Photo courtesy Gerald [email protected]
The man who will try to defeat Deontay Wilder for the WBC Heavyweight Title on Saturday night keeps a fight poster in his gym with a horizontal strip of tape splayed across Wilder’s eyes and an X across his mouth. The champ’s eyes are shut, in other words, and his mouth silenced.
This is a statement of intent. Gerald Washington is already imagining the pilgrimage he’ll take once he wins. It’s to his alma mater, USC, where he once played on the football team as a tight end and defensive end. Once the 6’6”, 245-pound goliath steps on campus, he’ll take his heavyweight belt and make for the dead center of campus, to Heritage Hall, the building that showcases the hardware won by USC’s athletes.
“Put it right next to the Heisman Trophies,” he beams. “That’s going to be crazy.”
Washington has plans, many of them, and he discusses them with such understated certainty that, if you were not aware that Gerald Washington is a massive underdog heading into Saturday’s fight, you would come away believing Wilder’s reign as the most celebrated American heavyweight since Evander Holyfield is about to end.
Washington’s record (18-0-1) is glossy, but he is 34 years old, with just 20 professional and 14 amateur fights. He never boxed in an organized contest until he was 26. His first pro bout came three months after his 30th birthday. He is not supposed to be here, in other words, and that is true down to the most literal sense: Washington was originally scheduled to fight on the undercard, only moving up to the main event on January 30th after Wilder’s original opponent, Andrzej Wawrzyk, tested positive for steroids. The fight takes place in Wilder’s home state of Alabama, which means that Washington will fight a man with more experience and less age in front of a hostile crowd. The 8-to-1 odds measure up.
Washington’s life is not typical of a heavyweight contender. It has taken him from a ranch in Mexico to the tennis courts of Northern California, from the deck of a Naval aircraft carrier on the Pacific Ocean to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, from a part-time acting career to a job as an after-school counselor in LA’s most dangerous neighborhood.
“‘The Most Interesting Man In The World — you know that commercial?” asks Washington’s trainer, John Pullman. “He doesn’t act like that. Although, he kind of is.”
Conventional thinking says that a 34-year-old latecomer wouldn’t figure to hand Deontay Wilder his first loss, but nothing about Washington’s life was ever conventional. He sees no reason why shocking the boxing world ought to be any different.
“This is just another piece of my life,” he says. “But to add that, ‘Yeah, I was the heavyweight champion of the world.’ It’s going to be cool, man.”
The, um, doctored photo of Deontay Wilder hanging in Pullman’s Gym in Burbank, Calif. Photo by Mike Piellucci.
They call him “El Gallo Negro” — The Black Rooster. On face value, the nickname skews ridiculous, and Washington hardly shies away from that. For a while, his otherwise bald head sported a patch of hair near the base of his skull that he dyed red, an attempt at mimicking a rooster’s famous comb. He identifies with the animal for its tenaciousness, its determination to protect its turf.
It’s also a nod to his mixed-race background. Washington’s father is African-American, while his mother was born in Jalisco, Mexico. They raised him separately but each shaped him in their own way. When he was in middle school, his mother sent him to Jalisco to live for a few months with her sister Teresa, Gerald’s aunt and godmother. Her family owned a ranch and a restaurant and Gerald worked on each. It was on the ranch where Gerald, who was raised and lived in Vallejo, Calif., first became acquainted with roosters. His time in Mexico was a brief but impactful first window into what he says are “my people – the culture.” Among his greatest motivators for winning Saturday is the opportunity to become the first ever heavyweight champion of Mexican descent.
Once back in Vallejo, he gravitated to sports. He played one year of football as a high school senior and he watched boxing since he was a child, but the game he invested the most time in was one he didn’t pursue professionally — tennis. He took to the game as a child, when he would join his mother on the courts every weekend. He studied Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and learned to boom forehands across the court. “I like the ground strokes, the hard ground strokes from way back,” he says. “Putting them in their place, man. Rocking them.”
From his father, Washington got his itch to see the world. The elder Washington moved around frequently during Gerald’s adolescence, and Gerald remembers getting on planes by himself as young as five-years-old, to places as far away as Hawaii.
