In his latest column for Boxing Social, boxing’s master of all trades Russ Anber reflects on his most memorable night in boxing…

The last few months, with Coronavirus, lockdown and virtually no boxing, have afforded all of us in the fight game plenty of opportunities to reflect on some of the pivotal moments from our careers.

The moments that have – for better or worse – defined us.

I’ve been in boxing for more than four decades now and I’ve worked with a lot of great fighters – from my first fighter Vinnie Curto to modern superstars like Vasiliy Lomachenko.

I’ve travelled the world, met many amazing people and enjoyed a lot of great moments.

But whenever anyone asks me to name the absolute highlight of my career so far – no doubt about it, I always give the same answer: namely, the night of December 13, 1997, when my fighter Otis Grant beat Ryan Rhodes in Sheffield for the WBO middleweight championship of the world.

A young Russ Anber (left) celebrates Otis Grant’s unexpected win over
Ryan Rhodes in December 1997. Former pro Benny May is pictured right.
Photo: Owen Humphreys/Press Association.

That moment was the culmination of the first half of a life spent in and around boxing. From when I first walked into a gym, my dream was always to take a fighter to the world title and that night I achieved it, and with a fighter I had built from the ground up.

I first met Otis when he was 12 years old. Back then I was working at the old Olympic Boxing Club in Montreal. As fate would have it, I saw Otis in just his second amateur fight – he was boxing for Saint Laurent against our fighter Marlon Wright.

Marlon was a good fighter and he beat Otis – at that stage he had more experience. As a side note, Marlon later became a world class referee, officiating the Gennady Golovkin-Kell Brook fight among many others before sadly dying of cancer in 2017 aged just 51.

Less than a year after seeing Otis against Marlon, I moved over to the Saint Laurent Club. On the Friday, I was introduced as the new assistant trainer with Otis and his brother Howard there among others. And then on the Monday the trainer who brought me over to the club resigned and I inherited the gym! That’s how my career as a head trainer of a gym began!

So I started working with Otis and from the beginning our dream was to become champion of the world. I remember saying to Otis, ‘When we win the world championship I’m going to get a tattoo!’

Not many people had tattoos in those days, but by the time he won the title everyone had tattoos so I dropped that idea! It didn’t seem special any more!

Otis has always been an under-appreciated and under-rated fighter. I don’t know if people really understand just how good Otis was. To put it in perspective, when he was about 14 there was a guy named Mario Cusson who was the welterweight champion of Canada. He was a real up and coming name.

Otis Grant (left) gave Russ Anber (right) the proudest
night of his boxing career. Photo: Russ Anber.

Cusson was set to fight another very tough fighter from Halifax, Nova Scotia, named Allen Clarke. Clarke had been a sparring partner for Aaron Pryor as well and was so tough Pryor nicknamed him ‘Superman’. Allen was a southpaw and Mario’s trainer, the late George Drouin, asked me if I had anyone he could spar with.

‘Sure,’ I said, ‘he can spar with Otis’.

George said, ‘Come on he’s just a kid’.

I said: ‘Believe me, he’ll be fine.’

So Otis sparred Mario, and Mario fell in love with the kid. So as a young teenager, Otis was the chief sparring partner for a guy who was about to fight 12 rounds for the Canadian welterweight championship! That’s how good Otis Grant was.

And he was such a joy to work with. To date, he’s the only guy in boxing I’ve never had an argument with!

And I think that spoiled me a bit as a trainer to be honest. I never had any issues with Otis. There were never issues about money, about who we were gonna fight, what time we were gonna train, who we were gonna spar. Never a single issue! So I naively thought this was the norm and how it would be with everybody! And apparently that is not the case!

Otis is just a very chilled and relaxed man. To give you an idea of how calm and relaxed, he fell asleep in the dressing room prior to fighting Roy Jones Jr. Nothing stressed him out. It was so easy to deal with him and be around him. He was also such a smart and intelligent guy. And that came out in the ring as well, where he was so cool under pressure.

‘Magic’ Otis Grant (38-3-1, 17 KOs) fought Roy Jones Jr. and was always matched tough.

