From the outside looking in, it would appear to be a do-or-die type situation for Lucian Bute, one of great urgency and tension, if not outright panic. After having failed a drug test and two opportunities to regain a super middleweight world title, one might have thought the next step would be a tune-up match, a confidence booster. Instead it’s another big challenge and high-stakes fight, this time in the light heavyweight division, against WBC top contender Eleider “Storm” Alvarez.
One speculates that a third consecutive non-victory in a major fight might relegate Bute to the sidelines indefinitely, if not spell the end of his career. But if anyone in the Bute camp feels at all worried or stressed ahead of Friday night’s big fight in Quebec City, they are doing an excellent job of concealing it. Bute himself has been the picture of serenity going through his usual training routines at the Grant Brothers gym. Always in excellent condition, he shows no outward sign of concern about Alvarez or about fighting as a light heavyweight for only the third time since 2005. When asked if his likely giving away ten or more pounds in the ring to Alvarez is of any concern, he grimaces and shrugs his shoulders as if the thought had never entered his mind.
Indeed, a certain nonchalance almost defines the pre-fight atmosphere for this match. Until very recently there were no signs of bad blood between Bute and Alvarez who share a Quebec and Montreal fan base and who have performed on the same fight cards in the past. Their public appearances in recent weeks have been marked by their cordiality, the two exhibiting mutual respect and shaking hands. Bute is so relaxed he appeared genuinely shocked when Alvarez recently had the temerity to taunt him publicly as an old man who should make preparations for a final ride into the sunset. Bland fare for trash talk, but enough to get a rise out of Bute and cause a stir on social media.
One speculates that the PED controversy of last spring, with Bute testing positive for Ostarine following his draw with Badou Jack in April, might have created some tension for the former champion and his camp. For months Bute’s career was in limbo while the authorities decided how to respond to the discovery of trace amounts of the banned substance in Lucian’s post-fight urine test. Bute maintained his innocence, citing tests which showed that a supplement supplied to him by conditioning coach Angel Heredia had been tainted with small amounts of Ostarine. Eventually he agreed to pay $50,000 to an anti-doping fund and accepted a six-month suspension, a resolution which effectively cleared him to resume his career.
The positive test was significant not only for Bute but for Heredia, whose name will forever be linked to PEDs and the BALCO scandal that implicated such high-profile athletes as Jason Giambi and Marion Jones. Heredia insists that all of his conditioning work in boxing, which dates back to 2011 and has involved such high-profile champions as Jorge Arce, Jean Pascal, Juan Manuel Marquez, and Badou Jack, has been entirely legal and PED free. The positive test for Bute was the first to undermine that claim.
In January Heredia came to Montreal to assist personally in Bute’s preparation for Alvarez, something he had not done ahead of Lucian’s matches with DeGale and Jack. At earlier press conferences Bute had already answered questions about his positive test, but another was held at the Grant Brothers gym in January, this time with Heredia present, who insisted that the problem was solely the result of a contaminated supplement produced by a laboratory called Pharmagenic.
“The formulas I requested contained absolutely no illegal substances,” said Heredia. “It’s strictly an issue of cross contamination.”
“I am very satisfied with Angel’s work in terms of fitness,” said Bute. “This situation was an accident. That’s behind; we look ahead.”
Still, for fans of the Romanian-Canadian pugilist, jumping up in weight to take on a fighter naturally bigger and stronger, after not looking particularly sharp against Badou Jack and after a lengthy lay-off, has to cause concern. And surely the pressure is on at this late stage of Bute’s career and when Alvarez is not the only one speculating that retirement is near. But you won’t find anyone in the vicinity of the former champion voicing such sentiments.
“Whatever rust he had, he’s shaken it off in the gym,” said Otis Grant earlier this month. “He went 12 rounds just the other day against three different sparring partners and looked sharp. There’s no pressure. He took on the two best super middleweights in the world, gave them both tough, close fights. He’s right in the mix, right there with the best.”
One of Bute’s sparring partners has been Ryan Ford, who last week journeyed to Singapore and won the UBO light heavyweight title. He also sees Bute as still a potent force no matter the weight and picks him to defeat Alvarez.
“He’s world-class,” says Ford. “And I’ve learned so much working with him. I’ve seen Alvarez fight and, while anything can happen, I think Bute is going to win.”
“Lucian has had the best camp of his career,” says trainer Howard Grant. “He had more energy in this camp than in the ones for James DeGale and Badou Jack. He will be ready Friday night.”
As for the seeming lack of stress or urgency, Otis Grant, a former world champion himself, sees it as a question of professionalism. Simply put, elite-level athletes don’t allow themselves to get agitated or pressured.
“If you’re nervous, if you’re not relaxed, you make mistakes. Besides, there’s just as much pressure on Alvarez as there is on my guy. He’s risking his shot at Adonis Stevenson by fighting Lucian.”
Indeed, future fights and future opportunities might be a big part of the relaxed atmosphere around the former champion and his team. Maybe those of us who think a third failure to capitalize and score a big win could have big, career-changing implications are reading things wrong. Maybe Bute and his people see the Alvarez fight as not the end of something, but the beginning, a view that was all but confirmed by promoter Yvon Michel with his speculation yesterday that the loser of Bute vs Alvarez could next face Jean Pascal.
But should Bute, who turns 37 next week, fail to defeat “Storm,” one wonders if a Pascal rematch would inspire much buzz at this late stage. Their first meeting sold out the Bell Centre in 2014 but neither is the draw they once were, a fact highlighted by softer than expected ticket sales for tomorrow night. The sense that both fighters’ careers are nearing their conclusions appears widespread and the reheated leftovers of a Bute vs Pascal return need something inspiring from Lucian tomorrow night. That said, if Bute looks sharp and scores a huge win over a fighter most are favouring to prevail, everything changes.
More to the point, conventional wisdom says Lucian Bute needs a win against a top level opponent to maintain his viability. Yes, he looked very good in an exciting and highly competitive battle with James DeGale, and he had his moments against Badou Jack, but the bottom line is he failed in both cases to bring home the victory. A third such failure on Friday night will make louder the calls for Bute’s retirement from his dangerous trade and further reduce his marketability.
Then again, one knows better than to doubt Bute’s intransigence and determination. Or to question the wisdom of those around him. After all, this time two years ago most in boxing had written Lucian off, said he was finished. Thus, the calm on the part of Team Bute before the clash with “Storm” Alvarez is not without merit. But while he and his team appear to be the very picture of grace under pressure, no doubt many of his fans are feeling the stress as the clock ticks down to tomorrow night’s showdown. One thing is for certain as the two fighters prepare to do battle: the “old man” isn’t even thinking about a final ride into the sunset. — Michael Carbert