If anyone needed further evidence to confirm the enviable depth of Eye of the Tiger Management’s stable of fighting talent, Saturday’s double-header at the Montreal Casino provided ample proof. Two fight cards and 13 bouts in total provided a compelling mix of world class boxing, stunning knockouts, and intriguing storylines. I was ringside in the Cabaret Room at the casino for every round and every punch and will now do my best to offer a comprehensive report on all the action.
But first, it’s worth remembering that the majority of the fighters featured during this “Super Bowl” of Canadian boxing aren’t even the ones who are nearing world title opportunities and exposure on major networks. Recent Golden Boy Promotions signees Yves Ulysse Jr., Steven Butler, and Erik Bazinyan are eyeing April or May debuts to kick off their 2019 campaigns, and David Lemieux, the most marquee name in the stable, will likely return on the Canelo Alvarez-Daniel Jacobs undercard. All this to say that Eye of the Tiger is a genuinely thriving promotional entity that has every basis covered, short of a current world champion.
But if Saturday’s two galas and the Golden Boy co-promotional deals are any indication, it’s not a matter of “if,” but “when” Eye Of The Tiger and head-honcho Camille Estephan start collecting world title belts. Montreal’s many “Tigers” are ravenous, and soon enough they’re going to leave a trail of carnage in their wake. Fresh kills, so to speak, were made yesterday and here are the prime takeaways from a veritable marathon of boxing action in The Fight City.
1. Heavyweight Arslanbek Makhmudov’s Opponent Problem
Nabbing Avery Gibson (9-8-4, 3 KOs) to try and give personified nightmare Arslanbek Makhmudov (7-0, 7 KOs) rounds was an appropriate move by Eye of the Tiger’s matchmaking brass, who generally do an excellent job of finding opposition that can test their prospects. Prior to Makhmudov bludgeoning him in a single round, Gibson had never been stopped and had given Simon Kean a distance tilt in 2017. Gibson, on paper at least, is the ideal early-career test thanks to his durability and experience; he knows how to make a prospect work for a win and usually forces them to solve a puzzle or two along the way.
But a series of right uppercuts from Makhmudov to put a permanent dent in that logic. From the get-go, Makhmudov applied intelligent pressure, forcing Gibson to retreat with a heavy jab and a punishing overhand right. The uppercuts, however, were something to behold from such a hulking figure, thrown with sharp precision, landing consecutively and flush. Gibson winced and sagged with each connect, his face contorting in pain and bewilderment. Although that impressive barrage — punches that few top heavyweights could throw — brought about the unofficial end of the fight, Makhmudov was a bit reckless in pursuing his wounded foe. He appeared to get lucky with a shot towards the back of Gibson’s head, as well as a punch when Gibson went down again.
It’s going to take a lot of money to lure even a fringe top-20 heavyweight to Montreal to face Makhmudov. He’s that good, and he’s that intimidating. Seven fights into his career, it makes for him to have a couple more bouts in Montreal before taking his show on the road. A big knockout win in the U.S., for example, will vault him into a new stratosphere of contention and notoriety and one suspects Makhmudov could easily go this route by the end of this year, because there’s no way any middling heavyweight is going to give him rounds. Naturally we want answers to the obvious questions: can he take a punch; can he rumble for more than a few rounds; can he keep stay focused against someone who doesn’t fold. But if we’re being honest, only a serious contender will have what it takes to give us some answers.
2. Artem Oganesyan’s Craftsmanship
The term “punch-perfect” gets thrown around haphazardly, but that’s exactly the type of performance bluechip prospect Artem Oganesyan (9-0, 7 KOs) produced in dominating a credible Damian Sosa (11-1, 5 KOs) to win the WBO Youth super welterweight title. The match-up of undefeated fighters turned out, as most expected, to be a showcase for Oganesyan who, at 19, has to be considered one the five best prospects in all of world boxing. His skills are so obvious that the crowd watched him largely in silence, not because anyone was bored, but because they were captivated.
If Lexson Mathieu is mature for a teenager, Oganesyan is that next level of special. The way he controls ring geography and the accuracy of his counter-punching are stunning. He’s also eerily calm in the pocket, and he knows how to assess the force of his opponent’s shots, enabling him to absorb off-speed punches on his shoulders, arms, and even chin at times to remain in position to launch a fusillade of his own. And yet he rarely gets hit clean, which makes his willingness to stay in firing range all the more impressive. Everything he does is clean, artful, and precise.
Make no mistake, Oganesyan found himself facing a game and skilled opponent in Sosa, who has the kind of chin that’s going to be a blessing or a curse. He absorbed a stunning variety of punches — counter hooks, lead uppercuts, thudding body shots — but the Mexican kept plodding along, rarely hitting the target clean but keeping Oganesyan honest. Again, one must emphasize that the one-sided nature of the contest was strictly due to Oganesyan’s exceptional talent which should ensure he is world ranked in very short order.
3. Lexson Mathieu’s Poise
At this fledgling stage of his career, Lexson Mathieu (2-0, 2 KOs) knows he’s supposed to manhandle anyone put in front of him. He’s fought far better opponents in the amateurs than he has through two pro bouts, but what we’ve seen so far suggests he’s something special. His debut back in January lasted a mere 43 seconds, and he literally spun his opponent 360 degrees with a single punch. For his second outing, Mathieu outclassed Ariel Alejandro Zampedri (9-6, 7 KOs), to register another first-round knockout.