“Ever since then, I wanted to travel and go see stuff,” he says. “I wanted to explore the world and go see what’s out there.”
He decided the best way was to join the Navy. Washington spent all four years of high school as a member of the Naval ROTC, always with an eye on “enlist[ing] and going on an adventure.” When he graduated, he did just that. First came bootcamp, followed by sea school in Pensacola, Florida, where his walks to class were accompanied by the sounds of Blue Angels screaming overhead. From there it was off to Jacksonville, North Carolina, to begin training to become a helicopter mechanic.
By 19, he found himself on the USS Belleau Wood, an aircraft carrier ported in San Diego. He worked the graveyard shift, from 10:30 PM until 7:30 AM, as part of a repair crew of roughly 10 people. Each had their area of expertise and Gerald’s was the engine. At first, he was tasked with identifying and detaching faulty parts. Later, he graduated to repairing them directly.
“Suck, squeeze, bang, blow,” he says. “That’s how the engine works. You’ve got your intake — your suck. You’ve got your squeeze, the compression chamber. Then you’ve got your combustion and exhaust.”
It was yeoman work and on bad days, he was liable to deal with bird strikes — extricating the remains of dead birds that had flown into the engine’s blades. But he savored the camaraderie the Navy provided and he could watch the sun rise over the Pacific each morning. For three years, he lived like this, until he decided that the benefits of military life did not outweigh the drawback of curtailed freedom. A shipmate recommended he look into college football and so, in 2004, Washington enrolled in Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. with the intention of building on his one year of high school experience.
Junior college football is a means to an end, but Washington had no particular destination in mind. Despite playing in USC’s backyard, during the throes of the Pete Carroll era, he had minimal awareness of Trojan football.
“I didn’t know who Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart were,” he says. “I was just playing football for the fun of it. I knew I wanted to play football on TV, so I had to go to a Division I school.”
At Chaffey, he slotted in as tight end and was named a Junior College All-American as a sophomore after catching 23 passes and five touchdowns. Then-offensive coordinator and eventual head coach Steve Sarkisian offered him a scholarship to USC and Washington signed on the dotted line. He spent the next three years as a reserve, first at tight end before eventually converting to defensive end.
His on-field impact was minimal, but just like in the Navy, Washington found comfort in brotherhood. At USC, he was “Old Man Gerald,” the resident old soul and big brother. Even now, nearly a decade removed from his graduation, he lapses into memory of Saturday afternoons at the Coliseum, arms linked with his teammates, chanting in unison before they barrel out of the locker room tunnel: Warrrr time, let’s take it outside! Warrrr time, let’s take it outside!
“Man, you feel that, and I miss that about the sport,” he says. “These guys are coming off two national championships, just played Texas in a crazy Rose Bowl game. It’s like, ‘Oh my God. I’m here!'”
He took a stab at the NFL, where his still-raw upside earned practice squad stints with the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks. He didn’t stick. At 26, he was adrift. He was broke, and sleeping on the couch of his former USC teammates Michael Morgan and David Ausberry. He obtained a Screen Actors Guild card and began booking commercials, envisioning a future as an actor.
Then everything changed, thanks to a chance meeting with a former teammate off the 5 Freeway.
Washington signing his contract to fight for the WBC Heavyweight Championship. Photo courtesy of Gerald [email protected]
Years after it happened, Dominique Wise still tells Washington that there was some larger force with them that day.
“I think it’s fate,” Wise says. “I bring it up to him like, ‘Dude, you don’t understand. What are the odds of us meeting at Petrol gas station before the Grapevine, in the middle of nowhere?”
Wise, a one-time backup offensive lineman at USC and Washington’s friend since their football days, was driving from the Bay Area back down to Los Angeles. He was working as a recruiter for All-American Heavyweights, an audition-only program founded by entertainment executive Michael King and run out of Carson, Calif. The aim was simple: Take former collegiate football and basketball players who had failed to make it professionally, and convert them into fighters. Notable alumni include Dominic Breazeale, a 17-1 former Northern Colorado quarterback who will fight on the same card as Washington, and Charles Martin, a one-time IBF Champion.
