LOWELL — Bob Russo was in grade school when he began to study the physical processes of the sweet science.
Russo first cut his teeth on boxing as an 8-year-old in the 1960s. His uncle, George Russo, was Maine's state boxing commissioner when Russo gravitated to the sport, serving as a glove boy at fights at the Portland Expo.
Before long, Russo's love for boxing became his life's passion. Russo had a fifth-row ringside seat with his family when Muhammad Ali won by a first-round knockout over Sonny Liston in their heavyweight championship bout in May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine.
When it came to his own boxing career, Russo wasn't able to fight beyond the club level because of a medical condition that left him legally blind in one eye. But he has continually stayed involved in the sport.
During a lifetime devoted to the fight game, Russo, 64, has served as a coach/mentor/father figure to a countless number of boxers, both amateur and professional, that he's trained at his Portland Boxing Club over the past 27 years. He has coached at the Olympic Trials, promoted 104 boxing shows in Maine and in recent years served as the Executive Director of the New England Golden Gloves.
In 2013, Russo was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame as a boxing coach. This past winter, he was a commanding figure in the 73rd renewal of what was an extremely successful Greater Lowell/Central New England Golden Gloves Tournament at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium.
Now Russo's sage voice of reason and knowledge when it comes to bringing out the best in everyone associated with the local amateur boxing scene will be heard nationally.
At the Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions in Chattanooga, Tenn., earlier this month, Russo was elected national president of the Golden Gloves of America. In this position Russo will lead all 30 Golden Gloves franchises throughout the United States.
"Boxing is my world and that's what makes this such a big honor for me because it's what I do," said Russo. "A big part of my role with the New England Golden Gloves is constantly trying to improve what we do. That's what I'm going to work at doing in this position with all the Golden Gloves franchises.
"Golden Gloves has always been and still is the most respected and recognizable brand in boxing. Everybody knows what the Golden Gloves is. What I want to do is help keep us up front and in front of people and give them a reason to come watch."
Russo feels boxing has lost a generation of sports fans who have made the switch to mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting. His goal is to win over those lost fans and get them to come back to Golden Gloves shows throughout the country.
"I was a glove boy at like eight, nine years old," said Russo. "That's how I started. It just progressed from there. Boxing became an obsession for me. Someone said, "Boxing is more than a sport, it's an obsession.' They were right.
"That's why we need to better promote ourselves, and try to get that generation of young fans we've lost to the MMA back. We need to reintroduce ourselves to the young fans again. We'll always have a hardcore group of fans, but you just need to keep renewing those fans. I don't think we've done a good job of that and that's what needs to happen. We need to better market ourselves. It's a different world. Social media is huge and there are a lot of people and franchises that kind of do the same thing over and over and aren't keeping up with the times."
Russo has never pulled any punches, in or out of the ring. Not one to take a step backward in pursuit of his goals, Russo learned the finer points of the sport while training in Las Vegas under the watchful eye of Chuck Bodak, a World Boxing Hall of Fame inductee who worked with over 50 world champions.
"Working with Chuck Bodak was the biggest shot in the arm for me as far as getting really educated as a trainer," said Russo. "I thought I knew what I was doing, but I really didn't. He was a great basics coach and boxing is all about the basics. You can be a great athlete and super strong and quick, but those are just extra attributes. You need to have good basics, like good balance. That's the kind of teacher he was and that's the kind of trainer I became.
"Working with him is really where I got all my knowledge. That was my college education in boxing, with Chuck in Las Vegas."
Now Russo is ready to spread this knowledge to Golden Gloves franchise delegates, trainers and young boxers throughout the United States.
"Amateur boxing and the Golden Gloves is an awesome youth development program because we deal with a lot of at-risk kids," said Russo. "Many of these kids come from broken families. They don't fit into other sports in a lot of cases. So they gravitate towards boxing and it's a way to get them into a healthy lifestyle with good coaches and good mentoring.
"People need to know that more. The new generation of fans needs to be reintroduced to that and all the good that comes from boxing in the Golden Gloves."