I knew Canadian boxing had risen to an unrivalled level—at least in my lifetime of sports fandom—when Lucian Bute made the second defence of his IBF super middleweight title against rugged Mexican contender Librado Andrade on October 24, 2008. Ever since he represented Romania at three World Amateur Boxing Championships (winning bronze in 1999), Bute had been touted as top professional prospect – the kind of classy boxer whose natural power could make him even more of a force in the paid ranks. His decision to adopt Montreal as his home base was a coup for the city’s emerging boxing scene, and I’d seen evidence of the buzz surrounding Bute when he attracted a considerably rabid throng of supporters to the Bell Centre for his elimination bout against 2000 Cameroon Olympian Sakio Bika three fights before his controversial defence against Andrade.
But October 24, 2008 was different. I wasn’t at the Bell Centre that night (as I was for Bute-Bika, which happened to be my first live boxing card); instead, I was huddled outside a Cage aux Sport on René Lévesque, bearing the cold to catch glimpses of the fight through foggy windows. The bar was at capacity, and I’d desperately hit the streets with my best friend, looking for a venue to watch the last five rounds of the fight after finally escaping a prior engagement. But the funny thing was that we weren’t the only lunatics standing outside the bar and peering in through the window; our group was about eight strong. And so we stood, shivering and cheering for Bute as our adopted hero cruised into the twelfth round comfortably ahead on points.
Then disaster struck, or at least appeared to, in the form of an Andrade assault that had Bute reeling and eventually slumped in a corner. Knocked down and punch drunk, Bute’s vacant stare all but assured Andrade had pulled off a shocking upset. As referee Marlon Wright began his count, there seemed to be just enough time left in the round for Andrade to strike again. But the strangest thing about that evening in 2008 was the Canadian version of the “long count,” where Wright stopped midway and turned to Andrade, scolding the desperate challenger to retreat further back toward a neutral corner. When Wright continued counting, Bute had risen, and the delay had lasted long enough to bring the fight to a controversial conclusion. Never mind that Bute was swaying like a wind chime, his legs reduced to jelly at the end of the twelfth. It was irrelevant; he had survived, was still champion, and Montreal’s boxing scene would continue its rise.
To boxing fans, the upcoming all-Canadian clash between former lineal light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal (28-2-1, 17 KO) and one-time 168-pound titlist Bute (31-1, 24 KO) is an important fight. More significantly, Pascal-Bute is a fight the boxing-mad province of Quebec has rallied behind. Bars all over Montreal are plastered with Pascal-Bute posters, and there’s a genuine buzz about what can easily be defined as the biggest domestic fight in Canadian boxing history. But what about the rest of Canada? Does the biggest fight in our country’s pugilistic history even matter?
Without intending any disrespect to boxing commissions and programs in other provinces, Quebec is professional boxing in Canada. It’s an undeniable fact that the likes of ESPN have picked up on, as seen in Nigel Collins’ recent piece, “Canada’s thriving fight tradition:”
Compared to Quebec, the rest of Canadian boxing has had a spotty history at best. The Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) were once a boxing hotbed, but that was a long time ago. Toronto has had its moments, though not nearly as many as you would expect from the nation’s most populous city. The Pacific Northwest and the prairie provinces never came close to rivaling the East, but at least they were once viable boxing territory.
Quebec province, however, has withstood the test of time and emerged as the undisputed champion of Canadian boxing. Without it, the sport in the Great White North would be on life support, if not already dead and buried.
Collins also mentions being first drawn to the sport after watching the furious 1958 bout between Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle in Montreal, while also listing the bevy of world class fighters the city has hosted, none more famous than Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, who converged on the Olympic Stadium in 1980 to contest one of the most memorable title fights in boxing history.
