“Protect yourself at all times.” It’s 11:33 pm on Saturday, January 18th at Montreal’s Bell Centre, but for competitors Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute, what matters in that day is the last half hour. Referee Michael Griffin reiterates boxing’s number one precept: protect yourself. For 12 three-minute rounds, with one-minute breaks in between , the two competitors will be throwing hooks, jabs, uppercuts, crosses. They will be inflicting as much distress upon one another as possible to score one point after another. And if it ends in a knock out, then the victory can’t be sweeter.
Haitian-born Pascal and Romanian-born Bute stand inches apart as over 20,000 attendees fervently listen to Griffin’s outlining of the rules. Montreal, now the home of both fighters ,is a hotspot for international boxing. If not boxing’s Mecca, then maybe the Jerusalem of North American boxing — after the holy cities of Las Vegas and New York.
Tonight’s fight has been sanctified as Canada’s biggest since Roberto Durán’s 1980 defeat over Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal’s Olympic stadium. This fight puts no major title on the line, but for both Pascal and Bute each and every moment of their careers comes down to now. This is apparent through their intense stares, nose to nose, as if they’re about to make love. The long awaited question will be answered tonight. Who will be king of Montreal boxing, who will have the the right to be called “champ”?
The fighters return to their respective corners – Bute the blue corner, Pascal the red. Hearsay has it that the blue/red corner demarcations historically represent Republicans and Democrats. True or not, politics certainly has played its roll; boxing has taken a big hit through corruption and spot-fixing.
There used to be an allure and magnetism to boxing and its fighters. There was Rocky Marciano, a hero to Italian-Americans who, despite all obstacles, climbed to the top, predominately through mental strength. And of course Muhammad Ali, a civil rights activist who refused to serve in the Vietnam War. He famously said, “I ain’t got not quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me the N- word.”
Nowadays, the stakes are unfortunately lower — greed and self-indulgence have taken over the sport. The foremost competitor goes by the name “Money” Mayweather. The Pakistani-British boxer Amir Khan, who is scheduled to fight Mayweather soon, tweets fans as to which of his seven high performance luxury cars he should take out for the night. Even UFC is not immune. The once iconic image of an elderly man in a fedora instructing his shadow-boxing apprentice has been overshadowed by UFC’s overly flamboyant t-shirts with skulls and perplexing font. (Notwithstanding, of course, the highly deserving George St Pierre, Montreal’s international UFC champion.)
But by far the biggest blow to boxing and other fighting sports such as UFC, is the public perception of it as barbaric, savage and unethical. Undeniably dangerous, boxing’s cynics have failed to see the artistry behind it. Many consider boxing to be amongst the most intelligent sports, a brawling chess match if you will. Boxers will sometimes test various styles while evaluating their opponent’s reactions. Then, a sudden switch in style can throw the opponent off guard, allowing the aggressor to land unpredictable punching combinations.
With the first round well underway, Bute and Pascal appear to be analyzing and assessing one other more than punching. Their passion-filled faces have hardened to extreme focus, like car drivers on some late night backwoods road under heavy rain with non-functioning wipers. Unrecognizable to the layman, but to any boxing enthusiast this is the genius of boxing in action.
The ringside girl prances around the ring with round seven’s card. Her stiletto heels could be fatal if she jumped into the ring. The combination of all the glitz, sexiness and blood is thought provoking. Even more puzzling is the intense energy in Bell Centre. This match-up is far from uniform. Conceivably it’s the crowd’s opportunity to revel in the sex and violence that made Montreal the original sin city.
Pascal continues to successfully ward off the southpaw Bute in round seven. He strategically plants his lead left foot outside of Bute’s lead right foot, pivoting left and landing right handed body shots. Pascal’s speed allows him to explosively go in-and-out before Bute can even think of striking back. Bute gains some assertiveness in the last few rounds. He’s less tentative, throwing more combinations, but not enough to lessen Pascal’s assuredness. Pascal has dominated this game of mindset for at least ten rounds.
The long awaited question is now answered. Pascal retains his rhythm and momentum, his confident calmn has been rewarded. Referee Griffin instructed the competitors to protect themselves prior to the fight. Boxing’s emblematic aphorism has a deeper meaning, something skillful boxers practice within the ring and self-aware people outside of it.
It’s now 1:37 am at the post-fight press conference. For Pascal and Bute, today’s day of rest couldn’t be further from the truth. Eager journalists throw a few jabs at Bute but for the most part take it easy on him. His bruised up face resonates with sorrow and disappointment.
Pascal walks in next like looking like he had just lost his virginity. That soon changed. The journalists threw combination punches. Pascal reiterates that Bute’s lack of performance was a result of his own failing. A sudden question of a rematch from the far left corner of the room – a low blow as far as Pascal is concerned. For just a split- second, Pascal loses his cool, but he manages to deflect the negativity and retain his composure. He had to protect himself. He had learned this from boxing.