Local trainer recalls Ali spark

John Russell adds to flood of anecdotes about the legendary boxer

John Russell instructs a young protege, Charlie Muntwyer, in between rounds at a 2012 Marco Island tourney.
  • ‘The thing is, he would make you … everybody, feel special’ - John Russell, trainer of Buster Douglas

In among all the tributes rained down on boxing legend Muhammad Ali after his recent passing, John Russell felt moved to pass a couple more along to readers of the Sun Times.

“I got plenty of calls for comments from all over the country,” said Russell, a former trainer whose career highlight was spurring James “Buster” Douglas to victory over Mike Tyson in 1990, “but I prefer to give them to you.”

Inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame in 2012, Russell doesn’t pretend to have known Ali well, but he cherishes a 45-minute pow-wow the two had at a hotel pool near the Houston Astrodome in 1971.

Ali was up against Buster Mathis, and Russell would work the corner for fighter Mike Boswell against Joe Bugner.

“I was 21 years old at the time,” said Russell, a Naples resident, and like everybody else was in awe of him. We were setting up at the hotel, and here comes Ali to the pool. Mike knew him and said to him, ‘lemme see your jab.’”

When Ali obliged, Boswell retorted, ‘you’ll do fine.’

Ali and Russell shot the breeze on all sorts of subjects, not least Vietnam. Russell had served, and returned in ’69. He knew about Ali’s conscientious objection to the war, but neither passed judgement.

“I asked him how he turned on and off when crowds or the media were around,” and he said ‘it’s just a show.’ All of a sudden there come the cameras, so Ali looked at me, winked, and went into his act,” Russell said.

Being in the business, it was inevitable their paths would cross a few times after that.

Russell didn’t expect Ali would necessarily remember him, or even his name, but one time in a shared change room, Ali looked at him and said, ‘I know your name, I bet you 100 bucks I do.’

“So he goes John Russell. He had asked Buster beforehand, but he didn’t take the bucks,” Russell said. “The thing is, he would make you … everybody, feel special.:

Buster Douglas, trainer John Russell and Muhammad Ali are seen together in this illustration from a 1990 publication.

When Buster Douglas became champ, he, Russell, trainer Angelo Dundee and Ali ended up in Ali’s hotel room.

“He was showing some Parkinson’s at that stage,” Russell said. “I think the fight with Larry Holmes did it. He should have retired before that.”

At any rate, Russell said, Ali was still possessed of his mischievous sense of humor, telling the group that when he watched the Douglas/Tyson fight, he had jumped up off his couch at the end and hollered that Douglas had knocked out “the brat.”

As Ali deteriorated it became common knowledge that he was basically living on borrowed time.

“When he died, it did something to me,” Russell said. “It almost broke my heart. He had always been my hero. It was a hard week for me, not that I was his great friend or anything … but I feel blessed to have been able to meet him and talk with him, and spend some time with him.”

Russell, incidentally, worked with plenty of big names, learning from Angelo Dundee and going on to train the likes of Douglas, Earnie Shavers, Harry Arroyo and Anthony Hanshaw. He started splitting his time between his native Ohio and Marco Island in the 1990s, and recently moved to Naples within walking distance of Fifth Avenue, which he likes.

He and Douglas worked out of a gym near the "small" Publix on Marco Island in the mid-1990s when Douglas was looking for some comeback fights.

"Like anybody else, I would be lying if I said I thought Buster was going to beat him," Russell said. "Tyson really was the baddest man on the planet. He was an animal. He simply destroyed everybody. Guys were scared to death of him."

But not Douglas.

Russell instilled it in him, telling him every day he simply needed to get through the first two rounds and take it from there.

He said just before the fight when he warmed his fighter up, Douglas was bristling with power.

"I could tell how he was going to perform. It's sort of like with racehorses. You just get a feeling," Russell said.

Douglas indeed persevered through the first two rounds, and after that kept going with big combinations that Russell suggested.

In the eighth, Douglas went down to a vicious Tyson compact upper cut, but hung on until the bell before dominating the ninth and 10th rounds, then felling his man with a huge uppercut in the 10th.

And Russell’s final take on Ali:

“He made everybody he touched a better person.”