The years leading up to and through the 2004 Olympics were a watershed moment for the emergence of big-time professional boxing in Quebec because both Pascal (who represented Canada in Athens) and Bute (a longstanding member of Romania’s national team) emerged from the Games or World Championships during this stretch and began campaigning as pros with Quebec’s two most important promoters: GYM and InterBox (Pascal with the former and Bute with the latter). With emerging prospects in place to replace the respected likes of Otis Grant and Eric Lucas, GYM and InterBox were positioning themselves to be significant promoters capable of leveraging deals with the likes of Golden Boy, Top Rank, and Sauerland Promotions.
Soon, Pascal and Bute were packing in 10,000 plus fans at the Bell Centre, and both seemed destined to become world champions. With a knowledgeable and passionate fan base, Quebec became the perfect breeding ground to develop fighters with local appeal, and both Pascal and Bute connected with the Province’s fight fans to the extent that hosting a fight in Montreal or Quebec City often proved to be the most lucrative option when negotiating bouts with even American opponents. As a result, the niche that is boxing in Quebec swelled, and Pascal and Bute’s subsequent championship success ensured that it would continue to blossom.
Quebec’s entrenched boxing culture has magnified Canada’s overall lack of support for the sport, a problem that can’t be traced to a single culprit. Russ Anber, the CEO of Rival Boxing Gear, as well as an expert commentator, cut man, and trainer, lamented the Canadian media’s apathy toward boxing in a recent interview on TSN radio. When discussing how the Globe or Toronto Star are no longer a regular presence at fights, the host made an interesting point that the cost to cover boxing no longer equals its value. Fair enough, but part of Anber’s rebuttal was that he was a part of the only Canadian media contingent sent to cover the absolutely gargantuan bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. Never mind that Anber was part of a francophone RDS crew, an outlet that has no foothold in English Canada; the actual issue is that this disinterest is a product of the lazy—and unequivocally incorrect—argument that boxing is a dying sport.
In his TSN interview, Anber alludes to the fact that there are “[…] 20,000 plus people that turn up at the Bell Centre when Jean Pascal fights or Lucian Bute fights, and it gets zero coverage in the rest of Canada.” This is an apt and unfortunate example. Pascal-Bute should have national implications for our country, but the sad reality is that the bout itself will hold greater general interest in the United States than it will in the rest of Canada. Consider this: Before recently moving back to Montreal, I was living in Banff, Alberta, which is easily Canada’s most infamous tourist town. And yet, despite the fact that countless bars line Banff Avenue, I couldn’t find a single establishment in the entire town that was showing the Mayweather-Alvarez fight, a bout where 12,000 people showed up for the weigh in. Say what you want about boxing, or its lack of mainstream appeal, but Mayweather-Alvarez was the kind of spectacle that registers on a general cultural level. The fact that it appeared not a single bar in Banff had ordered the pay-per-view is downright disgraceful.
If a fight like Mayweather-Alvarez only has a pulse in Canadian cities on similar scale with Montreal, where does that leave Pascal-Bute? At 33 and coming off a shaky performance against Denis Grachev in his last bout, it’s fair to wonder whether Bute will ever fully recover from his title-losing bludgeoning at the hands of Carl Froch in Nottingham, England. And while Pascal has won two fights in row, he’s ultimately three years and several nagging injuries removed from his last significant victory (a virtuoso performance against Chad Dawson in 2010). Pascal-Bute is a fight that should have happened circa 2010 when both men were champions and the outcome of the bout would have carried pound-for-pound implications. That said, it wouldn’t have made a difference in terms of Canada’s boxing consciousness. The rest of the country still would not have cared. This is especially confusing when one considers a metropolis like Toronto, whose civic and sporting resources would seemingly tower over Montreal’s. But Toronto, like the rest of Canada, remains a lingering disappointment when it comes to rallying behind our professional boxers.
Even if Pascal-Bute should have happened in 2010, the fight still registers as a compelling one. Kelsey McCarson, a Texas-based boxing writer for The Sweet Science and Bleacher Report, acknowledges that the fight would be more significant if both men had belts, but is also quick to point out that winner of Pascal-Bute will set himself up for meaningful business at light heavyweight: “Pascal-Bute is an important fight at 175,” McCarson told me. “The division is fast becoming one of the most interesting in the sport, and the winner sets himself up nicely as a contender to Adonis Stevenson’s lineal throne or against other key competitors such as Bernard Hopkins or Sergey Kovalev.”
