On most days a visitor to the Grant Brothers Boxing Gym in Dorval, a suburb of Montreal, encounters a crowded room teeming with noise and energy as both amateur and professional boxers toil alongside gym rats to the clamour of thudding punching bags, snapping skipping ropes and the electronic alarm signalling an endless series of three minute rounds.
But yesterday was different. In advance of the November 28 match in Quebec City between IBF super middleweight champion James DeGale and the Grant Brothers’ most high-profile fighter, former champion Lucian Bute, it was “Media Day” and instead of spandex-clad athletes and grunting pugilists dominating the gym, it was pot-bellied cameramen and grizzled scribes with their digital recorders and dog-eared notebooks.
The assembled pundits and interviewers watched as Bute warmed up and then went through an abridged version of his usual training routine which included shadowboxing, skipping rope and loudly working the pads with trainer Howard Grant, his hardest hooks and crosses sounding like shotgun blasts, before making the gym echo again with the concussive thudding of the punching bags. Judging by decibel level, Bute has lost none of the power which allowed him to score stoppage wins over William Joppy, Edison Miranda and tough Librado Andrade.
During the ensuing media scrum the questions centered on Bute’s newfound enthusiasm for his trade after defeats to Carl Froch and Jean Pascal and a long layoff, the same storyline much discussed before Lucian’s comeback win this past August over Andrea Di Luisa. Bute’s association with Otis and Howard Grant receives much of the credit for the fact the former champion looked better than he had in years against Di Luisa. But Howard Grant is quick to deflect any praise and direct it towards Bute.
“His presence has changed the whole atmosphere of the gym, raised the standard for everyone,” says the former Olympian. “His work ethic is phenomenal. His mental focus is extraordinary. And he’s made me a better coach.”
Some have questioned the wisdom of Bute taking a title shot so soon in his comeback, wondering if a single win under the Grant Brothers in only his second fight since 2012 represents adequate preparation for tackling a young, talented champion like DeGale. Howard says the decision to take the match was made after one brief conversation with his fighter. “I asked him [if he wanted this fight] and he said, ‘He’s got my title. And I want it back.’ And from that moment I never doubted him.”
In terms of technical modifications of Bute’s ring craft ahead of what has to be regarded as the biggest challenge of his career to date, both Howard and Otis downplayed the need for any significant changes. “He’s already got all the tools, all the ability,” says Howard. “It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.”
At the same time though, emphasis has been placed on being more responsible defensively. “As long as he’s keeping his defense up,” says Otis, “he shouldn’t have any problems. Head movement, blocking, keeping his hands up, we’ve been working on those things.”
The other element being added is a new willingness to get mean and, if necessary, to retaliate for any illegal tactics or attempts to intimidate. Noting that DeGeale at times makes unfriendly use of his elbows and forearms, Howard says he’s instructed his fighter not to turn the other cheek. “I told him, ‘If this guy pulls that shit with you, you’ve got to elbow him right in the face. Or hit him in the balls.’ That’s part of the game.”
Is Bute listening? More to the point, are Howard and Otis Grant the right people to be guiding Bute at this crucial stage of his career? One man who thinks so is Montreal promoter Yvon Michel who is helping to stage the November 28 event for Showtime. “[Howard and Otis] are exactly what Bute needed,” says Michel. “He needed someone who knows the subtleties, the mental preparation … the specific needs for a fighter in the ring.”
As for Bute, the 35-year-old former champion exudes nothing but confidence. When asked about his training camp for DeGale, he has only one word: “Beautiful.” And indeed, part of what makes this match intriguing is that Bute, in terms of conditioning and outward confidence, does look impressive. His ripped physique and those booming punches on Howard Grant’s training mitts, along with his self-assured attitude, cause one to wonder if this 5 to 1 underdog is being underestimated by too many people.
And while even Bute admits that DeGale “is probably the most dangerous fighter I’ve faced in my career,” such a statement only bolsters the sense that in Lucian Bute, James DeGale could be facing a very dangerous fighter himself, one who is focused, prepared, understands the challenge in front of him, and is more confident than at any time since he was a world champion.
“I’m sure,” Bute says with a smile, “on November 28, I will be ‘the new.'” There’s no need to finish the famous phrase. The question is can he finish it and make believers of us all. Thousands in The Fight City are hoping he will. — Michael Carbert
Photos by Manny Montreal.