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May 4, 2013

Man with a plan to 'Fight On'

Gerald Washington has a plan.

Of course he has. No boxer better ever get into the ring without one, not if he expects to exit under his own power.

Call it a gameplan, if you will, for the former USC defensive end who was a part of that 2008 Rose Bowl-winning Trojans team that boasted one of the greatest defenses in college football history.

And it's not just a product of his USC education where he earned a planning minor (Public Policy, Management and Planning to be exact) although that helps.

But better even than having a well-thought-out long-term plan, Gerald Washington has a chance.

A real chance.

There's a buzz out there. Is this the guy? Could he be . . . the next American heavyweight champion of the world?

A Trojan?

"Gerald is a freak," his trainer John Pullman says as the two take a break at Pullman's clean-as-a-whistle storefront gym in Burbank a mile or so down from that classic 1949 Bob's Big Boy and just past the Warner Brothers Ranch Lot. "He's freakishly strong already . . . I don't know if it's the football."

But at 6-foot-5 and a cut 245 pounds (down from the 262 he weighed for his USC Pro Day as a bulked-up NFL prospect), he's an interesting mix of skill sets for a heavyweight class that has gotten so much bigger these days with the Klitschko brothers -- Vladimir and Vitali -- at the top for the last eight years now. The 37-year-old Vladimir is 6-6, 242 but not the quick-footed athlete Washington is. Older brother Vitali is 41.

And that's an encouraging number for Washington, who at 31, is young in boxing years with body that's taken very little of the punishment that lifelong boxers absorb. But with the experience and savvy to know what it takes.

"If he were a 21-year-old, I'd have to be chasing him around," Pullman says of the 44th-ranked Washington who is off to a 7-0 start in his not-quite-yearlong pro career with his first eight-round fight June 8 at the Home Depot Center against the 22nd-ranked Alex Flores, who is 12-0 with 10 knockouts.

"Now I have to chase him home," Pullman says. "He won't leave."

There's a lot on the line for a guy like Washington, who spent parts of his first two years after USC with the practice squads at Buffalo and then back together with Pete Carroll and the Seahawks.

With a new crop of young American heavyweights coming along, every day, every step of the way matters here.

"They say the next heavyweight champ, if he's an American, it will be worth a billion dollars," Washington says with a nod to this weekend's fight in Las Vegas for the world's current richest athlete, Floyd Mayweather Jr.. It's a natural connection since Washington has been signed up for the stable of fighters of the behind-the-scenes boxing "adviser" Al Haymon, the Harvard-educated music and entertainment promoter with some of the biggest names in the music business who also has Mayweather among his many fighters.

Washington was headed there and with good tickets. And a name that boxing insiders are starting to pick up in a career that started professionally only last July.

The former four-year Navy helicopter mechanic before he arrived at USC admits that, "I'm just a baby in the boxing world," although he did box as a kid in the Bay Area. He was born in San Jose, moved to San Francisco and then grew up in Vallejo before stopping at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga after the Navy to try to get a football scholarship.

"I just played a year of football in high school," says Washington, a late-growth guy who was 6-2 and 180 as a senior and a tennis player. USC was something he'd have never imagined happening for him.

"I didn't even dream about that," Washington says. "I didn't know who Reggie Bush was," and was thinking San Diego State maybe after the Navy. And then he arrived at USC as part of a defensive front seven that even now boggles the mind.

At 26 and the oldest USC player, he backed up NFL'ers Kyle Moore and Clay Matthews at end and played on a unit with an incredible nine more NFL guys -- Jurrell Casey, Fili Moala, Everson Griffen, Nick Perry, Brian Cushing, Michael Morgan, Rey Maualuga, Kaluka Maiava and Malcolm Smith.

It's helping, Washington says of his Trojan background. To supplement his income, he's doing some athlete training now and has worked with Morgan and David Ausberry, who along with Chilo Rachal and Anthony McCoy made it out to his last fight -- a fifth-round TKO over Curtis Carper (7-1), the 44th-ranked heavyweight that vaulted Washington from No. 135 to 42nd.

Nothing is a given, Washington knows. Other than McCoy, his original USC roommates, all highly touted, prove that -- Vidal Hazelton, Jeff Schweiger and Walker Lee Ashley.

But it was a USC connection, and former Trojan football player, walkon Dominique Wise, a 2008 grad from San Jose, who got him back to boxing. "We were both driving back from the Bay Area and stopping for gas," Washington remembers. And Wise was working as a recruiter for the All-American Heavyweight project out of Carson that poured many millions of dollars into trying to find the next great heavyweight by converting team sports guys to boxing.

