If there were more fighters like Jean Pascal — ballsy to the point of irrationality, legitimately skilled, and with enough swagger to make you gush and cringe in equal measure — Pascal himself wouldn’t be fighting this Saturday against WBA light heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol. But here we are, hours away from what pretty much everyone outside of Canada is happy to dismiss as a blatant mismatch, and what anyone who cares about boxing in Quebec and Montreal will watch with either somber resignation or perverse fascination. Pascal isn’t supposed to beat Bivol; he isn’t supposed to come close. But, again: here we are.
What’s unfair to Pascal, though, is to get genuinely angry about this fight and the matchmaking. Bivol had a terrible time securing an opponent, especially when you consider that his best laid plans to unify titles with Sergey Kovalev were dashed when Eleider Alvarez knocked “Krusher” senseless in one of the most viscerally satisfying results ever for Montreal boxing fans. Scrambling for a backup plan, offers were extended and promptly rejected. Bivol’s team went down the list of available, ranked contenders and landed on Pascal. To no one’s surprise, Jean jumped at the opportunity. And just like that, Bivol vs Pascal was on.
On Saturday night Pascal will show up at the Hard Rock in Atlantic City shredded and in shape. He will, perhaps to his great detriment, almost certainly go out on his shield, as he did against Sergey Kovalev. He will fight to win; he will leave it all in the ring. And it’s not his fault that at the age of 36 he’s running into arguably the best light heavyweight in the world, who just happens to be in his physical prime.
Some might call Pascal’s eagerness to take on a younger, fresher, harder-hitting adversary more than a little foolhardy, but there’s also something admirable about it. Just over a month ago Pascal had cancelled a minor bout in Nova Scotia to grieve over the sudden death of his father. But not long after, the opportunity to fight for a world title came knocking and Pascal didn’t hesitate: back into training he went. It would have been easy for the former champion to cite his father’s death, the needs of his family, or to protest the somewhat abbreviated time to prepare. Instead, he’s grabbing this chance like there’s no tomorrow and squeezing with all his might. After all, it could well be his last.
And thus it’s worth taking stock of what Jean Pascal has accomplished and what a trailblazer he’s been for Canadian boxing. For American journalists and fight fans, it’s easy to look at Pascal somewhat dismissively and vaguely recall that he’s a former belt-holder and a tough guy, someone you’re generally happy to see on a card but are content to forget about when he’s inactive. I call bullshit. To us, to Canadian and Quebecois fight fans, Pascal matters.
The laundry list of Pascal’s accomplishments is impressive and world class: 2004 Olympian; former WBC and lineal light heavyweight champion; ten world title fights (counting Bivol); an absolute murderer’s row of opponents. Pascal has boxed Carl Froch, Chad Dawson, Adrian Diaconu, Bernard Hopkins (twice), Sergey Kovalev (twice), Lucian Bute, and Eleider Alvarez. What active light heavy has faced stiffer opposition? Yes, Pascal’s record against the true elite is sub-.500, but he was always competitive and he deserves major props for besting a prime Dawson. His close decision setback to Froch is a minor classic, and even in the first Kovalev fight he rallied in the middle of the match to give all in attendance an unforgettable surge of hope.
Pascal was also integral in giving boxing in Canada — and Quebec and Montreal specifically — a global profile. HBO decided to venture north in large part because of Pascal, thus enabling “The Fight City” to raise its profile, to make more aware of its rabid fans, to leave viewers on HBO in awe of our passion and intensity. Pascal won world titles and made serious money, but his career has been defined by his home city. When you see an outfit like Eye of the Tiger Management building a stable of fighters that will soon be among the world’s best, it’s important to realize that the path to this point was forged in large part by Jean Pascal.
It’s not even worth getting into what Pascal has to do tactically to upset Bivol, nor is it productive to debate whether he has more than a puncher’s chance. No matter how Pascal loses — early knockout, sustained beating, lopsided points loss after he miraculously hangs on for 12 rounds through sheer will and veteran skill — it won’t alter or erode his legacy. What’s at risk, however, is his health, and one can only hope that the 36-year-old — well known and admired for his heart and granite chin — does not sustain an unnecessarily hellacious beating.
It cannot be overemphasized that Pascal’s putting himself in harm’s way because that’s what we expect real fighters to do. It’s perverse, but it’s true. There’s also the matter of chasing greatness. Pascal cannot be considered an all-time great — though there’s no doubt he has standing on any list of the best Canadian boxers or the best light heavyweights of recent years — but few over the past decade have chased greatness as doggedly as Pascal and that deserves our collective applause.
When Pascal was decimated by Sergey Kovalev in January of 2016, it looked like the end of the road and I wrote about Pascal’s impending “last stand,” or what I imagined would be the final act of his career. Predictably, nothing outlined or speculated about in that column materialized, and when you think about Pascal’s trajectory as a fighter, that’s almost poetic. He defies and spits in the face of logic and reason. He does things his way, taking risks many will not. Because that’s what a real one does.
It’s easy to forget that after his second battering at the hands of Kovalev (and how many of “Krusher’s” victims have ever campaigned for a rematch?), Pascal gave Eleider Alvarez — the same Alvarez who demolished Kovalev last August– a tough fight in dropping a majority decision. That setback hurt, and understandably so. For years Alvarez had been in Pascal’s long shadow; suddenly he had left his former training partner behind, surpassing him at a time when the older man was desperate for one last shot at glory. So what did Pascal do? He traveled to Florida as the “opponent,” the guy who was supposed to lose, and stopped emerging prospect Ahmed Elbiali in six rounds.
But instead of sticking to his word and retiring, Pascal then built up a match against hockey brawler, MMA fighter, and Quebecois celebrity Steve Bossé in La Belle Province’s version of Mayweather vs McGregor. He battered Bossé senseless in a cruiserweight tilt and more than a few speculated that this lucrative, if predictable, win was the final act of Pascal’s career, one last and well-deserved payday. But then came the announcement of the ill-fated match against journeyman Gary Kopas (10-11-2), set for the unlikely locale of Sydney, Nova Scotia. Was that to be Pascal’s farewell? Evidently not. But from Kopas to Bivol is quite the step up, to put it mildly.
And yet, for Jean Pascal, it’s familiar territory: a world championship fight; an HBO broadcast; a prize ring shared with a genuinely elite foe. The fact that this is what’s familiar for Pascal — that it’s what we’re accustomed to seeing — says it all about Quebec’s light heavyweight stalwart, a fighter as game as they come, who turns away no challenge. It’s tempting to try and go further here, to put an eloquent capstone on Pascal’s career and accomplishments, but they defy easy description. His run at the elite level has been too chaotic, thrilling, strange, disappointing, and glorious all at once.
The fact that parts of this piece read like an obituary for Pascal’s boxing career before he’s even fought Bivol is also apt, seeing as he’s defied odds and risen from the ashes more than once. He truly carries that “throwback fighter” mantle fans and pundits wish more boxers embodied. But right now Pascal’s too busy with the serious business of getting ready to face Dmitry Bivol to worry about anyone’s assessment of his legacy, or whether he belongs in that ring on Saturday. Whatever happens, here’s to Jean Pascal — a real one. — Zachary Alapi