By Eric Raskin
Photo Credit: Will Hart
All but two of former light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal's 31 pro fights have taken place in the province of Quebec, Canada, his adopted home. And every time he's fought there since reaching the championship level about five years ago, it has qualified as major event, as the native of Haiti has drawn a string of five-figure crowds to the Bell Centre in Montreal and Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec City.
All but six of former super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute's 32 pro fights have taken place in the province of Quebec, his adopted home as well. And every time he's fought there since his first title challenge more than six years ago, it has qualified as a major event, with crowds of 10,000, 15,000, sometimes more, shaking the foundation as the Romanian native enters the ring to the distinctive opening riff of U2's "Where The Streets Have No Name."
On Saturday night, the Bell Centre will host a meeting between these two massive local attractions. Neither is necessarily at the absolute peak of his powers; each has suffered a damaging defeat in the last couple of years. From an atmosphere standpoint, that doesn't matter. This promises to be the biggest showdown of two Canada-based fighters in the history of the country. And the fact that each man needs a victory to remain in the championship discussion moving forward should just make the noise in the arena reverberate that much more with the passion of urgency.
It was in August 2010 that Pascal, one of several 175-pound belt-holders at the time, became the recognized champion of the division with his upset win over then-unbeaten Chad Dawson in Montreal. His championship reign, however, was neither long nor illustrious. In his first defense, he escaped with a controversial draw against 45-year-old Bernard Hopkins, and in the rematch, a 46-year-old Hopkins took Pascal to school and broke George Foreman's record for oldest fighter ever to win a world championship.
It was a crushing setback for Pascal. He took time off, dealt with shoulder injuries, then ended a 19-month layoff with a win over limited Aleksy Kuziemski in December 2012. Nine months later, Pascal took another keep-busy fight, stopping George Blades in five rounds. Though still in his theoretical physical prime at 31, when Pascal (28-2-1, 17 KOs) enters the ring to face Bute, it will be his first action against threatening opposition in 32 months.
Fortunately for Pascal, Bute (31-1, 24 KOs) has his own inactivity issues to contend with. A highly regarded super middleweight belt-holder since 2007, with wins over the likes of Sakio Bika, Librado Andrade, Edison Miranda, and Glen Johnson, Bute's unbeaten run ended on May 26, 2012 at the hands of Carl Froch (interestingly, also the first man to beat Pascal). And this wasn't the sort of defeat you shake off easily. Bute got obliterated inside five rounds in what had appeared to most a 50/50 fight going in.
Bute came back six months later against fringe contender Denis Grachev and struggled to a narrow points win, looking little like the expert marksman who'd left a trail of bodies --somewhat literally, thanks to his best-in-boxing bodypunching -- over the course of nine successful alphabet title defenses. That was 14 months ago; Bute hasn't fought since.
Of course, there's a very good reason Bute hasn't fought in more than a year: He and Pascal were scheduled to face each other last May, before Bute pulled out with a left hand injury that required surgery. Now, delayed by eight months, he returns to the ring, no tune-up, everything on the line.
"I will arrive to the ring very well prepared," Bute insisted at the prefight press conference. "This is the fight that I wanted."
"I believe my opponent's team conspired to postpone the fight in an attempt to demoralize me," Pascal alleged at that same press conference. "Believe me, it did not work. On January 18, the ring will be too small for the both of us. Bute will not be able to hide. I will expose him."
If Pascal is to "expose" Bute, he'll have a little help. Former pound-for-pound king Roy Jones, who otherwise would have been in Montreal as part of the HBO broadcast team, is a new addition to Team Pascal as an assistant trainer.
Because Bute is a southpaw, Pascal reached out to Jones, who fought 13 times against lefties, for help prior to the original May 2013 date. It was a logical pairing, in the sense that when Pascal was coming up as a prospect and able to have his way with overmatched opposition, his athletic, unorthodox, improvisational style drew comparisons to Jones. As the competition got better, the Haitian-Canadian had to tighten up his technique. And Jones is there to refine it further.
"It's easy to bring stuff to Pascal's game because he already knows the gist of how I box, he just doesn't know the details involved," Jones explained. "So now, working together, he learns the true details behind what I do. I'm able to give him the full understanding of the moves. To use an analogy, a guy can copy Michael Jordan's fadeaway, but sometimes he doesn't know necessarily why Michael uses the fadeaway."
Jones has been working with Pascal on how to use lateral movement to create angles and on how to use feints and misdirection to set up a lead right hand against a southpaw. The future Hall of Famer is also working with Pascal on relaxing during the fight, so he doesn't burn energy unnecessarily. Although Pascal intends to test Bute's chin early and see if he can do as Froch did to him, Jones believes it might not be that simple and his charge needs to be prepare to outbox Bute over the long haul.
"Bute is a very slick boxer and a very good counterpuncher," Jones said, trading his trainer's hat for an analyst's hat as he assessed the style matchup. "So Bute is going to try to box and try to lure Pascal into a situation that would allow him to counter Pascal. Bute is going to try to be in front of him with his feints and make Pascal reach in. To me, Pascal is quicker and he's stronger. Pascal has to try to be the quicker guy, not fall into those countershots, and not keep himself in front of Bute."
It's a fascinating, coin-flip type match, and the difficulty in picking a winner is one of the many reasons a crowd of 20,000 or so fans is expected in Montreal. Interestingly, the victory does not earn "best light heavyweight in Canada" bragging rights. That's because the current lineal champion of the division -- the man who beat Dawson, who beat Hopkins, who beat Pascal -- is Adonis Stevenson.
In other words, the biggest battle in Canadian boxing history might just be the precursor to the fight that will supplant it as the biggest battle in Canadian boxing history.
On the undercard, the Canadian theme is not in play, but an arguably even more compelling recurring boxing storyline is: how a fighter responds after giving an opponent a life-threatening beating.
Cuban heavyweight Mike Perez (20-0, 12 KOs) steps into the ring for the first time since punching Magomed Abdusalamov into a coma last November; though it appears Abdusalamov will likely survive, he will never box again and may spend the rest of his life in diminished physical and/or mental capacity. And that in turn means that Perez may spend the rest of his life in an altered emotional state. The quick-fisted southpaw emerged against Abdusalamov as one of the brightest prospects in the open-weight division, but will he be the same fighter going forward? In his return against Cameroon's Carlos Takam (29-1, 23 KOs) on Saturday night, we'll get our first answers to that question.