When Gerald Washington was a 23-year-old first-year tight end for the USC Trojans in 2006, he lived in an apartment off campus with four other football players: Vidal Hazelton, Anthony McCoy, Jeff Schweiger and Walker Lee Ashley.
His roommates knew he always carried around a pair of boxing gloves, and they knew he was quite a bit older than them, having spent four years out of high school as a helicopter mechanic in the Navy.
They didn’t know the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Washington grew up boxing in the San Francisco Bay Area and gave it up only at his mother’s behest, playing mostly tennis for a spell, instead. So when Schweiger, a big-time defensive end recruit who flopped at USC, brought up the idea of some in-apartment sparring one fall weekend, Washington was all in.
“Everybody used to say they boxed,” Washington said, recalling the incident with laughter. “And I was like, 'No, I really boxed.'"
The end result of that 2006 session? Washington refereed more than he sparred, so everyone came away unscathed -- except for Schweiger, who had a busted lip to show for his challenge.
“I’m not a bully. I didn’t try to hurt them,” Washington said. “I let them think they were doing something good.”
Now 30, Washington is a rising star in the boxing world, fighting on the undercard for the Luis Ramos-Ricardo Williams fight on Saturday at the Business Expo Center in Anaheim, Calif., a matchup staged by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. Washington is hoping to get on the card for the Andre Ward-Kelly Pavlik fight scheduled for Feb. 23 at USC’s Galen Center.
Over the summer, he signed with boxing power broker Al Haymon, the mysterious Harvard-educated manager who represents a horde of top American fighters, most notably one Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Since then, Washington has fought four times, winning all four and recording three knockouts. His last bout, in November, ended just 21 seconds. He hasn’t even been knocked down.
Hovering around 245 pounds, Washington is fighting every five weeks and has a plan in place to compete for the world heavyweight title by the end of 2013 -- if all goes perfectly and he wins his next dozen bouts. He’s raw, but he has a remarkable fighting frame and developing instincts, honed six days a week at Pullman’s Gym in Burbank, Calif.
Instincts were his main issue in football. He had played only three seasons of organized football -- all as a tight end, with 39 total catches -- when he signed with USC out of junior college after being recruited by Steve Sarkisian and Pete Carroll as a potential diamond in the rough.
He redshirted his first season at tight end, then played as a reserve defensive end during the next two years, recovering two fumbles on the dominating 2008 USC defense.
When he signed with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent in 2009, Washington felt like he matched up physically with everyone he was competing with for a roster spot -- even first-round pick Aaron Maybin, who ended up a massive bust for Buffalo.
"There was nothing I couldn't do physically with them," Washington said. "I was bigger, stronger, faster."
But he was cut two months later. The same thing happened at minicamp with Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks the next season.
When he was back in Los Angeles the following year, Washington ran into former USC teammate Dominique Wise at a gas station. Wise knew about Washington’s boxing history and broached the subject with him.
Washington started training again soon afterward, losing the 15 or so pounds he put on for football.
He’ll never go back to football, he says now.
"I didn't grow up wanting to be in the NFL or anything,” Washington said. “I always had boxing in my heart."
That’s why the likes of Schweiger and McCoy couldn’t hang with him in the makeshift boxing ring. They were both great athletes -- McCoy now plays on Sundays with the Seahawks – but lacked the killer instinct Washington cites as “absolutely necessary” to be successful in boxing.
“Boxing has to be in you,” Washington said. “The hardest hit on the field doesn't compare to one hit to the face. Someone's coming to hurt you. They're not coming to tackle you. They're not coming to make a play. They're coming to hurt you.”
“Football's the most dangerous sport,” he said, “but boxing's a lot scarier.”