Robert Easter, Jr., scratches his scruffy beard and slumps in a chair inside a dimly lit room at Glass City Boxing Gym, his sinewy, 5-foot-11 frame unfolding as he leans back.
“I was born and raised in The Mud, you feel me,” he said. “Every time I fight, I do it for the people in Toledo.”
It’s been a long road for the South Toledo native who is a reflection and product of The Mud, a common nickname for Toledo among inner-city youth. Since the age of 9, Easter, also known as E-Bunny, has been honing his craft; day after day, little by little, chiseling his body and perfecting his technique.
For as long as he remembers the pursuit of greatness consumed him, controlling his thoughts, dictating his every move, and despite winning a world title, his appetite for success has only intensified.
“This is what I saw every day; this is what I envisioned,” he said.
The 26-year-old, who again defends his International Boxing Federation lightweight championship Jan. 20, sank deeper into the chair before finishing his thought.
“You got to live it, you got to breathe it, you got to eat, sleep it, live your dream and that’s what I did.”
Now with two successful title defenses on his resume, a burgeoning fan base, and what feels like an entire city behind him, Easter is on the precipice of stardom.
Robert Easter, Jr., is photographed at Glass City Boxing Gym in Toledo. The South Toledo native is 20-0 in his professional career heading into his next fight.
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It’s a Friday night, and Easter is drenched in sweat. He grabs a towel to wipe his face. He just finished another grueling week of training camp.
“We gonna train again on Monday for New Year’s like we did for Christmas?” his cutman, Levi Smith, asks.
“Hell yeah,” Easter responded. “We ain’t taking no days off.
“Ain’t no holidays in boxing.”
Then his voice changed, became solemn, uncompromising.
“This is what it takes,” he said. “No shortcuts.”
For Easter, motivation is everything, and so he takes everything as motivation.
“If you walk by and say, ‘What’s up?’ to me, I take that as motivation because you know who I am,” he said. “I also take someone walking past me that don’t me as motivation because I want to work and get to the point where they do know me.”
He’s in a relentless pursuit to achieve his goals. In every workout, he digs deep inside himself before finding his breaking point, purging that weakness and pushing through.
“The weak never survive,” Easter said.
He’s reminded of his goals every time he unlocks his iPhone. On his home screen, his motivation is written out in bold red letters.
“I will not lose.”
“I will remain champion of the world.”
“I will remain focused.”
“I will win.”
“Hard work. Dedication.”
There’s a fire in his eyes. He has a one-track mind: defeating his latest challenger, Javier Fortuna, on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
He wants to win it not only for himself but for his city and his family.
Like Father, Like Son
Coach Robert Easter, Sr., center, watches his son Robert Easter, Jr., right, work out Tuesday at Glass City Boxing Gym. The two have been close their entire lives, and Easter, Sr., is a former professional boxer.
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They bonded first as father and son, then as coach and fighter.
From the moment Easter learned how to insert a tape into a VCR, he would watch the grainy footage of his dad’s professional fights. He would slip on the oversized boxing shorts of Robert Easter, Sr., and wrap his hands in toilet tissue to emulate his father.
“I would watch those fights over and over and over again,” he said. “That was when I was 4 years old. I wanted to be just like him.”
Easter, Jr., is a third-generation boxer, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, James Easter, Sr., and his dad. It runs through his veins. His father fought for several years before stopping in 1999 to focus on taking care of his family.
Tensions were high following Easter, Jr.’s first title fight in September, 2016. After a 12-round battle with Richard Commey, he and his team collectively held their breath to see if his lifelong dream of becoming a world champion would come to fruition.
“The winner by split-decision,” the announcer said over the PA system at the Santander Arena in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Easter, Jr., waited anxiously.
“From Toledo, Ohio...”
Filled with unbridled joy, Easter, Jr., lifted his arms to the sky and turned to his left to celebrate. Right by his side was the man who introduced him to the sport before he knew how to walk — his dad.
He leaped into his arms, they embraced, and that split second in time encapsulated the years of labor and sacrifice that lead to that moment.
“Man, that was special,” Easter, Sr., said, reflecting on that night.
Easter, Sr., struggled to find the right words to convey how proud he is of his son’s accomplishments.
