It’s hard to imagine that Lucian Bute has experienced any sort of a fall from grace when you see him in an NHL arena a quarter full of media waiting to hear what he has to say.
Yet, the boxing audience outside of his home province of Quebec doesn’t have the same excitement about him anymore. Once thought of as perhaps the best super middleweight on the planet, the hyperbole has now taken a negative tone.
Following a five-round pummeling at the hands of Carl Froch in May of 2012, Bute became a “fraud” and had been “exposed” as “just another protected Canadian fighter.”
For a while, Bute was thinking the same things. Fourteen months ago, he fought Denis Grachev in what was to be a bounce-back outing, and struggled at times in earning a nip-and-tuck unanimous decision.
“Against Grachev, I was mentally off,” said Bute. “I lost a lot of my confidence leading up to that fight. Losing to Carl Froch kind of broke me a little bit.”
Bute took some time off—more than expected as he married his longtime partner, and dealt with a hand injury—and his time out of the boxing news cycle didn’t exactly boost anyone’s opinion of him.
Except his own.
“It’s been 24 years since I started boxing. I haven’t ever stopped boxing since I’ve been 10 or 11 years old. The year off has done me good, because I’ve been able to take some time off,” said Bute. “I feel I’m a better fighter at 32. The loss has made me better.”
Regardless of what anyone else thinks, fans in Canada want to believe that, as Bute will square off against fellow Quebecois Jean Pascal in the biggest event in the country’s fistic history.
In a lot of ways, this is the only fight that’s ever mattered for Bute. He and Pascal rose to prominence at roughly the same time in the same province under rival promoters, Interbox and Groupe Yvon Michel, respectively. A matchup between the two was first suggested in 2008, but Michel and Interbox head Jean Bedard weren’t prepared to work together at the time. Not to mention, Pascal was coming off a loss to Froch, Bute a near-loss to Librado Andrade, and neither were the box-office juggernauts they are currently.
Nonetheless, it was known that somewhere down the road, this fight needed to happen. There have been provincial rivalry megafights in Montreal in the past, namely Davey Hilton-Mario Cusson and Joachim Alcine-Stephane Ouellet. Both were rousing financial successes, albeit on a smaller scale.
All four of those men had plenty of other career highlights, but when you talk to Quebecers, those are the nights they remember.
In the same way that Montreal fans will show up at the Bell Centre to support their hockey team regardless of their record, if Bute and Pascal are in the building, 21,000 of them will be in the seats.
“Saturday is going to be a spectacle. It’s for my legacy. It’s a fight we both need to have. Whoever loses is going to have a very hard time getting back to the top,” said Bute.
The Romanian-born lefty was once known, and introduced by ring announcers at the Montreal Casino as “Mr. Knockout.” It wasn’t until former title challenger Andre Thysse took him the distance in his 16th professional bout that he didn’t end a fight by stoppage. He became known for his patented step back, counter left uppercut to the body that crippled nearly every opponent he touched with it.
Having not scored a knockout since 2011, and with his life in a different place as a husband and now a full Canadian citizen, “Le Tombeur” decided to settle down in La Belle Province instead of his recent sunny camp setting of Miami.
“When we get older, things become harder, but I can tell you, even though I stayed in Montreal for this camp, I’m in great shape. The only thing I miss from being in Florida was being on the beach. But I got to sleep in my own bed. It’s good being home,” said Bute.
While it might have been comfortable in the bedroom for the former champion, trainer Stephane Larouche ensured it was anything but inside the gym. Instead of being cautious with a potentially physically and mentally fragile fighter, he hit him full blast to ensure he still had something left. In particular, he had young, high-tempo fighters such as Andy Gardiner and amateur standout Artur Beterbiev in the gym with Bute throughout camp.
“He’s getting to his peak, but now he can rely on his experience. He’s not 22 years old anymore. Let’s get that out of the way. Anybody who tells you 'I feel like I’m 22 again,' that’s a lie,” said Larouche. “[But] we haven’t protected him. We brought in tough sparring partners. I could have brought in easy guys for him to beat up, but he’s a smart guy. He wouldn’t have believed it.”
Though he and everyone around him admits he’s no spring chicken anymore, and this will likely wind up being the biggest fight of his life, he doesn’t intend for this to be the end of the road. In fact, there’s another all-Canadian showdown he has in mind before all is said and done, against someone who has stolen the Quebec spotlight he and Pascal once owned. Though Bute has remained on-topic throughout camp, Larouche has spoken on his behalf in stating that a duel with Adonis Stevenson is the “top of the mountain” for Bute.
A whole province wants to keep the faith, and will suspend disbelief in what promises to be a surreal atmosphere on Saturday night.
“Believe in me,” Bute urged. “Nothing is going to stop me.”
Corey Erdman is a staff writer for RingTV.com, a host at Fight Network in Canada, and a regular commentator for WealthTV. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman.
Photo by Mike Greenhill