Whenever a replacement opponent is needed for a significant fight, fans and pundits are usually left grasping for narratives to justify the selection and imbue what’s regarded as a letdown with some semblance of meaning. But when it comes to Gerald Washington, who has stepped up on short notice to face WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder on February 25, all that’s required to find some compelling storylines is a little cursory research into the 16 to 1 underdog’s background.
Washington (18-0-1) played linebacker at the University of Southern California after serving four years in the United States Navy as a helicopter mechanic. No pushover on the gridiron, he had stretches on NFL practice squads with the Seattle Seahawks and the Buffalo Bills. The statuesque Washington certainly cuts the figure of a contemporary heavyweight at 6’6″ and a sculpted and robust 245 pounds, though he only turned pro at 30 and has contested fewer than 20 fights in boxing’s paid ranks. But if Washington is able to do the improbable, “El Gallo Negro” will become the first fighter with Mexican heritage to win a world heavyweight title belt.
While most fans and pundits are already plotting Wilder’s next move and speculating about the odds of him unifying titles in 2017, Gerald Washington has been diligently preparing for his big moment in the spotlight. In his last bout, he knocked out former title challenger Ray Austin on a Wilder undercard in Alabama, so he knows the drill: Wilder (37-0) will walk out in his gladiator mask as his home crowd’s cresting cries guide him towards the ring; “Bomb Squad” music will be blaring; and then Wilder will stare him down, and the bell will ring.
“I’ve already fought Deontay Wilder in my mind,” Washington says. “I’ve been getting ready. I am ready.”
What external parties feel about Gerald Washington’s confidence heading into a seemingly herculean challenge is irrelevant to him, and he pays no attention to the odds or to projections that look past this fight. Interestingly, Washington doesn’t even claim that such disrespect is the extra fuel that will propel him to victory. Simply put, he’s far too focused on his preparation and on what this opportunity means.
“This is why we’re in the game,” says Washington, “to be the champion of the world. I’m not doing this to just compete and say I was a professional boxer. No, I want to say I was champion of the world. I want to claim that throne. I want to claim that title.”
Washington’s atypical background has also, in its own way, prepared him for this moment. His time in one of the NCAA’s most storied football programs and in the NFL means his athletic talent has been moulded in the kind of competitive, elite environment that can’t be dismissed. Washington learned what it takes to train and compete at the highest level of an athletic discipline, though he’s careful to note that boxing, which George Foreman famously referred to as the sport to which all others aspire, is an entirely different beast.
Boxing’s inherent danger forced Washington to prioritize defence from the first time he stepped in a gym, and he considers himself a patient fighter who has developed a methodical approach as he’s gained more experience. But if there’s an edge that Washington holds over the typical pugilist, it may come from the values fostered during his four-year tenure in the Navy and how that has led him to focus on team building in order to further his career. In Washington’s camp, everyone involved has a job, and the execution of specific tasks assigned to each team member allows for individual success grounded in trust and collective effort.
“It’s just the discipline overall,” Washington says about what he learned from the Navy. “I know how to set goals. I know how to complete a task. When you’re in the Navy, you’re part of a big team, a unit, and everybody is responsible for their job. And if you don’t complete your job, then the mission will fail. I take that same approach when it comes to boxing.”
So, how did Gerald Washington get to this point, just one career-best performance away from claiming a portion of the heavyweight title?
Following the only blemish on his record, a ten round split draw against fringe contender Amir Mansour, he fought twice in 2016. First, he outpointed the experienced and slick Eddie Chambers, which proved a crucial victory in Washington’s development and showed he could cope with a vastly different style. Then came the aforementioned stoppage of Ray Austin, an admittedly faded name, but it was encouraging to see “El Gallo Negro” dominate the bout so thoroughly.
“It’s just a matter of taking my time and breaking them down,” Washington says when asked about his recent progress. “And then, when you see them weaken a little, that’s when you get on them. I don’t go for knockouts until I see it. I wait for it, try to earn it, and when I have an opportunity, try to take it. But I don’t just go out there and try to knock them out in the first round.”
Indeed, Washington will have to tread carefully against Wilder, who is known for his otherworldly punching power. That said, fans have seen “The Bronze Bomber” struggle at times during his title reign; he was badly wobbled against Eric Molina, and he had difficulty with Artur Szpilka’s southpaw trickery before scoring a memorable one-punch knockout. Moreover, Wilder will be fighting for the first time since healing from a broken hand and torn right bicep. When one adds in the the fact that the champion, who has stated that he believes Washington isn’t ready to compete at this level, might be underestimating the challenger, the framework may be in place for a possible shocking upset.
And if Deontay Wilder has one eye on the future, Gerald Washington is embracing the challenge that lies before him with singular focus and an awareness of a potential victory’s broader significance. Washington’s mother is Mexican, and he lived with her in Mexico for several years. While he talks openly about the anxiety that came with looking out of place racially, he quickly pivots to mention how he was embraced by a tight-knit community. With the current tension in the United States surrounding immigration, deportation, and the state of the U.S.-Mexico border, Washington, whose father is from Detroit, sees the potential to set a positive, unifying example and cites Muhammad Ali as the kind of socially conscious athlete he aspires to emulate.
“I was very blessed to have this upbringing,” Washington says when speaking of his Mexican-American heritage. “My mother comes from a family of 12, nine girls and three boys. All my cousins grew up in the Bay Area, but my grandmother and aunt lived in Mexico. I had the opportunity to go there when I was 13-years-old, to go to school in Mexico and live on a ranch and work on a farm.”
If Gerald Washington is an afterthought to many, he views his shot at Wilder as a chance to literally make history. As for the bout itself, the first round of Wilder vs Washington should be revelatory. Will Wilder’s ring rust prevent him from immediately bossing the action? Will Washington box in a reactive shell? Ultimately, the key to a shocking upset victory for the challenger may lie less in tactical nuance than in a credo he proclaims with passion: “You can’t be scared of another man. If I’m working as hard as you, why do I need to fear you?” — Zachary Alapi