Dan Weber

No longer a football guy, still a Trojan

Gerald Washington started out as a USC football guy trying to learn how to become a boxer. He's still proud of his Trojan gridiron heritage but with a shot at the heavyweight title at the end of the month, the unbeaten El Gallo Negro has finally figured out the fight game. And right on time.

He's no longer the former USC football player he was nearly five years ago as he embarked on -- to say the least -- an uncertain career path.

Gerald Washington had boxed as a kid and never forgot how much fun that was, he says. So after two years as a two-way 260-pound junior college transfer end for a pair of Rose Bowl-winning USC teams after four years in the Navy with NFL stints on Seattle and Buffalo practice squads, he decided to give the fight game a shot.

A serious shot.

And do so at the age of 29. But no big deal. He finished USC at the age of 26, older than Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.

So the guy from Vallejo, who calls himself "El Gallo Negro" (The Black Rooster) after his Mexican-American/African-American heritage, was not afraid of doing something as a late-bloomer. And the time is just about right, say the boxing insiders. He's had 19 fights -- 18 wins, 12 knockouts and a draw.

Getting your first title shot after 20 fights seems just about the way you hope it goes these days. "The good part of that is I'm well-preserved," Gerald says. "It didn't take me 20 years of getting punched to get here . . . that matters now and for my life after boxing."

But first things first. "It's the Year of the Rooster," Gerald says with a big grin as he finishes up getting his hands taped Thursday afternoon at Burbank's storied Pullmans Gym, just two blocks from his house.

He's got just a bit more than two weeks to get up to speed as the fill-in opponent Feb. 25 (5 p.m., Fox) against unbeaten WBC heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, which will be home turf for Tuscaloosa native Wilder. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, the 31-year-old Alabaman, with 36 knockouts in his 37 pro fights, has the size to contend with the 6-6, 245-pound Washington.

The question is: Has Wilder seen an opponent this athletic? Probably not. But will the flamboyant Wilder take him seriously? Gerald was the 10th-ranked heavyweight in December and is replacing Polish fighter, Andrzej Wawrzyk, who failed his drug test.

"If he showboats with me, I'm going to hit him right in the nose," Gerald says in a warning. But he respects Wilder's talent. "He's a real competitor," he says. "He brings it. And I'm a scrappy guy. We're going to mix it up." 

Because now he thinks he can. This is not the Washington of four years ago. Gerald is a lean, trim, quick 245. And he's a fighter, not a football player. The hands are quicker. The combinations sharper. The bounce in his step . . . bouncier. He looks like . . . a boxer.

"if he can just keep up the timing with his jab," says boxing insider Robert Lamar (AKA Pactown), the Peristyle's resident boxing expert with 45 amateur bouts to his credit.

Gerald knows some folks weren't all that impressed with his act at first. He didn't look all that athletic. Tough yes. Athletic, not so much. Where's the punching power and the quickness?

"I was learning," he says. "People were saying I should be doing this -- or that." But if he did, if he just went in there winging and flinging punches, "I'd have gotten my butt knocked out," Gerald says, "and I wouldn't be here talking to you."

Only he is, with some 25 media crowded into the storefront gym as Gerald worked in the ring, then on the heavy bag, and the smaller bags as gym regulars encouraged him.

"This is my home," he says. And where the guy from Vallejo spends every waking hour training.

What are you going to do with the championship belt when you bring it home, he's asked. "I want to take it to USC and put it next to all the Heisman trophies."

And where would his first title fight as champ take place, he's asked . . . Galen Center?

"I want to fill the LA Coliseum," he says, "with 100,000." Just the way the man he idolized -- Muhammad Ali -- would have said it. "I'd like to build on Muhammad Ali's legacy, especially now."

But he'll also build on his USC football career. "Coach [Pete] Carroll was all about competition," he says. "You get the best athletes from all over the country and bring them together to compete. That's what it was about at USC."

Gerald didn't get to go to SEC Country as a USC football player. The non-Notre Dame games for USC in 2007 and 2008 were Nebraska and Ohio State. "But now I get Alabama," he says.

And what would Pete advise him for this matchup, he's asked. "Coach Carroll would say 'Knock his ass out',"

"It's the greatest feeling you can imagine," he says, "knocking somebody out."

But when asked if this is war, he says not at all. "It's a game," he says. The ultimate competition and test.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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