The last time Eye of the Tiger Management staged a major fight card at Montreal’s Bell Centre, it became a scene of utter chaos. A tense Quebec vs Ontario promotion in 2017, that saw a then-undefeated Steven Butler take on Brandon Cook, boiled over into a full-blown riot. After an excellent fight saw Ontario’s Cook awarded a seventh round TKO win, a metal chill bucket was thrown into the ring with amazing accuracy and struck Cook in the head. Pandemonium ensued, Montreal style, with countless fights breaking out both inside and outside the arena. It was everything security and police could do to contain the violence and prevent any serious damage to the Bell Centre.
Almost three years later it was finally time for Eye Of The Tiger to return to the arena that is the prime location for big fights in Canada. And while that return on Saturday night was mostly triumphant, it was also not without a certain skepticism about some of the opponents secured for the evening’s marquee fights. Despite this, the action was thrilling and the prospects on the undercard shone brightest. Let’s get to it.
The spectre of Yves Ulysse Jr.’s complete dud of a performance two days prior against Ismael Barroso cast a shadow over Eye of the Tiger’s marquee 2019 gala. Ulysse (18-2), who had been knocking on the door of a title shot, limped his way to a decision loss in a lethargic performance that was an insult to his talent and potential. That genuinely shocking defeat made the need for David Lemieux (41-4) to win on Saturday even more critical, especially considering that Steven Butler’s upcoming crack at the big time against WBA titlist Ryota Murata is a calculated gamble that could easily backfire. December was hyped as the triumphant conclusion to a banner year for Eye of the Tiger, but when Lemieux had to pick himself up off the canvas in Saturday’s main event, the prospect of it devolving into a disaster was suddenly very real.
In escaping with a split decision win over Max Bursak (35-6-2) in a genuine fight of the year contender, Lemieux had to show balls of Canadian-made steel against an opponent whose last major win was over Nick Blackwell in 2013. The hometown hero eked out victory by the slimmest of margins, overcoming two knockdowns, including a devastating equilibrium shot in round one, to eventually score a knockdown of his own and then come close to stopping Bursak in the final round. It was the kind of savagely thrilling contest that has endeared Lemieux to fight fans and it further cemented his status as a gutsy, must-see-TV action fighter.
But let’s be honest: we were just a punch or two away from the former champion getting iced in round one, and had that occurred we’d be writing his career obituary. Lemieux has dealt with injuries in seeming perpetuity, and to return at a higher weight after a long layoff only to be stopped by a fighter with obvious limitations would have been beyond devastating, for Lemieux personally and everyone associated with him.
All that said, it’s important to get something out of the way: Lemieux’s win was no robbery or evidence of home cooking. The two 94-93 cards for him and the 94-93 verdict for Bursak were all respectable and while Lemieux was in serious danger, he won his share of rounds in addition to dropping Bursak in the sixth and pulverizing him late. Ring rust certainly factored into this performance, as his vaunted left hook was woefully short on multiple occasions, but let’s not forget that Bursak is an elite gatekeeper who has never been stopped, so Lemieux struggling after so much time out of the ring shouldn’t be a shock.
Still, it’s hard not to think back on that first round and feel nervous after the fact. Lemieux was in danger of suffering a first round knockout defeat, which would have obliterated his standing and drawing power. It also would have been a gut punch to Eye of the Tiger, who at the moment should be far more optimistic about the imported talent they’re grooming than the fighters they’ve signed who have come up through Canada’s amateur system. Which isn’t a happy thought since to truly regain its full potential and prominence, Montreal’s boxing scene needs a native Quebecer to break through.
Contenders and Pretenders
The top end of the card offered a study in contrasts for some of Eye of the Tiger’s rising prospects. To put it plainly, they fall into two camps after Saturday night.
The obvious contender to be feared is Arslanbek Makhmudov. “The Lion” decimated former champion Samuel Peter in a single brutal round, displaying terrifying power, menace, and accuracy. Indeed, Makhmudov (10-0) was supposed to annihilate the faded former belt-holder, but the point is that he did his job with ruthless, explosive efficiency. Eye of the Tiger tried hard to secure a fresher, more challenging marquee name, but the fact is no one wants to fight Makhmudov, and for good reason. A simple look into his impassive face as he stands in his corner waiting for the bell to sound is enough to steal your soul. I, for one, am ready to put it on the line declare that he’s one of the top five heavyweight prospects in all boxing right now, with the likes of Daniel Dubois and Filip Hrgovic. He’s that good.
