His classes did not end until 3:00 p.m. at which point, he hurried home, ate a late lunch and crashed for about an hour-and-a-half. Russ was up again by 5:30. His trainer, Al Smith would be waiting outside to take him to the gym.
For years, Russ feverishly traded the hats of student, Omega Psi Phi fraternity member (his nickname, “The Boxing Que” is homage), Chuck E. Cheese employee and one of North Carolina’s promising young boxers. His routine was exhausting. He has bad memories of dancing around in a mouse outfit on two hours of sleep.
At times, when Russ felt most overwhelmed, he considered dropping out. “It was the hardest part of my life,” he said. “You have to be a very strong-minded person to get through something like that.”
He added, “That’s why I can go to the next level in this boxing game.”
When Russ fights top-10 middleweight Matthew Macklin in Atlantic City this Saturday, it will be his first 10-round fight and his toughest professional opponent by leagues. He took the fight on less than a month’s notice after Macklin’s original opponent, more advanced prospect Willie Nelson, suffered an elbow injury.
With only 14 pro fights and no marquee wins on his résumé, Russ’ inexperience is the foremost reason he is a heavy underdog against Macklin. In Russ’ mind, those grueling college years are experience enough. What’s 40 minutes of hard combat to a “Boxing Que”?
* * *
When Russ was nine years old, his parents separated and his mother moved him and his siblings from their home in Tallahassee, Florida north to Wilmington, North Carolina. A single parent for the first time, Russ’ mother sought activities that would keep her children busy and out of trouble. So she enrolled Russ into a boxing class at the local gym where she was employed.
Rarely has such a parental scheme been so successful.
Before long, Russ was so enchanted by the “Sweet Science” that he would do just about any chore his mother asked if it meant that she would allow him to go to boxing practice: cleaning his room, babysitting his younger brothers, doing all of his homework assignments.
Within a semester, Russ went from a D student to a regular name on the honor roll. “Boxing made me focused on what’s important,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russ was thriving inside the ring. A tall and wiry fighter, Russ often found he had advantages in reach and speed over his local opponents. He developed a powerful right hand to accompany his long lead left.
By his mid-teens, Russ was winning state tournaments and qualifying on the national level. In 2006, he advanced to the quarterfinals of the national Golden Gloves before losing a decision to Fernando Guerrero. In 2009, he won the Virginia/North Carolina Golden Gloves Championship at 165 pounds.
Just months later, in the midst of his junior year of college, he turned professional.
When precocious football and basketball players join the pro ranks before completing college, they typically forego their education. For Russ, however, the choice was never an either-or. He trained and he studied. When his friends went to campus parties, he usually stayed behind. “I was already living an adult life,” he said.
When Russ beat established middleweight Marcus Upshaw in July of 2011, improving to 8-0, many people in his life told him he should dedicate himself to boxing full-time. He had already been signed by major promoter Lou DiBella and now he had taken a major step toward bigger and better opportunities.
Russ instead listened to the one who introduced him to his passion. “Listen,” his mother had told him. “You’re the only one in the family on your dad’s side or my side to ever go to college. It would mean a lot to me if you could finish.”
“I chose to finish college,” Russ said.
Russ’s fight with Upshaw was the only one he took in 2011. Toward the end of that year, he graduated with a degree in Business Administration. “I made the right choice,” he said.
* * *
On November 9th, Russ was in Houston, Texas, sparring with Edwin Rodriguez to prepare “La Bomba” for his fight with Andre Ward. Two days later, when he was back in North Carolina and spending time with his one-year-old son, he got an unexpected call from Egis Klimas, his manager.
“I have some great news for you,” Klimas said. DiBella had offered Russ the fight with Macklin. The next day Russ (@boxingque) tweeted, “Made a decision that could change my life!!!”
Other than his inexperience, the biggest rationale for the slim chance Russ is being given against Macklin is his anonymity. When DiBella announced Russ as Macklin’s opponent, the common response was “Who?”
Boxing News 24 reported that Macklin will be facing “someone named Lamar Russ” before noting, “It’s painfully obvious that Macklin has this one in the bag.” More innocuously, Boxing Scene reported that Macklin would now be fighting an opponent whose nickname is “The Boxing Cube.”
Making his name known is precisely what drove Russ to take the fight. “Matthew Macklin is a good, strong fighter but he don’t put no fear in my heart,” he said. “When I go out and beat him, it’s going to show the world who I am.”
Russ continued, “A legacy that can be remembered? That’s priceless.”
The idea of a “legacy” means something different to Russ than it did in his college years. When his son, Kamren was born in January of 2012, boxing became more than a just personal endeavor. “It gives me time and money to do what I want with my son,” he said. “There’s nothing more important to me in life.”
Kamren already favors his father. “He’s boxing like me already,” Russ beamed. “I pull his gloves out and he gets excited like a kid seeing toys.” He recently tweeted a video of Kamren in which the toddler was wearing a t-shirt, a diaper and a pair of boxing gloves bigger than his head. He was already putting his punches together.
When Russ talks about his legacy, the conversation does not end with his boxing career. “I want to make enough money where I can open my own business,” he said, “to become one of the successful black males of the world and have something to pass down to my son.”
This is what is on Russ’ mind when he says he made the right choice staying in college. “I’m not going to box the rest of my life,” he said, “but my degree? You can’t take that away from me.”
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