Suitable Next Step: Lemieux vs N’Dam

Last December, Montreal’s David Lemieux had his first prizefight outside of Quebec when he went Brooklyn and solved Gabriel Rosado on HBO. It was an abbreviated hero’s journey, in which Rosado dutifully played the role of gatekeeper; his routing proved Lemieux was ready for the next realm. This Saturday, Montreal’s preferred fighting son returns to the Bell Centre where he will meet France’s Hassan N’Dam for the vacant IBF middleweight title. In a poor division plainly owned by a Kazahk, N’Dam is a suitable next step.

Rosado was matched with Lemieux (33-2) because he isn’t a big puncher and bleeds profusely whenever he gets whacked. True to form, repeated power shots turned his left eye into a purple, protuberant lump, encouraging the ring doctor to end a fight Rosado was never really in. As a boxer, the Philadelphian’s limitations are as large as his heart. He was, of course, supposed to lose, and he did so precisely in the manner Lemieux’s team wanted him to: stopped after going rounds, because this proved Lemieux could also go rounds and retain his pop and stamina late into a fight.

David Lemieux v Gabriel Rosado
Lemieux chased down and battered the brave Rosado.

If beating Rosado showed Lemieux could patiently stalk and break down a tough guy, stopping N’Dam will demonstrate he can chase down a fluid boxer who sometimes turns matches into track events. N’Dam (31-1) once boasted of possessing the best jab in the world, and while this is somewhat unfounded, his skills are fair. The long, lean Frenchman likes to use every square foot of the ring, moving around and away from his opponents for extended stretches, as he did against the hard-hitting but plain Curtis Stevens, whose power N’Dam wisely chose not to tempt.

N’Dam doesn’t punch especially hard, nor (in spite of his outwardly impressive record), does he have a granite chin. In his only other high profile North American bout he was dropped six times by Peter Quillin, who used superior power and timing to land sharp, repeatedly clean shots. An opponent’s fragility plays directly to Lemieux’s strengths. The Quebecois fighter is nothing if not powerful, and while a touch slower than ‘Kid Chocolate’ he’s a more destructive puncher and will seek to thrill the home crowd with the same violence he brought last May against Fernando Guerrero. Needful of an emphatic win on his home turf, Lemieux blew Guerrero out in three rounds. It was a performance that rejuvenated his profile.

It’s not enough to merely be a puncher if one expects to win at the elite level. Prior to his first professional loss Lemieux was 23-0 with 22 knockouts when he was shockingly stopped by Marco Antonio Rubio at the Bell Centre. He lost his very next bout in more embarrassing fashion when he was decisioned by the lightly regarded Joachim Alcine. Lemieux fought Alcine as though hungover from the Rubio loss, showing neither power nor much stamina. Was he just too limited, a plodding puncher who would slowly unravel if only his opponent could neutralize his power?

As if keenly aware of these criticisms, Lemieux has promised a more sophisticated version of himself for this fight. He has done so, perhaps, because he knows that a rounded package of skills will be needed if he’s to pose any threat to Golovkin, who’s proven himself as so much more than a mere puncher. Of course, every boxer brags about what ‘new look’ they’re set to show off; usually it’s just an enhanced, but not dramatically different, version of what we’re already used to. But if Lemieux does make some subtle advances, the result could be significant.

Faster and more fluid, N’Dam consistently beat Stevens to the punch. 

This makes N’Dam a fine match for his current stage, for Lemieux can hunt this man without fear of getting hurt. But, to simply lay hands on someone who has a propensity to run, Lemieux must cut the ring off in the same predatory way Golovkin does, using feints and foot movement to lull N’Dam into opening up. While the Frenchman is not a vicious counterpunching threat, he did knock Curtis Stevens down the moment “Showtime” left himself open during an exchange; as a ‘boxer’ whose instinct is to hit and not be hit, he has an appreciable sense of timing. While Lemieux must exercise some caution, he can still box with his customary aggression without worry of being punished.

Because no fight worth its salt can unfold without some form of controversy, N’Dam’s team expressed disapproval that two of the judges hail from Montreal. Additionally, it will be overseen by local referee Marlon Wright, who’s worked five of Lemieux’s fights. There is an obvious hometown advantage, but fighting on foreign soil is nothing new to N’Dam. His last five bouts occurred in Brooklyn, Barcelona, Dublin, and twice in Santa Monica. He is not a wary traveler so much as a well-travelled warrior.

And, true to form, the Frenchman was stoic about the misfortunes that have beset him this week. The local gym he’s training at flooded and his hotel can’t accommodate his family and entourage. He’s refused to launch any critical salvos; rather, his focus is the daunting challenge of facing a favoured hometown man whose iron knuckles can take his senses away. Speaking with our own Manny Montreal below, N’Dam seems unfazed by the pressure, which he says is squarely on his opponent.

Lemieux, returning to form, brutalizes Guerrero.

For Lemieux to ascend in boxing, pressure is something to thrive amidst. In his first Montreal fight since the American triumph, he and his team will seek to showcase his full package, of which power is but one part of a marketing trinity that counts his looks and aggression as its other two thirds. This last trait has historical relevance. We are constantly reminded that Lemieux comes to fight and will pursue the toughest opponents. Three and a half decades ago, Quebecois boxing fans took up sides with one of the most charismatically-aggressive fighters ever.

Interestingly, Lemieux vs N’Dam occurs on the 35th anniversary of the first Duran vs Leonard fight, the greatest match ever staged in Montreal and a significant mark in boxing history. Tomorrow’s fight lacks its prestige and history, but the stylistic clash should still produce an entertaining bout. In N’Dam Lemieux has a skilled opponent to exercise his supposedly refined skills against. It may turn into a track meet, but it’s one Lemieux must run if he’s to move from the division’s trial stage into its final heat.

              — Eliott McCormick

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