An early landmark for Otis was when he beat Dan Sherry to become Canadian middleweight champion in 1991. Otis fought on the road all the time; it was very difficult to get him fights in Montreal, as none of the Montreal fighters at the time wanted anything to do with him.

Sherry wouldn’t fight us until we were the mandatory and he had to fight us. And we had to fight for very little money and in his home territory of Niagara Falls. Sherry had a reputation as a whinger and a moaner and that fight was no exception.

In the seventh round, Sherry claimed a foul that never happened and said he couldn’t continue. They tried to get Otis disqualified, but the supervisor made the correct call and Otis got the TKO. We left Niagara Falls that same night because we didn’t feel safe!

Returning home with the Canadian title finally opened doors for us in Montreal and Otis would now get to fight his next five fights in and around the Montreal area, adding the NABF title along the way.

It was shortly after defending the NABF title in Montreal that we made the decision to sign with Philadelphia-based promoter Artie Pelullo. He matched us against tough guys, legitimate guys, but in good venues, casinos and on US television and that gave Otis the boost his career needed.

The world title shot against Ryan Rhodes came about not long after Otis got a draw with Lonnie Bradley for the same WBO title. Everyone who saw that fight knew that Otis won it. When the title became vacant, Artie got us the fight against Ryan Rhodes in Sheffield.

So we came over to England and set up camp in Peckham, local pro prospect Benny May took care of everything we needed in London and arranged for us to train at the Lynn Athletic Club for seven weeks. We rented a house so Otis would be comfortable and focused. We didn’t do any media, we didn’t tell the promoters where we were staying or training. We just stayed focused on our preparation.  John Scully was our main sparring partner and he was able to switch between right-handed and southpaw, which is what we expected Ryan Rhodes to do.

The fight poster gives away the fact that Grant was not supposed to win.

When it came to fight week, I remember saying at the press conference that one of the biggest dreams of my life was to come to Sheffield. Of course, everyone thought I was full of shit, but I was completely genuine because I’m a huge snooker fan and it had always been my dream to go to the World Championships at the Crucible Theatre.

I also remember at the rules meeting the day before the fight there was an argument about who would go in the ring first. As the local boy, they wanted Ryan to come in second. Knowing of the grand entrances of Prince Naseem Hamed, I didn’t want us standing in the ring and waiting for Rhodes to appear while Otis got cold. So I said to them, ‘Okay, but the moment we get in the ring I’m starting my stopwatch and, if Rhodes isn’t out in three minutes, we’re going back to the dressing room’.

Sure enough he came out and there were no issues. Ryan was the enemy then although he’s a friend of mine now. We knew he was a stable-mate of Naseem Hamed, but that didn’t really matter or have an impact on us because it never entered my mind that we would lose.

If you watch the film of the fight you’ll see that when Otis is introduced there’s a row of like seven people who stand up and cheer. Those were my in-laws at the time – the rest of the place was all for Rhodes!

Otis Grant knew too much for the heavily hyped Ryan Rhodes.

We won the fight easily. The scorecards [115-113, twice, and 115-114] were a surprise, because I thought we’d won pretty much every round. It was even more of surprise when they wrongly announced it as a split decision to start with.

But we got the decision and it was the culmination of a great run, the fulfilment of a great dream. And we did it the hard way – before that night you could count on one hand the number of fights Otis had in Montreal.

We didn’t inflate his record on home turf – Otis was a road warrior who fought in Philly, Boston, Atlantic City, Vegas, Louisiana – you name it.

And he became champion of the world. I take a lot of pride in that. And I don’t think anything will ever beat the thrill and emotion of that night in Sheffield in December 1997. I loved that night.

And how did we celebrate? I took a photo of myself stark naked with the world title belt. But that’s another story…

Russ Anber was speaking to Luke G. Williams.

Russ is the founder/CEO of Rival Boxing, as well as a highly respected trainer (of both pros and amateurs), a gym owner, a cut-man, an entrepreneur, a broadcaster and one of the best hand wrappers in the boxing business. Vasyl Lomachenko, Aleksandr Usyk, Artur Beterbiev and Callum Smith are among the many top boxers Russ currently works with.