Eye of the Tiger Management’s card at the Montreal Casino on Saturday night came on the heels of their surreal offering in Shawinigan, which saw local heavyweight cash cow (relatively speaking) Simon Kean silence many of his doubters by draping charismatic antagonist Adam Braidwood halfway out the ring after a brutal barrage of power punches. While last week’s event featured a slew of burgeoning imported talent and the rising Yves Ulysse Jr., last night’s gala was about three excellent boxers — Steven “Bang Bang” Butler, Mathieu “G-Time” Germain, and Erik Bazinyan — making crucial statements.
Let’s start with Butler, the prodigious prospect on the verge of cementing his genuine contender status. It’s fair to say that at this point Butler’s humiliating defeat against Brandon Cook some 18 months ago seems like a distant nightmare, with the Montreal product having sufficiently rehabilitated his in-ring reputation and renewing widespread belief in his ability to win a world title. Credit Eye of the Tiger for methodically rebuilding one of their most naturally gifted charges through a combination of shrewd matchmaking and trust in Butler’s mettle.
Stopping durable veteran Carson Jones in seven rounds is a quality result for Butler (24-1-1, 21 KOs), but the win does come with caveats. With Butler comfortably harnessing his “man strength” at 160 pounds, he had a clear size advantage over the somewhat flabby Jones (40-14-3, 30 KOs), whose most meaningful work has come at welterweight. (It should be noted, though, that Jones’ weight has fluctuated since his career-best effort against Kell Brook in 2012.) Also, other than experience, Butler held a clear advantage over his American opponent in every meaningful category.
That said, Butler is still at the point where testing his resolve, concentration, and confidence is as crucial as matching him against foes with a better chance of beating him than Jones did. In Butler’s six stoppage wins since the Cook fight, he’s accomplished two things that will serve him well as the tests get harder: erasing one of the blemishes on his record by battering Jaime Herrera and dominating a wily upset specialist in Jones, who fought confidently and purposefully, despite being overmatched.
Against Jones, Butler boxed with assurance on his back foot against a cagey opponent willing to press forward with mean intentions. At times, Butler still kept his lead hand low, inviting Jones’ spearing uppercuts and right hands to pierce his defence. But what stood out far more than any minor flaw was Butler’s composure. He’s clearly reached the point where he can pace his offensive output, through a mix of solid single shots or combinations on command, and pepper his attacks with both off-speed shots and powerful fastballs. The only dilemma when it comes to Butler is how fast to move him. His talent, record, and recent performances suggest he’s ready to step up, but he’s so damn young that there’s also no need to rush him.
Two of Butler’s stablemates, Mathieu “G-Time” Germain and Erik “Bzo” Bazinyan, made just as significant, if not greater, strides on the undercard, as both won minor belts that will bolster their world rankings. Germain (15-0, 8 KOs) outclassed Christian Uruzquieta, who went the distance with Tony Luis back in 2016, to claim the IBF North American super lightweight title, while Bazinyan (20-0, 15 KOs) captured the WBO NABO super middleweight strap by impressively halting David Zegarra in the fourth round of a scheduled 10.
Like Butler, Bazinyan is supremely gifted but a relative greenhorn at 23. Bazinyan has also yet to face the same calibre of opposition as Butler, and even Zegarra has a somewhat misleading record, having fought the bulk of his career in Peru against continental opposition. But don’t read that as an indictment of Bazinyan or his progress. “Bzo” is the kind of fluid, gifted fighter who oozes world level talent, and his activity level since hooking up with Eye of the Tiger has been impressive. The rest of 2018 should see Bazinyan solidify a lower-end top-15 ranking by continuing to fight credible, experienced foes in the Zegarra mould; 2019 will be his breakout year.
Unlike Bazinyan and Butler, Mathieu Germain, at 28, is looking to strike now, which is why a minor title holds that much more significance for the native Montrealer. Germain’s rise since he started facing opposition with sharper claws back in 2015 has been steady and commendable, and three fights into 2018 finds him truly hitting his stride as a pro. Against Christian Uruzquieta, Germain controlled range with deft movement, launching precise fusillades whenever it suited him. If one were to nitpick Germain’s performance, it did seem that his circling was, at times, excessive, and he could have opted to box more on his front foot and press the initiative after landing clean combinations.
Germain’s predicament is one of age and pecking order. He’s now in his prime, but has only 15 pro fights under his belt. By default, any apprenticeship is over if he wants to make noise at the championship level. But in terms of promotional priorities, Yves Ulysse Jr. is rightfully be Eye of the Tiger’s main focus at 140 pounds. Will Germain, who is only slightly younger than Ulysse, get lost in the shuffle? Or will he forge a parallel path to contender status while the best junior welterweights annihilate each other in the World Boxing Super Series? If Bazinyan and Butler can build towards massive 2019 campaigns, Germain needs at least two more meaningful fights this year, either title matches or bouts against serious contenders. It’s time to let Germain take a major risk; he’s ready, and he needs to.
All that needs to be said of Raphael Courchesne (4-0, 2 KOs) and Vincent Thibault (6-0, 2 KOs), who both won confident decisions, is that they’re worth keeping an eye on. Courchesne is only a pup at 19, but it’s clear he’s got serious dog in him and relishes a scrap. Let’s see if youthful enthusiasm sharpens into a more calculated approach as he matures. Since his barroom brawl debut where he twice picked himself up off the canvas to score a stoppage, Thibault has matured, boxing particularly well against two consecutive opponents that dwarfed him in experience.
Both Courchesne and Thibault are draws, and they figure nicely into Eye of the Tiger’s longterm plans. The card’s feel good story was the return of the likeable, and skilled, Ghislain Maduma, who ended a nearly two-year layoff to soundly decision Custio Clayton victim Jhony Navarrete. If Maduma (19-3, 11 KOs) can make his way back down to 140 — he fought this bout at 147 and has done his best work at 135 — he seems to have the spark to make one more run. After all, don’t forget that Maduma lost to current world champion Maurice Hooker by split decision.
Some closing thoughts on Steven Butler: Eye of the Tiger’s future is intrinsically tied to Butler’s success. This isn’t to say that the ship sinks if Butler falters, but unlike an Yves Ulysse, who by virtue of age will have a shorter run at the top, or David Lemieux, whose strengths and weaknesses are abundantly clear by now, Butler — our “Sidney Crosby” as Estephan once described him — has the potential to be something special. So far, everything is aligning: the natural gifts, the experience, proving he can effectively rebound from a bad loss — and all this at only 22 years of age. If Butler can ever reach the level of in-ring success enjoyed by say Lucian Bute or Jean Pascal, he’ll usher in a new era of Montreal prizefighting.
This is a lot of pressure to saddle anyone with, let alone someone who might just be graduating university if he were not a pro boxer. The good thing for Steven Butler is that he isn’t going at this alone. Erik Bazinyan is on the rise with him, as is a terrifying horde of Kazakh destroyers. Ulysse, and Custio Clayton are nearly there and should make meaningful statements over the next several years. But let’s not downplay Butler’s significance in all this. Everything is set up to make way for his ascension. Time and talent are on his side. Now is the right moment to begin the next chapter.
— Zachary Alapi
Photos by Vincent Ethier.