Kim Clavel secured her first minor belt, claiming the NABF light flyweight title after outclassing Esmeralda Gaona Sagahon over ten fast-paced rounds. Clavel (11-0) has steadily climbed the ladder since turning pro at the end of 2017, and she can now boast a top ten ranking and a rabid fanbase. She continues to pass every test with aplomb, and her technical skills are amongst the most impressive in Eye of the Tiger’s entire stable. After a couple of early wins in 2020, expect Clavel to challenge for a world title in the second half of 2020. She will have earned that chance and she will be ready.
Ah, Simon Kean. Our mullet-sporting heavyweight slugger. In scoring a (somewhat premature) final round stoppage over former titlist Siarhei Liakhovich to cap an admirably measured performance, the likable Quebecois banger left us, as always, with as many questions about his abilities as answers. To Kean’s credit, his boxing, and especially his jab, was on point, and he seemed impressively in control as he built an early points lead.
But as the contest dragged on and fans grew a tad restless, the sense that an overly cautious Kean (18-1) couldn’t overwhelm a 43-year-old who looked every bit his age became a fact no one could ignore. At times, Kean seemed hesitant to pull the trigger for fear of getting countered from the molasses-slow Liakhovich, but “The Grizzly” won every round before finally unloading his big guns in the tenth and ending the bout.
As much as there was to admire about Lemieux’s gutsy win, he in no way inspired confidence that he can immediately contend at 168. And frankly, based on how close that fight was, Lemieux owes Bursak a rematch. That won’t happen, but no one can say Lemieux is ready for anyone beyond the Bursak level unless the stylistic match-up is truly favourable. Luckily, Lemieux is young enough that no next move needs to be made in desperation. He’s a great local attraction, so let him get a dominant win under his belt before taking a major leap.
Bang for your buck (and why that comes with minor concern)
When the idea was originally floated that Eye of the Tiger would end 2019 with a stacked Bell Centre card, the dream of multiple world title defenses and every marquee fighter in the stable appearing was floated, but reality, as is so often the case, often delivers a swift punch to one’s privates. Sure, the Lemieux-headlined card provided excellent bang for your buck and brought out an impressive number of fans, but that came with a heavy amount of compromise and the reality that this turned out to be a strong mid-level gala.
Don’t read the above as overly negative. We need more cards like this one. However, it wasn’t the star-studded, elite-level showcase that some thought it could be back in the summer. That dream event could still happen, but one year from now is far more realistic, which should serve as an important reminder that Eye of the Tiger is firmly on the path of building towards that kind of historic local fight card that packs the Bell Centre to the rafters. That they aren’t quite there yet is nothing to criticize. If anything, the outfit’s ambition is something we desperately need to see from other stakeholders in Canadian boxing.
And if the showcase fights provided mixed opposition and some concerning results, the deeper undercard displayed further evidence of Eye of the Tiger’s exceptional matchmaking. Sadriddin Akhmedov scored a knockout of the year contender after dealing with a tricky, elusive, and hot-dogging opponent in Jose Antonio Villalobos, who stood up for nearly seven rounds before getting iced. The Kazakh prodigy was forced to reign in his emotions as he dealt with an obnoxious trash-talker who desperately tried to get the “Soldier of Q” to unravel emotionally. Akhmedov (11-0) banked crucial pro rounds, and he got the highlight reel stoppage. Mission accomplished.
Bluechip Quebecois prospect Lexson Mathieu was also brilliantly matched against rugged Mexican Rolando Paredes, who applied relentless pressure, showed no fear, and displayed a granite jaw before finally succumbing to Mathieu’s switch-hitting power and accuracy in the eighth round. With the victory, Mathieu (8-0) claimed the NABF junior super middleweight title, but he more importantly faced legitimate resistance for the first time as a pro and showed he could box well off his back foot.
Mathieu Germain rebounded nicely from his shocking stoppage loss to Uriel Perez, scoring a clearcut unanimous decision over the always game Gilberto Meza, who has a deceiving record and has hung tough with the likes of Batyr Jukembayev and Ablaikhan Khussainov. Germain (18-1-1) had to stay active and work his tail off, necessitating a sharp, focused performance. Because of the type of opponent he overcame, Germain can say he’s back on track with legitimate confidence.
Overall, December 7, 2019 was a successful event, one that may prove to be a significant turning point for Eye of the Tiger Management. It will hopefully be the start of more regular galas at the Bell Centre, the absence of which left a massive hole in the city’s fight scene. And if it was not quite the marquee event we had hoped for when the idea was first floated, it was a damn entertaining night of fights. More importantly, it represents a crucial building block, a reminder of how far the evening’s fighters and stakeholders have come, as well as how far they still have to go. — Zachary Alapi
Photos by Vincent Ethier.