Renaissance man: Russ Anber interview
Luke G. Williams
Photos: Russ Anber Instagram
Forty years ago today, Canadian Russ Anber's career in boxing began - in the decades since he has assumed a series of roles in both the amateur and professional ranks the breadth of which is unrivalled in the sport. Luke G. Williams speaks to boxing's master of all trades...
Pigeonholing a polymath such as Montreal-born and bred Russ Anber is pretty much an impossible task.
Anber is not only a highly respected trainer (of both pros and amateurs), but also a gym owner, a cut-man, an entrepreneur/ CEO, a broadcaster and one of the best hand wrappers in the business.
He’s also an excellent close-up magician and a self-professed ‘cue sports junkie’, who has a fierce but friendly ongoing snooker rivalry with Liam 'Beefy' Smith which has played out on the baize in New York and Jeddah among other locations.
In terms of his boxing career, Anber is on quite a run at the moment. Among the many high-profile fighters he works with are Oleksandr Usyk and Callum Smith. He’s also a valued member of the team behind Vasiliy Lomachenko, arguably the sport’s current pound-for-pound number one.
The story of Anber’s long association with boxing begins in the 1970s with two iconic events.
“My first contact with boxing was probably 1971 when Ali fought Frazier,” he explains, in his trademark high-energy style, words flowing at the rate of machine gun bullets. “That was such a high profile fight. All the kids in the neighbourhood were talking about it.
“But it was the 1976 Olympics in Montreal that changed everything for me. I started boxing as an amateur because of watching the American team – the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leo Randolph and the Spinks brothers. Watching those great Olympic fights really set me on the path. Later that year ‘Rocky’ came out which sealed the deal. And so began my love affair with boxing - a drug that’s been in me ever since!”
While his friends were drawn to the heroes in centre canvas, Anber’s attention alighted on the men in the shadowy corners.
“My heroes had a towel over their shoulder and a Q-tip in their mouth,” he laughs. “I studied Angelo Dundee, Eddie Futch, Ralph Citro, Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown. These were the guys who were important to me.”
As such, Anber views himself as the guardian of the philosophies of the ‘old school’.
“Because I started so young I’m the last link between those old school trainers and this era,” he says matter of factly. “Everybody who’s around today didn’t work with these guys, but I sat down and had dinner numerous times with Angelo Dundee. I performed magic tricks for Angelo Dundee!
“And what these guys taught me – which is something I knew already but they reconfirmed - is that the most important thing as a trainer is that you have to be a great teacher. You have to be able to convey your message, analyse situations and teach somebody how to do something.
“Today fighters get recruited out of the Olympics, someone pays a lot of money to sign them and the next thing you know a trainer is saying: ‘yeah throw the jab, that’s what I’m talking about, baby! That’s what you gotta do!’
“But these trainers – some of who are recognised as being great trainers on the American scene - have never taken a kid and developed him. I’ve done that – taken a fighter from day one in the gym all the way to the championship of the world. There’s not a lot of guys can say they’ve done that. A lot of these trainers have never even produced a national champion as an amateur!”
When Anber says he ‘started young’ he isn’t kidding – the first time he worked a pro corner he was just 18 and the fighter in question was Vinnie Curto, the talented Boston born middleweight of whom Angelo Dundee once affectionately said: “He’s a lunatic, but he can fight!”
Anber takes up the story. “I was training at the Olympic boxing club in Park Avenue, Montreal. At the time it was the equivalent in Canada of what the Kronk Gym was in the United States.
“One day I saw a guy training and said to myself: ‘I know him!’ After a couple of days I mustered up the courage and asked him: ‘Are you Vinnie Curto? Man, I’ve seen you in the boxing magazines, you’re a hell of a fighter!’”
The following day, Anber joined Curto for his morning roadwork and a friendship soon developed.
“We went from going on morning runs and going home to going on morning runs and then having breakfast and then going home… Then going on morning runs, having breakfast, talking boxing all day and going to the gym together! We would talk boxing non-stop about 12 hours a day. We were just immersed in it.
“Then I started to make coaching observations to him. He was the guy who gave me my chance to be a trainer. The first time I worked a pro fight I was 18. It was 2 October 1979 when Vinnie fought Marciano Bernardi. My second fight was on 6 November when Vinnie fought Eddie Melo, who was a big hero here in Montreal.
“So it’s all down to Vinnie. To this day he tells everyone he was my discoverer!”
Among the many fighters Anber has trained since are David Lemieux, Ali Mansour and the Jamaican born Grant brothers, Howard and Otis, who he guided to a World Amateur Championship silver medal and WBO middleweight title glory respectively.
The latter success Anber identifies as a career high point.
“I don’t think anything will ever replace travelling to Sheffield and fighting Ryan Rhodes with Otis Grant for the world title. Grabbing that world championship was something special, particularly as it was with a kid I’d had since he was 13.
“And we did it on our own, with no help from anybody. There was no action in Montreal at that time so he had to keep Otis busy fighting on the road. Take a look at his record - he fought all over the place… Philadelphia, Atlantic City. We funded it ourselves and we got fights wherever and whenever we could. Winning that world title will always be something special in my heart.”
