Washington fights for heavyweight belt after Navy, football

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BURBANK, Calif. (AP) — Gerald Washington shows up at Pullmans Gym almost every day of his life, even when the heavyweight contender has no fight coming up.

He only lives a few blocks from the clean, tiny gym in a residential enclave of the San Fernando Valley, tucked into a quiet strip mall next to an ice cream shop and a salon called Yummy Hair.

Washington spends his innumerable hours at Pullmans training relentlessly, but he also savors the daily presence of his closest friends, including his trainer, John Pullman. After previous lives as a pro football player and a Navy helicopter mechanic, the 34-year-old Washington realizes the importance of maximizing his time in and out of the ring.

"This is my house," Washington said. "I love the energy that's in here. There's great people here, beautiful people. We're all making history here. It's a great place to learn and to grow."

Less than five years after his pro boxing debut, Washington (18-0-1, 12 KOs) is one punch away from growing into an unlikely world heavyweight champion.

He meets WBC belt-holder Deontay Wilder (37-0) in Birmingham, Alabama, on Saturday night, getting the fight of his life on short notice.

Washington received his first title shot only after Andrzej Wawrzyk failed a doping test late last month. Other fighters would have worried about having four weeks to prepare for the daunting Wilder, but Washington isn't the type to wait for things to happen.

"I think it's the perfect time for this," Washington said. "We put in the time. We've been patient. We've had the right fights to develop us, mentally and physically. We put in this work."

Washington loved boxing and tennis growing up in the Bay Area, but his 6-foot-6 athleticism steered him to football after his four years in the military. His Navy career gave him a soldier's mentality to take into his athletic exploits, but it also taught him about punctuality and persistence — two qualities that remain foreign to many boxers.

He played football in junior college and eventually spent two seasons as a defensive lineman and tight end at Southern California, learning about competitive fire from coach Pete Carroll on two of the Trojans' dominant Rose Bowl teams.

After stints on NFL practice squads in Seattle and Buffalo, Washington returned to sparring — and he fell right back in love.

"Boxing was always my passion, and it just took one time for me to get back in the ring," he said. "I was 6-foot-6 and 260-something pounds, and when I hit somebody, I hurt them. I was dropping people. I was like, 'Oh.' It just took over. I love that boxing is man-on-man. You don't have to worry about teammates or anybody else."

Pullman and Washington have known each other since 2009, when Washington had just returned to amateur boxing and Pullman was a budding trainer from the East Coast. They've spent years together in the gym, but they still go out to dinner and to the movies constantly. They even vacation together.

Pullman is developing a rising stable of fighters, but Washington's shot at Wilder will be his first world title fight as well.

"He's the cream of the crop," Pullman said. "He's a full-grown man. He's very cultured. He has a lot of character. He's been around the world doing various different things. Seen a lot, been through a lot, knows a lot. He knows what the opportunity is that he has, and he grabs it with both hands. That guy is totally dedicated to his craft, and it's going to show."

Washington actually had to lose 20 pounds of muscle off his football body to get in optimal heavyweight fighting shape. But he maintains peak conditioning with his constant workouts, which allowed him to be confident about taking a short-notice heavyweight title fight.

Washington and Pullman realize they're serious underdogs in Wilder's home state. They also know the heavyweight game is historically unpredictable, and they believe every unusual detour in Washington's unique journey created a path to Birmingham.

"If you're going to ask me to draw it up, this isn't what I would have drawn up," Pullman said. "Having said that, you take the opportunity when it presents itself. And so many weird things had to happen for us to be in this position, as far as guys testing positive for steroids, Deontay getting injured, Gerald being ready. So many things happened at the right time. Sometimes it just lines up right for you."

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