Wise was en route to the facility when he stopped for gas just outside Grapevine, an unincorporated village about an hour and forty-five minutes north of Los Angeles. As soon as he stepped out of his car, he saw Washington, whom he hadn’t seen in months. The two exchanged pleasantries and what-are-you-doing-here’s. Then Wise informed Washington of his destination.
“Well, I used to box,” Washington told him. Which was true, in a sense. Although tennis was his first discipline and football his first meal ticket, boxing was his first love. He first put on gloves as a child at the Omega Boys and Girls Club in Vallejo, and grew up watching Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez. Washington’s trademark at USC was carrying a pair of boxing gloves wherever he went. Wise still remembers the apocryphal story of Jeff Schweiger, a highly touted defensive end, challenging Washington to an impromptu sparring match one night at an off-campus apartment.
“Schweiger acted like he knew how to box, and Gerald gave him the ones and twos,” Wise laughs.
Yet apart from that and similar dustups as a teenager — “I’m surprised I still have my teeth,” Washington muses — he didn’t have much to go on. He certainly didn’t have any amateur bouts to his name.
That made him a perfect candidate for All-American Heavyweights. Washington headed for Carson, and it wasn’t long before he was defeating far more experienced boxers in sparring. There was a problem, though: The program’s age cutoff was 25 and Washington was already 26. Wise lobbied for an exception to be made, but the program stayed firm.
Still, Washington was 6’6”, with a 260-pound frame that was both chiseled and evenly sculpted, instead of being top-heavy like many other heavyweights. Pullman was floored the first time he saw Washington work out. Pullman tasked the fighter with doing calisthenics. “He started jumping rope like he’s 125 pounds,” Pullman said. “I said, ‘Holy cow, this guy’s coordinated.’ Obviously he was still very raw when it came to boxing but he was aware of his body.”
Washington may not have been 25, but he he was a prospect and so another All-American Heavyweights employee tipped off Mike Rodriguez, a veteran Southern California trainer and cutman, to take a look. Rodriguez recruited Pullman and thus began the 33-fight odyssey that has led Washington to Deontay Wilder’s doorstep.
Neither Washington nor Pullman are naïve about their circumstances. While Pullman believes that Washington’s advanced physical age gives him a discipline and insight most younger fighters lack, he is still extremely young as a boxer. At an age when most fighters can lean on guile and intuition, Washington navigates strategy through his ears—by listening to Pullman’s strategies and sticking to the game plan.
“That’s what’s going to make up for the lack of experience, is trusting his team,” Pullman says. “The fact is that he didn’t have to cultivate it on his own… Because I’ll help give him the playbook. I can see what’s going on, so he just has to trust.”
The playbook must be updated for this fight. Washington leans toward the cerebral, on shying away from unnecessary damage and probing for precisely the right opportunity to strike. If it goes to the cards, then so be it. But that approach is unlikely to fly in Wilder’s backyard, in a title bout. Whether or not Washington is comfortable with it, he will need to take the fight to the champion. And, if Pullman is to be believed, everything has been building to this.
“Absolutely, you have to see a more aggressive Gerald Washington for this fight,” he says. “It’s that time now. We’ve come to that time now where he’s got a good understanding of how to control the ring. He’s got a good understanding for how to defend himself. He’s got a good understanding for how to control distance. Now it’s time to put these guys on their heels as well.”
After growing up on Tyson and Chavez, Washington now pores over Lennox Lewis and the Klitschko brothers, far better analogs for a man his size. The tale of the tape lists him as just one inch shorter than Wilder, with just one inch fewer reach, making him among the select few who who can plausibly match length with the champion. Of those, even fewer could plausibly run a 4.6 40-yard dash at 260 pounds, the way Wise claims Washington did at USC.
