Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Montreal – Part I

 

The fight touted by some as "The Super Bowl of Canada" was a fight played out in two parts. The first 11 rounds saw Jean Pascal produce a dominant, unorthodox and occasionally brilliant tactical display while the 12th saw Bute summon a heroic rally that nearly erased everything that had transpired to that point. In the end, Pascal received his well-deserved “W” while Bute’s rally preserved most of the fistic viability he surely would have lost otherwise.

This two-part installment of “The Travelin’ Man Chronicles” will relive a most memorable weekend from the viewpoint of one man who is simultaneously a historian, a journalist, a pundit and a fan. The thoughts and opinions expressed were those held at the time of writing; some proved true while others ended up altered by the passage of events. One opinion remained unchanged, however: It was a most wonderful journey.

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Thursday, Jan. 16: One of the many perks that come with my RingTV.com and CompuBox gigs is the privilege of sitting in on history. As mentioned in last week’s article detailing 10 notable Montreal fights, the Jean Pascal-Lucian Bute showdown has been the fight in Montreal for the past several years because of their mutual marketability, their successes at the world-class level and their deep roots within the Quebecois community.

In a perfect world this fight should have happened a few years earlier when Pascal was THE RING (and WBC) light heavyweight champion and Bute reigned supreme at 168. As it turned out, the passage of time only enhanced the appeal because after the fight was originally announced last spring it became an event that had to happen. Once the genie was out of the bottle nothing, not even a left hand injury to Bute that required surgery and necessitated a career-long 14-month layoff, could stop it from becoming reality.

Several years ago I worked ringside at a Bell Centre fight where Bute and Pascal were introduced before the main event. The crowd’s crackling energy and collective yearning was overwhelming but the respective brain trusts figured the time was not yet. As is often the case with big-fight matchmaking, the attempt to marinate proved disastrous. After Pascal drew with, then lost the title to, Bernard Hopkins and Bute was turned to dust against Carl Froch, it appeared the dream fight was all but dead and, worse yet, it had lost much of its luster.

But there’s something about unanswered questions that dig at boxing fans’ collective psyche. That’s why media and mavens still talk about Mayweather-Pacquiao years after its prime shelf life had passed and that’s why – at least in Montreal – Pascal-Bute managed to retain much of its magnetism.

There’s nothing like one-on-one combat to satisfy one’s desire to settle the most nagging questions and, ultimately, to separate historical wheat from chaff. Such was the case for similar turf wars in which the prizes were, in order of importance, bragging rights, territorial pride and historical significance. Author Thomas Hauser put it best when he described the third Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight as a bout not just for the heavyweight championship of the world but also for the heavyweight championship of each other. And for Bute and Pascal, only a fight at the Bell Centre, Montreal’s modern-day fistic shrine, could settle those issues once and forever. Even now, after all the wasted years, the winner would be thought of as the better fighter while the loser would be relegated to a lesser status.

One of the most devastating words a fighter can hear in terms of his legacy is “but.” When Floyd Mayweather Jr. retires he will be hailed as one of the modern greats but his critics rightly will say “yes, he was great but his legacy could have been so much greater had he not passed over so many potential opponents.” A similar fate may well befall the loser of Pascal-Bute; if Pascal loses he’ll hear “he was a gifted and talented fighter, but he lost to Bute and Hopkins” and if Bute loses he’ll hear “he held the super middleweight title for years but he was obliterated by Froch, struggled against Denis Grachev and lost to Pascal when he moved up in weight.” Human nature being what it is, the winner’s rush of accomplishment will be exceeded by the loser’s sting of regret.

These are the stakes of Pascal-Bute, and that’s why as a historian it is such a privilege to be in Montreal to witness it all.

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Today's journey began under sunny skies shortly before 1:30 p.m. The morning snow had melted under a sun hearty enough to move the mercury up to 36 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 40 degrees warmer than was the case just 10 days earlier when the “polar vortex” was at full strength.

Much of the morning was spent catching up on my duties connected with ThrowdownFantasy.com, CompuBox’s new stats-driven, draft-style boxing game.  My task was to compile numbers associated with fighters that will be included in February’s game, numbers that will serve as the baseline for the competition’s scoring system. After polishing off Denis Shalikov’s 11th round DQ victory over Alisher Rahimov – a justifiable call given Rahimov’s three thunderous low blows – I was ready to hit the road.

The two-and-a-half hour drive to Pittsburgh International Airport was interrupted only by a mandatory stop at the gas station and once I reached the terminal I was struck by the unusually long lines at the “preferred check-in” line. In order to conduct further research for the fantasy game I packed an extra laptop and thus the process of unpacking and repacking was complicated.

Both of my flights departed late. The Pittsburgh-to-Philadelphia leg was delayed a half-hour because of congestion issues in Philly (not surprising) while the Philadelphia-to-Montreal leg was pushed back because the routine pre-flight maintenance timeline was affected by a backlog of flights that slowed the workers’ progress. When compared to recent flights the turbulence was minimal and unlike last month’s trip to Quebec City I breezed through the customs process. All I needed to establish a rapport was to mention the Pascal-Bute fight and everything else fell into place. After all, I was just telling the truth.

The cab ride to Le Hotel Crystal took approximately 15 minutes and I spent much of that time conversing with the driver, a Syrian who speaks four languages and whose son is an avid boxing fan. At the registration desk I recognized nearly a half-dozen members of the HBO crew as well as blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley, who, for my money, is the very best when it comes to incorporating stats and building story lines around them. He’s also one of the few people who are as good, if not better than I am, at doing math in his head, a talent for which he takes justifiable pride.