As for the list of fighters for whom Anber has acted as hand wrapper and / or cutman it truly reads like a who’s who of boxing, including such notables as Artur Beterbiev, Eleider Alvarez, Badou Jack, Sergio Martinez and Liam Smith.
“Hand wrapping and being a cut-man were common practice when you were a trainer back in the day,” Anber says. “They weren’t a speciality position! That idea didn’t exist! But somewhere along the line that changed and things specialised. We came up with strength and conditioning guys, nutritionists and pad men. For me learning to do hand wraps and learning to do cuts was part of learning to be trainer.”
Anber has also poured all of his four decades of knowledge in and around boxing into his fast growing company Rival Boxing Gear, one of the most highly regarded designers and manufacturers of boxing equipment and accessories currently operating worldwide.
Among the many fighters who have used Rival’s innovative range of products are Anthony Joshua, Katie Taylor, Keith Thurman, Lomachenko and Jaime Munguia while the season 1 WBSS cruiserweight final between Usyk and Murat Gassiev saw both men lace up in Rival gloves.
“The line I like to use, and I’m not being a smart-ass when I say this, I thoroughly believe this, is that while other companies are businessmen trying to infiltrate the boxing world, I’m a boxing guy trying to infiltrate the business world. That’s what separates Rival from everyone else.
“Literally everybody that works for us is one way or another connected to boxing. So when we make something we make it from a boxing perspective, from a boxing gym perspective. It’s what we want as trainers and as guys in the sport. Everything I do even down to our lowest end glove has a reason for being the way it is.
“For example, with our pro fight gloves, have you noticed the way the cuff is attached to the body of the glove, the way it’s at an angle? The reason is if you naturally follow that angle and tie the lace at a 15-degree angle on the glove you’re actually going to tie it at the highest point on your wrist, so that it won’t move and it gives you maximum wrist support.
“We made the cuff higher and at an angle so you don’t have to skin the glove, like fighters used to have to do in the old days.”
Providing a bridge between the old school and the modern boxing world is clearly Anber’s raison d’etre.
THE UKRAINIAN CONNECTION
Among Anber’s current charges are Ukrainian duo Oleksandr Usyk and Vasiliy Lomachenko (“it’s Vasiliy not Vasyl,” Anber insists, “I have been telling everyone for years now!”)
Anber explains to Boxing Monthly how the connection with the pound for pound superstars – who he describes as “the best one-two punch in boxing today” - came about.
“After Lomachenko turned pro he was suffering serious hand injuries every time he fought. After one fight in Macao [against Suriya Tatakhun] he told his manager Egis Klimas: ‘we need to find someone who can do a better job of my hand wrapping. I’m hurting myself too much.’ He also didn’t like the gloves he was wearing.
“A friend of mine told Egis: ‘why don’t you give Russ Anber a try?’ Egis knew I was working with Jean Pascal, who was scheduled to fight Sergei Kovalev in Montreal [14 March 2015]. Egis contacted me and said: ‘can you come down and wrap Lomachenko and see if he likes it?’
“I said: ‘I really can’t I’ve got to be in the dressing room for Pascal, but I’ll be there early, so if you bring Lomachenko by I can wrap him in the dressing room.’ He said ok and so my trial experience for Lomachenko was wrapping his hands in Jean Pascal’s dressing room!
“Anyway he liked it and he liked the gloves we made him, so I came down and worked his corner for his next fight [against Gamelier Rodriguez]. Everything went well and Lomachenko was happy. We got back to the dressing room, and he just turned to me and said: ‘Welcome to Team Lomachenko!’ We’ve been together ever since.”
Anber was subsequently asked by Klimas to also join Usyk’s set-up. However, he is quick to correct reports he was ‘head trainer’ for the Murat Gassiev fight in the WBSS final.
“That’s not exactly how it happened,” he says. “I had already been in the Usyk camp for a while. When he was training in the United States to fight Michael Hunter - the same night Lomachenko fought Jason Sosa - Egis asked would I train Usyk for that fight and I did, of course.
“Then he returned home to Ukraine and for the next couple of fights he stayed and worked with a Ukrainian trainer while I was the cutman. When they split [ahead of the Gassiev fight], Usyk approached Lomachenko’s father about setting up a training programme and basically getting him ready.
“I don’t want to take any credit where I’m not due. I was in training camp with them but Lomachenko’s father was the one who put the programme together and got him ready. However he wanted to do it without being under the microscope and the limelight so they tried to pass me off as being the trainer. I’ve always said: this is basically a team effort, but credit has to go to Lomachenko’s father.”
On the subject of Usyk himself – who is moving up to heavyweight later this month - Anber is full of praise.
“He’s a special talent. He’s so gifted, he’s also so determined and he’s such a clean living individual. He’s a credit to the sport of boxing. He is so talented and gifted and at the end of the day he’s a true heavyweight. Don’t be fooled by this cruiserweight stuff. We just get confused because fighters weight 250lbs these days - with Usyk skills pay the bills!”
A version of this article previously appeared in Boxing Monthly magazine