Stevenson, of course, is the Montreal-based, Haitian-born power puncher who exploded in 2013 with three knockout victories in lineal title fights. At 35, Stevenson remains somewhat of an anomaly, but in becoming a champion he has given Montreal (and Quebec) the infusion of external recognition that Pascal and Bute used to provide; for better or worse, having a recognized and respected champion is crucial for boxing to continue growing in Canada. Even when Steve Molitor was fighting at Casino Rama in Ontario, there wasn’t the same buzz that currently surrounds Stevenson, or Pascal and Bute at their respective peaks. In a sense, what Pascal-Bute has become is a fight to determine who will get a final opportunity to reach the sport’s pinnacle once again. With such lofty stakes, the bout has become both a celebration of the boxing culture Pascal and Bute have been instrumental in creating, as well as Coliseum-worthy determination of who gets to continue on as a genuinely relevant fighter. Stevenson is currently the only Canadian-based world champion, and another run from Pascal or Bute could elevate Canadian boxing to an even higher, thus far unexplored stratosphere.
Even though Pascal-Bute is the biggest fight in Canadian history, it essentially remains a regional bout. This is important in terms of the live gate and bottom line financial numbers, but the unsolved mystery remains why Pascal-Bute won’t make it onto more television sets and into sports bars across Canada. In the U.S., Kelsey McCarson points out that being a “regional” fighter doesn’t necessarily imply that a boxer is only relevant where they sells tickets and attract an impressive live audience:
With television the way it is today, a fighter may be regional when it comes to selling tickets but not necessarily when it comes to overall interest. I live down in Texas, so we typically get lots of Mexican and/or Mexican-American fighters like Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Canelo Alvarez, Mikey Garcia, etc. That just makes sense from a business perspective. Those guys can sell lots of tickets down here. But most of them also do good TV numbers, too. So regionalism may matter to promoters who want to sell tickets and put on a good show, but there are plenty of Chavez, Alvarez, [and] Garcia fans all over the globe who just aren’t localized in one place. I think the same probably holds true for Canada-based fighters. While the fight [Pascal-Bute] is best suited for up there, I’m sure there will be plenty of interested people watching from all over the globe.
McCarson’s point about television numbers is well taken, but the domestic reality is that Pascal and Bute largely don’t register the way one would expect throughout the rest of Canada. Sure, media will converge on the Bell Centre for the January 18 fight, and it will be broadcast on HBO in the U.S. But travel to other major Canadian cities and you won’t find the same level of excitement or interest that’s evident in Montreal, or throughout significant portions of Quebec. (In fact, you won’t even come close.) One does have to be realistic and not expect that all of Canada will suddenly become a boxing hotbed. However, by January 18 the afterglow of the Olympic hockey team announcement should have subsided, and Pascal-Bute, at least media wise, ought to be Canada’s most significant sports story. It deserves an abundance of television, radio, and print covering – in its build-up, during the fight itself, and in the bout’s aftermath (and not just from francophone outlets like TVA). This isn’t an unreasonable request; it’s only asking for what’s fair.
It’s too easy to say that boxing is a dying sport, or that the heavyweight division is wasteland. At this point, these are tired statements that only expose a genuine misunderstanding of boxing and how it has evolved. As Canadians, the fact that Pascal-Bute isn’t a genuine national story is our fault, and Quebec can only pull the weight of Canadian professional boxing for so long. We’re a boxing nation on the rise, but how far we ascend will depend on whether we can reorient our sporting psyches enough to embrace something new and exciting. Boxing might have deep roots in Canada, but we are on the precipice of building something greater. So, catch Pascal-Bute while you have the chance. Because if you miss it, you will have ignored what could be looked back on as a major, defining moment in our country’s pugilistic history.