Young people leaving behind the rugged beauty of Canada’s Maritime provinces in search of opportunity in Ontario or Alberta is a trope as well worn and well known as any north of the border. As different industries declined and life became more precarious on the east coast, people have been trekking west from Newfoundland or Nova Scotia for generations. So maybe Ian MacKillop, himself a native of Fredericton, shouldn’t have been at all surprised when young Tom Vautour made the long trip from Saint John, New Brunswick and showed up at his door, eager to take the older man up on a pledge he had made just days before.
But let’s back up a bit. Before young Tom hit the road and made that journey to Montreal, he first made what some might regard as a less than smart career decision. He was 2-0 as a pro boxer, just starting to learn his trade, when he got a phone call. Shakeel Phinn, the Canadian super middleweight champion, was set to fight in Fredericton in four days, but his scheduled opponent, Nathan Millier, had suffered a cut in training and had to pull out of the match. Event organizers were scrambling to find a replacement.
“I got the call and thought about it and watched some videos of him,” recalls Tom while taking a break from training at the Donnybrook Boxing Gym. “I knew he would be really good, but you don’t improve if you don’t take on the big challenges and fight guys who are better than you. Maybe not the smartest decision, but I just saw it as a great opportunity.”
It was at the weigh-in that Ian MacKillop, Phinn’s trainer and a past IBF champion, perhaps unwittingly set the wheels in motion for Tom Vautour’s journey west.
“I spoke to him and thanked him for stepping up on such short notice,” recalls Ian. “Because we didn’t have a fight otherwise. And so I told him I would return the favour by trying to get him a match in Montreal.”
The next night a young fighter with only two pro bouts and a very brief amateur career took on a Canadian champion with nine fights to his credit and hundreds of sparring rounds against top-level professionals like David Lemieux, Lucian Bute, Artur Beterbiev and Eleider Alvarez. And Tom Vautour made an impression.
“I was surprised with the way he fought,” says MacKillop. “I mean, this guy was coming in way over his head and he had no fear. He was trying to knock Shak out.”
“He just kept coming forward,” recalls Shakeel Phinn. “Even when I was hitting him with big shots, he just kept coming. And he could punch too. He didn’t show me any respect at all. He didn’t come in thinking he was the underdog. He was fighting to win. And he hit me with a couple of good shots and after the second round Ian said, ‘I don’t want you to play around with this guy because he can definitely punch. Let’s not take any chances. I want you to take him out now.'”
“They went into a clinch,” says Ian, “and Tom hit Shak with a couple of uppercuts and gave him a small cut, just a nick, but that was enough for me. Between rounds I told Shak it was time to end it because this guy’s got serious power.”
“The Jamaican Juggernaut” listened to his trainer and picked up the pace, staggering Vautour repeatedly with a non-stop attack of heavy blows that eventually forced the referee to stop the match. But to his credit, Tom never stopped fighting back and was visibly angry that the bout had been halted.
“Like I say, I was impressed,” says MacKillop. “So afterwards I told him he was welcome to come out to Montreal. I said if he did, I would do what I could to help him out.”
The words were genuine but perhaps carried more weight than even MacKillop realized. And instead of being followed up by phone calls or emails, they simply led to one day Tom Vatour, fresh off the bus from New Brunswick, knocking at the door of Donnybrook Boxing Gym.
“He didn’t call ahead or anything,” says Ian. “Just showed up, ready to go.”
Since then it’s been six solid months of hard work and according to everyone at Donnybrook, Tom Vatour is a much improved fighter.
“I’ve put him in the ring with everyone,” says Ian. “He’s gotten much better, much sharper. He’s been sparring quite a bit with Francy Ntetu who’s an experienced pro with 17 fights and Tom definitely holds his own. He’s just tough as nails, has crazy power and is really strong.”
There’s even been some rounds with Shakeel, his former conqueror, who also gives Tom his due. “He’s a different guy now. A lot smarter. He doesn’t just rely on his strength and power. He’s learned a lot.”
Our own Manny Montreal frequents the Donnybrook gym and has watched Tom’s progress with interest. “He’s gained a lot from Ian. It’s one thing to have a good coach, but it’s another thing to have a coach who worked against you and tried to beat you now teach you how to improve. Ian has him coming forward more, being more aggressive, using his size and power to his advantage. And the result is he’s a much more dangerous fighter.”
“He’s probably the best light heavyweight prospect in the country right now,” says Ian. “And I’m trying to line up a fight with Tim Cronin (9-1) for the summer. So I won’t be surprised if he’s the Canadian light heavyweight champion before too long.”
Tom himself, while reticent by nature, takes a break from pounding the heavy bag to agree with his new compatriots. “I’m getting better,” he admits. “I’m sparring a lot. Back east you can’t get much sparring so you’re training and in shape, but you can’t really progress. Here, you spar a lot of rounds and that’s how you learn.”
For Tom, boxing is an addiction, one he got hooked on in St. John, New Brunswick a few years back. “I just love the training. I kind of just showed up at the boxing gym to get in shape and grew to love it. I just love the grind.”
Soon after, the dream to become a legit pugilist took hold and the chance to fight Shakeel Phinn, while giving him his first pro defeat, has turned into the break he needed. And Ian’s pledge to help him if he came to Montreal was nothing less than a golden opportunity.
“When you’re not progressing at something it gets depressing,” says Tom who cites Mike Tyson, Thomas Hearns and Rocky Marciano as stylistic influences. “So you gotta do whatever it takes. So I got on the bus and came here and my brother lives here, so it made sense. I just knew I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”
And in addition to the chance to work with Ian MacKillop and spar with professionals and boost his career, Tom has acquired something else: a nickname. Introducing Tom “Frankenstein” Vatour, the moniker courtesy of Ian. Like his namesake, Vatour specializes in relentlessly walking his opponents down, chasing and cornering them, before landing his big shots. And he’s ready to bring his new image and more aggressive style to the ring on Saturday night.
Last October, Tom took a chance, got on a bus, and journeyed west to take Ian MacKillop up on his offer. Now he goes back east to fight in the small town of Bouctouche, New Brunswick on a card headlined by super featherweight prospect Dominic Babineau. And while Tom’s fourth pro fight may be taking place far from the bright lights of Montreal, it’s a chance to show what he’s learned to the folks back east.
“It’s a new start,” says Tom, before going back to pounding the heavy bag. So watch out, New Brunswick. Tom Vautour is coming home on Saturday for a visit, but just long enough to get a knockout. Because now “Frankenstein” lives in The Fight City.
— Michael Carbert
Photos by Manny Montreal