It’s not difficult to understand Washington’s level of urgency. He says he had zero hesitation about accepting the fight on short notice, despite the fact that he compares the subsequent preparation to cramming for a test. He knows he is still learning on the job but, in his mid-30’s, there is no telling how long he has before his body can no longer implement the lessons Pullman imparts on him.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Washington says. “Look at the people on that shortlist. You’ve got Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Joe Louis. You’ve got all those great champions and this is my opportunity to put my name on there. Do I sit back and say ‘Nah, I’m not ready right now? … This may be your one shot. You’ve got to put it all out there.”
Washington with his trainer, John Pullman. Photo courtesy of Gerald [email protected]
Gerald Washington has another nickname.
Before “El Gallo Negro,” he was known as “The Gentleman”. The best example of how he earned this nickname was his last job before becoming a full-time fighter.
No one remembers exactly when Washington started as a mentor coordinator and boxing coach for the South Los Angeles Sheriff’s Youth Foundation, but it was around 2010. The foundation’s facility is bordered by the Westmont and Athens neighborhoods, each of which rank among the city’s top ten neighborhoods for violent crime. Between them, more than 320 people have been killed since the turn of the century, many of the murders gang-related.
According to deputy Bruce McCall, the man who hired Washington, the Crips were founded there and for years, the only park in the neighborhood was closed after it became a nexus for gang activity. Consequently, when Washington was there, “This youth center was really the only place kids had to go where they could be safe,” McCall said. Where they could be exposed “more to living in this community than the violence these kids see and experience.”
Washington became a fixture. He played dodgeball and basketball, and wrestled all comers. When the center constructed a haunted house for Halloween, he eagerly portrayed Jason, the villain from the Halloween movies, donning an orange jumpsuit and wielding a chainsaw (sans chain) to terrify every child in sight.
He listened to stories like the one a nine-year-old girl told him about what happened the day before on her front porch, where she was sitting alongside her cousin until a car pulled up and opened fire. He died in that very spot, right next to her. “And she’s at the youth center the next day like nothing happened,” he marvels.
Even though Washington stopped working there years ago, he’s still a fixture. When he got word about being in the main event, the first person he dialed was McCall. Washington often comes bearing gifts like boxing gear and fight posters. He returned twice in the final weeks leading up the fight; no one found it unusual because that’s simply what Gerald does.
“He knows those kids need somebody to show an interest in them that doesn’t just step into their lives, dazzle them and then leave,” McCall says. “He hasn’t done that to the kids that are here. He talks to them on the phone, he works out with them, he gives them pointers on things he sees them doing or not doing and training regimens. So he still does what he did when he was here: He coaches the kids.”
“It’s just about spending the time and putting that in,” Washington adds. “I remember when I was a little kid, you go to a baseball game or something, somebody comes to talk to you, you remember that forever. So I know it means a lot to these guys, so I go there as much as I can to be there with them and just let them feel me. Let them know that I’m here for them and that it’s real.”
Washington has ambitions to take his activism to a bigger, more global community “I know being the heavyweight champion comes with a lot of responsibility,” he says, and he is eager to assume it. He is vehemently against Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall across the Mexican border — besides, he says, “that wall’s not going to do anything” — and wants use his platform to promote racial tolerance.
It’s a daunting task, but he’s confident as ever. Who better to unify the world than a mixed-race man who has crossed nearly every gradient of society? And, he posits, what better language to do it through?
“That’s the cool part about boxing — everybody comes to boxing,” he says. “Everyone gravitates toward boxing, fighting. People understand that all over the world, no matter what you do. People understand the hunger and the strategy and the energy that goes into fighting. They can relate to that and through that, it’s such a great platform for you to do great things. I look forward to that.”
It’s a noble sentiment from a gentle soul. But this is also the same man who taped Deontay Wilder’s eyes and mouth shut.
“His persona outside doesn’t match who he is in the ring once he’s doing his thing,” McCall says. “He finishes people off. If you give him that green light, he’ll finish them off.”
“There’s nothing like — it’s a cold thing to say, man, but knocking someone out,” Washington says. “The feeling that you get from that, it’s addictive. It’s crazy. It feels so good.”
A lightness washes over his face while he tries to explain it. Then, he lets out a soft victory roar.
It’s a hard feeling to convey; he only knows it from personal experience. He’s done it before. He’s planning to do it again.
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