“I feel good that he followed through on the things in life that he wanted to do,” he said. “Sometimes it’s unreal, like, ‘Wow, can you believe that he’s the IBF champion of the world?’ ”
Quite literally, there is no Robert Easter, Jr., without Robert Easter, Sr. The legacy of E-Bunny, the fighter, was molded out of the image of the elder Easter.
The admiration Easter, Jr., has for his father is evident. As an adult, he’s come to understand and appreciate the task his father had of guiding an African-American male through adolescence without falling victim to the streets.
Just above his collarbone, on each side of his neck, Easter, Jr., has a tattoo of the names of both his mother, Robin Ellis, and father.
Easter, Jr., moved in with his father in junior high school. His dad worked two jobs to make ends meet. He spent eight years at Wendy’s and still works as a transporter at the University of Toledo Medical Center.
IBF Lightweight Champion Robert Easter, Jr., battles Denis Shafikov during last title defense June 30 at the Huntington Center.
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Under his father’s guidance, Easter, Jr., was able to avoid many of the pitfalls — drugs, crime, and gangs — that sent friends to jail or the cemetery. On his left forearm is a portrait of his friend that died in a gunfight outside a South Toledo bar.
“My dad always kept me busy to keep me off the streets,” Easter, Jr., said.
As a 15-year-old, Easter, Jr., remembered sitting in his room crying because he was tired of boxing. He wanted to be a “regular kid.”
He called his mother because he was afraid to tell his father.
“I didn’t know what my dad would think,” Easter, Jr., said.
A teary-eyed Easter, Jr., approached his father and told him how he felt. To his surprise, his father comforted him and said he didn’t have to go to the gym the next day.
“I was relieved,” Easter, Jr., said. “But he never pushed me into boxing.”
Easter, Jr., spent that evening riding his bike around the neighborhood looking to hang out with his friends. He couldn’t find them.
The next day he was back in the gym.
The making of a champ
After graduating from Bowsher High School in 2010, Easter found himself searching for his purpose. Despite establishing himself as a dominant amateur boxer and earning an alternate spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team, his future was murky.
He enrolled at the University of Toledo and worked part-time jobs at Wendy’s and Goodwill.
“Those were my dark years right there,” he said. “You ain’t got no money, and the only thing I knew was boxing.”
He knew he was an exceptional talent and rejected the notion that he needed a college degree as a safety net in case boxing didn’t pan out.
“I didn’t want to go to school,” he said. “But people said I had to have a backup plan. I never understood that because I was so confident I was going to make it in boxing.”
After spending a semester and a half doing unwanted coursework, Easter dropped out of college.
Shortly after leaving UT, he received a call from Adrien Broner, a four-time world champion, and his trainer Mike Stafford inviting him to train with them in Cincinnati.
Later that year, Easter made his pro debut in Los Angeles at the Staples Center.
Roughly five years and 20 wins later, on the north side of Toledo, Easter’s in the middle of an intense sparring session with his team standing on the ropes watching intently.
His father stands in his corner, often simulating to his son what combinations to throw.
“Good stick,” his grandfather yells from his corner each time he lands a hard jab.
Glass City is the only gym he's ever called home. It's his sanctuary. This is where he feels most comfortable: surrounded by the people he trusts most.
A poster with a photograph of Robert Easter, Jr., after he won the IBF lightweight championship hangs overhead as he takes a moment during a workout at Glass City Boxing Gym in Toledo.
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His nickname may be E-Bunny, but now in the gym, he’s addressed as “Champ.” A vinyl banner hangs on the wall with a picture of Easter the night he won his IBF title. On the opposite wall is a banner with the bold letters “TBT,” which stands for The Bunny Team — his inner circle of family, longtime friends, and trainers.
As Easter’s celebrity rises, his world grows smaller, and his team helps insulate him from the outside world.
“We’re here to protect him, keep him grounded and stabilize him,” said his uncle, James Easter, Jr.
During training camp, the gym is the only place to catch a glimpse of the champ, who moves through Toledo in a cocoon of his own creation.
“When I’m not training, all I do is stay in the house and play video games,” Easter said.
For now, he’s in the gym hitting pads as the fight nears.
Feint. Slip. Uppercut. Uppercut. Sidestep. Jab.
He’s in a rhythm.
The song “Everyday” by two local rappers, Aoc Obama and YM, blasts through the gym speaker.
“Can you turn that up, Unc?” he asked his uncle sitting ringside.
He begins nodding his head.
“I love the way Toledo sounds.”