name for himself.
That’s meant in more ways than one. Russell — who goes by his middle name, pronounced AN-twan — is named for his father, Gary. Just like all six of his brothers. Further complicating the differentiation, five of the six brothers are boxers, Antuanne being the youngest of the fighters.
“[Boxing is] pretty much in my blood, plus I saw my brothers doing it,” Antuanne said. “That togetherness was always there, so just being a spectator at a young age, I [was] able to see them do their thing and I said, ‘I’m liking this; I want to do it too.'”
So Antuanne — under the tutelage of his father — began training at Enigma Boxing, the family gym in Capitol Heights.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to spend my time with them, and involve them in a sport I like and excelled in,” said Gary Sr. of his sons. “It kept them off the streets, gave them a sense of pride within themselves and it’s therapeutic because at 10-11 o’clock [at night], I know where my kids are. I found that boxing unified us as a family.”
It has pushed them to great heights within the sport, too. Gary Allen Jr., Gary Allen III, Gary Antonio, and Gary Antuanne are the first group of four brothers to each win the National Golden Gloves. Gary Jr. currently holds the WBC featherweight title and Gary Antonio is undefeated in five pro bouts, four wins coming by knockout.
The fact that his brothers are so accomplished has been a great benefit to Antuanne.
“He’s the younger of those brothers into boxing, so from where he sits, he can take advantage of all their shortcomings and all their mistakes — not just inside the ring, but outside the ring,” Gary Sr. said.
This naturally brings out the competitive juices in the brothers Russell.
“There’s always a competition, but it’s unspoken,” Antuanne admitted. When asked who’s currently winning, he sheepishly conceded, “Junior…he’s got the belt. And he looks pretty in all his fights.”
Antuanne may soon have his oldest brother looking up to him, though. Gary Jr. made the 2008 Olympic team but was disqualified after he collapsed trying to make weight. Ironically, Antuanne and Gary Jr. traveled the same route to Olympic qualification: both southpaws lost the first fight at the Olympic Trials but won through the loser bracket to qualify. Both suffered hand injuries and settled for bronze. However, Antuanne has a chance to blaze his own trail in Rio.
“I wanna beat him…it’s a pattern we’ve all been in — mirroring one another — and I’m in a position to change that pattern and take it to the next level, and do something he didn’t do,” he said.
Fun facts: Light welterweight boxing
USA rank in the event: 111 total boxing medals all-time is the most of any country by a wide margin (Cuba is next with 67). USA has the most gold medals (50), silver medals (23) and bronze medals (38). Note: these totals include all boxing medals, not just the light welterweight class.
Last USA medal: Ricardo Williams – silver in 2000
USA won three out of four gold medals in light welterweight boxing from 1972-1984: Ray Seales (Munich ’72), Ray Leonard (Montreal ’76) and Jerry Page (Los Angeles ’84).
The family is happy to have this opportunity to come back around. Gary Jr.’s outcome was disappointing, but adding an Olympic medal to the family trophy case could help rewrite the narrative.
“I think it would change the whole dynamic; the spiritual outcome of our family would greatly grow based on his achievements,” said Gary Sr., whose own boxing career was cut short by a knee injury he suffered in his mid-20s.
The family patriarch doesn’t want that pressure on his son though. His message: “Stay focused, stay fun…I don’t want Antuanne to get locked into carrying the weight [of the family legacy]. Welcome your destiny.”
Should that destiny include Olympic gold, it would also mean quite a bit to Prince George’s County: It has been 40 years since Palmer Park’s Sugar Ray Leonard won gold in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, which he did in the exact same weight class as Antuanne.
“We’re very different; it’s bigger than me and him being compared,” said Antuanne, citing issues with the current boxing system.
Having cleared those hurdles, now the focus is on being ready for Rio. Talk of crime, Zika and water pollution aren’t taking him out of his game, though. Antuanne says he has already altered his routine to account for the heat, and will wear sleeves and thermals to shield him from mosquitoes.
“I’ll be prepared; I’ve been under worse conditions,” he said.
But like any concerned parent, Gary Sr. has his reservations and worries. “Absolutely! We’re not just talking about the Zika virus; that’s just one on top of many [issues]!”
While Gary Sr. is concerned over outside factors, he has no worries that his son can handle himself. Antuanne is well traveled, well read and has demonstrated he’s far more than just street smart. He earned valedictorian honors at Croom High School and had the highest GPA in all of Prince George’s County, proving he has mastered the lesson that balance is important.
“In my family, we’re real strong in our history…we make sure we squeeze in a certain intelligence that molds the family, not just the individual.”
“Boxing is what they do, but doesn’t define who they are,” Gary Sr. added.
Antuanne even seems to draw an intellectual benefit from his craft. “Boxing teaches you a lot about prioritizing, determination; you have to have a certain wisdom.”
Part of that wisdom includes knowing the crowd can’t see those intangibles, so being a showman is paramount. “In order for you to look pretty and look good to the crowd under all circumstances, you’ve got to be versatile…you’ve got to swag out.”
That swag was on full display when asked if he likes his chances to bring a gold medal home to Capitol Heights.
“Do I…I love my chances!”