"I was back and forth between Buffalo and Seattle at the time," Washington recalls. And for Wise, who was being paid $500 a head for prospects he signed up as the No. 1 recruiter, getting a former Trojan teammate -- who had some boxing experience as a youngester -- would have been a big bonus.

But as much of a prospect as he was, "They overlooked him," Wise says. "They thought he was too old," and he missed the age cutoff of 25. So now he'll do this on his own, more or less. But with the significant help of boxing's best "adviser" in Haymon's group where Sam Watson makes the calls that determine how the next two to three years go.

"It's very stressful," Washington says of path to the top. "One loss could change your whole career. Everybody's depending on you -- your family, your friends, you've been getting ready for three months and you have one moment to get it right."

Which is when Pullman's admonition that "It's not a sprint, it's a marathon," applies not just to each fight but to the whole process. Washington says he learned that right away, knocking down an opponent twice in the first round and then not quite finishing him off but almost punching himself out trying.

"He can go 12 to 15 rounds now," Pullman says as Washington nods: "I learned my lesson."

And yes, he has lots of family support. His mom, Rosa Rangel from Jalisco, Mexico, is the tennis nut in the family and when she's down from Vallejo, Gerald is back on the courts. And when his dad, also Gerald, is here with his stepmother, he's a credentialed ring photographer. The family makes it to all his fights.

But now Gerald is hoping to enlarge his demographics -- "I've got the military and Mexico," he says with a grin, and maybe the Bay Area. "But now I'd like to see USC fans pick up on me."

As he talks Trojans, Washington peels off the grey "WE ARE SC" t-shirt to reveal a cardinal and gold USC singlet he'll wear in the ring as he works on his combinations and footwork with Pullman, who has trained him for two years at this immaculate gym with its big windows and a floor you really could eat off of. When they make the movie, they'll have to move it to South Philly and gritty the place up a lot.

But for now, just to be here up close and listen to his punches land in 1-2, 1-2-3 and 1-2-3-4 staccato combos is to understand why the fascination with Washington. He's light on his feet for a big guy. Lighter, bouncier than you remember when he was pouncing on a couple of fumbles his senior season that led to touchdowns or blocking a punt against UCLA.

But he can hit. And move. He's strong and athletic. The hope here, and the plan, Pullman says, is for him to be too big and strong, but just as good a boxer, as the smaller heavyweights. And a better athlete, quicker and with more endurance, than the big guys.

Just don't ask him about any of them specifically. Not for print, anyway. London Olympian, and another former footballer, Alhambra's Dominic Breazeale, is a buddy and even bigger at 6-7, 255 although he was a quarterback in college (Northern Colorado). The really hot heavyweight now, Mailk Scott at 35-0 and a smooth 6-3, 230-pound tehnician, might get the next shot.

Washington has an idea how he'd do against another football player he's being compared to -- former Michigan State linebacker Seth Mitchell (20-1) down the road somewhere if he keeps on the path he's headed. But then he sees how that looks when it's written down and asks if he could just take that back. "I don't want to get my manager mad at me," he says of the fighters' shared management.

No Muhmmad Ali he in the self-promotion category. But he is looking for a USC fan group to pick up on him. Athletes, too. "I'm starting to work out at McKay," he says, along with the growing group of former USC players there now where the word is: "We don't work out, we train here."

"That facility has everything anybody could ask for," Washington says, "everything. They even have punching bags."

Every little bit helps, financially right now. While it depends on your deal, it's not really better than on an NFL practice squad.

"Not at this stage," Washington says. With Haymon, Washington keeps the first $100,000 he earns with Haymon taking 15 percent after that. But the expenses are on Washington although that changes with the bigger fights if and when they come.

The tricky part there is "we have to pay sparring partners," Pullman says of the fact that not many heavyweights want to get pounded around by a guy who can hit as hard as Washington can. And that's for a couple of sparring sessions a week. "Guys sometimes just don't show up," he says.

"The dollars depend on the number of rounds you fight," Washington says, "four, six, eight, 10 or 12 for a championship fight," with individual contracts for each fight. "Ten-round fights are when you start to make money."

But the fact that Washington's next fight is an eight-rounder, after just one six-rounder, helps here.

And no matter what happens, Washington says he always has Pullman's corner advice in his ear: "He's going to punch you in the face," his trainer will tell him of his opponent before the start of each fight, "relax."

Just a little reminder, Washington says, of the second part of their shared gameplan no matter what happens: "This is what you asked for."

It is indeed.

Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at weber@uscfootball.com.




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