My seventh-floor hotel room was spacious and accommodating. One of the more unique features was the flat screen TV positioned at the foot of the bed and because of my midnight arrival I limited my workload to a 15-minute task and spent the remaining time alternating between TSN (Canada’s version of ESPN) and a PBS pledge drive show that featured videos of legendary musical acts performing on the Ed Sullivan Show (The Rolling Stones, The Mamas and the Papas, The Supremes, The Turtles, The Fifth Dimension among them). After a while I found myself drifting off, which I interpreted as a cue to turn out the lights for good.

Friday, Jan. 17: For me the day began six restful hours after the last one ended. The auditory trigger was the constant hammering that emanated from a nearby construction site but since it was of low volume it was mildly bothersome.

I spent most of the morning running more numbers for the ThrowdownFantasy.com game. During one of my final counts colleague Aris Pina called on the hotel phone and invited me to lunch. I told him I planned to attend the weigh-in at the Sheraton Hotel located across the street from the Crystal. It was enough for Aris to alter his plans and we agreed to meet in the lobby at 12:30 p.m., a half-hour before the scheduled start.

At least 500 people crowded the fourth floor of the Sheraton and that didn’t include the throng of photographers, reporters and TV cameramen who were charged with chronicling the event. Several French-speaking security guards kept Aris and me from moving any closer than 50 feet from the stage and our view of the proceedings was completely blocked by dozens of heads whose vantage points were both closer and higher than ours. When standing on my tip-toes didn’t work, I watched the events through the screens of camera phones, which appeared to be everywhere.

I saw enough to notice that Bute was a quarter-head taller than Pascal and that Pascal had to remove his black skullcap in order to make 175 on the nose. I also heard enough to realize that Bute was – by far – the more popular fighter. At one point Pascal raised his arms and tried to spark chants for himself but aside from a few scattered voices they were overwhelmed by the booming Bute backers.

Aris and I, as well as mutual friend Kieran Mulvaney of ESPN.com, tried to figure out why Bute received so much more support. It couldn’t be a language issue because French is a second language for both (Romanian is Bute’s native tongue while Creole is Pascal’s). It wasn’t a nationality issue because neither was born in Canada and both have become naturalized citizens. Did the populace prefer Bute’s humility over Pascal’s pride, which could be interpreted by some as aloofness or arrogance? Could it be the result of Pascal's trash-talking on social media? Some might say it’s a racial issue, but I doubt that because Montreal boasts one the deepest melting pots in North America.

Maybe it’s just a passion issue; more people simply like Bute more than Pascal. His name is certainly more fun to chant, as a group of approximately three dozen fans proved by looking into an HBO camera and shouting “BOO-tay! BOO-tay!”

Aris and I decided to leave before all of the weigh-ins were completed – we couldn’t see anything, after all – in favor of getting a belated lunch. After walking up and down St. Catherine Street we settled on Mister Steer, the restaurant we patronized on a previous trip. The burgers were small but thick and the curly fries were plentiful. The bill was a bit on the pricey side, but it wasn’t bad.

With our bellies thoroughly filled we returned to the hotel – Aris to catch up on some much-needed rest and me to work on some more fantasy game counts and other research-oriented tasks. Only moments after finishing my to-do list and planning to get some of my own shut-eye the hotel phone rang. I pressed the button to answer but I heard no one on the other end. Thinking it was a wrong number, I hung up. Seconds later it rang again, and again I couldn’t hear anyone on the other side. Then it dawned on me: It probably was Aris trying to tell me he was ready for dinner. So, since my cell phone doesn’t work in Canada, I e-mailed a note with the subject line “did you just try to call me?” He had, and within a few minutes we met again in the lobby.

Neither of us had any particular restaurants in mind so, as usual, we walked until we found a place that struck our fancy. Since the burgers and fries more than fulfilled our daily quota of grease and other ingredients that would offend the Food Police, we settled on Subway. Knowing I had a fridge back at the hotel I ordered a foot-long Subway Club with the intent of eating half now and saving the other for lunch the next day.

I thought the hotel had Showtime on its roster of channels but it turned out I misinterpreted Channel 40's initials “Show” on the TV screen. So I settled for alternating between the three sports channels until turning out the lights shortly after 2:00 a.m.

Saturday, Jan. 18:  As was the case yesterday, I spent the lion’s share of the morning – and some of the afternoon – finishing up my roster of fantasy game counts, after which I took an elevator down to the business center to print out my boarding passes for the trip home. Because I spent $35 on a Bute-Pascal t-shirt at the weigh-in, I realized I didn’t have enough Canadian money to pay the cab fare to the airport and for the two small cans of Pringles and can of diet soda I removed from the mini-bar. One of the locals advised me to change money not at the hotel, where there was a 10 percent exchange fee, but at one of the numerous outlets on St. Catherine’s that offer nearly one-to-one rates. The counsel proved effective for I received $35 Canadian for $35 U.S.

Once I returned to the room I caught up on the writing that had been put to the side and, as per arrangement the previous evening, Aris and I met in the lobby at 4:00 p.m. and began our two-block walk toward the Bell Centre – and a slice of Canadian boxing history.

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Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won 10 writing awards, including seven in the last three years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at l.groves@frontier.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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