Corey Erdman

Boxing returns to historic and polarizing Olympic Stadium

Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-Getty Images

Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-Getty Images

The last time a boxing card was presented in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, in 1980, 46,317 fans filled the seats.

This time around—35 years later—there will be 1,500.

Certainly a junior welterweight main event of Delvin Rodriguez-Joachim Alcine can’t be expected to draw on par with Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard. But it’s a start, a noteworthy event in a historic yet maligned structure that seldom houses events of significance these days.

The night is the vision of local promoter and author Alex Choko, known to most as the man who compiled “The Future of Boxing,” a coffee table collection of lengthy interviews with a litany of legendary boxing figures.

“Last year I had a great success at the Ritz Carlton with the launch of my book. People complained it was too small. This year I figured I'd rent a bigger place,” joked Choko, who will co-promote the event with Joe DeGuardia and Star Boxing, with proceeds going to the Starlight Children’s Foundation.

The novelty and location of the card itself has helped garner it mainstream media coverage in Canada, a live national broadcast on RDS2, and in the United States on ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights.  

“This event is for 1500 people. It’s for charity. It's not to fill up the stadium. It's to take an iconic stadium throughout the world, and put on a very enjoyable experience for all of the young fighters, and of course for Alcine,” said Choko. “In Montreal there is no way you’d get that amount of people to fill it up.”

Indeed, even the biggest fight in the history of the country, Jean Pascal-Lucian Bute, was considered for The Big O before settling at the Bell Centre.

That’s because the very existence of the stadium itself is a divisive issue for the Quebecois. For one, it jars memories of the city’s beloved Expos of Major League Baseball, who lingered in a dilapidated stadium in the far east end of the city before eventually relocating to Washington.

“People stopped wanting to go to that stadium because it's not a great stadium and it's not well located, but part in parcel, if they had better ownership they would have had better upkeep of the park and it wouldn't have been quite so miserable, even if it was an indoor park in the East End,” said Jonah Keri, author of Up, Up and Away, a definitive history of the Expos and their demise.

While ownership at the time wouldn’t put the necessary funds into the park, the province has been dipping into their pockets for decades. Quebec finally made its last mortgage payment on the structure (and the surrounding park) in 2006, payments which totalled more than a billion dollars. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t remain a financial burden, however. Annual upkeep can cost upwards of $7 million, and now the fibreglass roof has over 3,400 rips that often prevent use in the winter.  A new roof—which is being discussed—would cost between $200 and 300 million.

“Every day they keep the lights on, it hurts people,” summarized Keri.

A fight on the level of Rodriguez-Alcine might be able to summon 3,000-4,000 fans at the Bell Centre, as evidenced by the 2013 ESPN card headlined by Kevin Bizier-Nate Campbell, which drew roughly those numbers in the middle of a blizzard.

Putting up big numbers, or competing with Quebec promotional giants Groupe Yvon Michel and Interbox in their usual arena, is not of interest to Choko though. Putting an event on at this venue was, and the reasoning was far removed from any political budget debate.

“Montreal is in my backyard, and I really, really got a kick out of the prospect of doing something at Olympic Stadium. Becoming such great friends with Ray Leonard and Roberto, I really felt a strong connection,” said Choko.

Through the research of his book, Choko became particularly close friends with Ray Leonard, who is offering a meeting and dinner with him in Los Angeles up for auction during the event.

Perhaps more importantly, he’s doing it as an homage to his mentor Gaston Parent, longtime manager of Formula 1 star Gilles Villeneuve.

Choko can barely hold his emotions when telling a tale of Parent’s generosity and savvy.

“One fellow comes into his office, and he's nearly crying. He owns a quarry, and someone owes him a very very large order of dirt and rocks or whatever and bailed on him. So he came to see Gaston for help, or at least to cry in his office. He said, ‘I'm going to buy everything that guy was going to buy from you.’ The guy goes, ‘are you crazy?’ Gaston says, ‘no, it'll help you out. Just leave it there and I'll figure it out later.’

“Weeks, months go by, and another one of his friends come into the office. He said he had an agreement with a promoter, but he'd backed out. So he put the dirt in the stadium, and he created the very first Motocross event in Olympic Stadium.”

Like his mentor, he will try to make something big out of nothing on Friday night, as he resurrects his career as a promoter.

“That's why I call this event Crossroads. It's about me having my license, having fun again, but more importantly, it's about Alcine and Rodriguez being in very similar situations,” said Choko.

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