There’s plenty to gush about when it comes to Mathieu, and since he singed his professional deal, Eye of the Tiger hasn’t been shy in proclaiming that he’s the best pure talent to come out of Canada’s amateur system since Steven Butler. Against Zampedri, Mathieu’s ability to handcuff his opponent through feints, accurate punching, and distance management was something to behold, especially for a 19-year-old. The Argentinian simply had no sense of how to even locate an opening to throw a meaningful punch.
When Zampedri went down to one knee after Mathieu tattooed him with a series of punches, you knew he wasn’t going to get up, not because he was so badly hurt, but because he knew he had absolutely no chance of winning. It wasn’t such much a case of Zampedri quitting the fight as Mathieu snatching his fighting soul from him. The question with Mathieu is how fast can you move him. Given the progression of talents like Artem Oganesyan and Sadriddin Akhmedov, Mathieu seems like he could join them in targeting a youth title in under ten bouts. Whether that’s a prudent move should be clear by the end of 2019. Now, three takeaways from the evening card.
1. Simon Kean: Recovery TBD
In annihilating Rogelio Omar Rossi (20-8-1, 13 KOs) in under two rounds, Simon Kean (16-1, 15 KOs) scored a necessary soft-touch victory after his brutal knockout loss to Dillon Carman in October. That said, the fight was only beneficial for Kean in that it reminded him of how it feels to have his hand raised after a stoppage win. While that does count for something, Rossi offered no meaningful resistance; his last five defeats coming into this fight had all been by knockout, and he’s 37-years-old. Kean did show assertiveness in going on the attack and launching committed right hands, but he had to know that there was no return fire to threaten him.
All that said, no one should object given the Carman KO and the heights from which Kean fell. Eye of the Tiger could teach an advanced class in marketing given what they’ve managed to do with Kean. He’s a major star in Quebec and the promotional outfit’s main attraction when they hit the road and pack arenas in places like Shawinigan. When Carman pole-axed Kean, The Grizzly’s viability as a potential contender took as much of a hit as his ego. And with a Carman rematch looming, one has to wonder about the end game with Simon Kean. Kean can beat Carman; he has enough ability and certainly enough power. But there’s also the chance that Carman officially becomes the Tony Thompson to Kean’s David Price.
So why not use the entirety of 2019 as a “get back” year for Kean? Given that Carman was blasted in a single round by Evgeny Romanov in February, another Kean loss to “Big Country” could signify the end of his run as a serious prospect. Sometimes setting the record straight is an unnecessary gamble, and because we learned precisely nothing about Kean’s readiness for a Carman rematch on Saturday, jumping back into the domestic deep-end is a major risk.
2. Changing of the Guard
Ghislain Maduma (20-4, 11 KOs) is officially a hard-luck fighter. When he was a top lightweight contender, he nearly secured a shot at then-IBF champion Miguel Vasquez (41-7, 15 KOs). But then he travelled to the UK to fight Kevin Mitchell in an eliminator and was ahead on all three scorecards before getting stopped in the 11th by an opponent who had weighed-in two pounds over the IBF’s rehydration limit and so wasn’t even eligible to secure the mandatory position. Two fights later, after a jump to junior welterweight, Maduma lost a split decision to current titlist Maurice Hooker. A third defeat to elite gatekeeper Ricky Sismundo led to a nearly two-year hiatus from competition.
Five years later and two divisions north of the weight class where he burnished his reputation as an elite contender, Maduma finally got his shot at Vasquez, a now former champion still plodding along as a welterweight. Both Maduma and Vasquez remain skilled operators, and their fight at the Casino turned into a cerebral fencing match. However, when Maduma looks back at this performance, he might end up kicking himself for giving away too many rounds by following Vasquez about the ring while getting peppered with jabs. Maduma did find some success with his left hook and straight right hand, but failed to work his way inside with any consistency. Maduma, while putting forth an honest effort and even making a case for himself, just couldn’t let his hands go to the extent that was truly necessary.
Look, if you don’t like Ghislain Maduma, there’s something wrong with you. He’s an affable guy, an excellent fighter, and a great ambassador for the sport. But at 34 it’s hard to imagine where he goes from here. Even if he’d beaten Vasquez, making real noise at welterweight was unlikely; Maduma’s only card to play at this point, if he has the desire to, is a run at 140. He did look sharp in his two comeback wins prior to Vasquez, but whether he opts to fight on or not is secondary to the symbolism of his loss. The simple truth is that Eye of the Tiger’s old guard is on its way out and Maduma has been with them since the beginning. He’s had a great run and whatever he decides he can look back at everything he’s accomplished with pride.
3. Sabirov & Jukembayev: Counterpoint Performances
Nurzat Sabirov and Batyr Jukembayev are both supremely talented transplants from Kazakstan who have made Montreal their boxing home and thrilled local fans with dynamic displays of power and skill. Their performances in the evening gala, however, served as counterpoints, with Sabirov (9-0, 8 KOs) scoring a seventh-round stoppage over rugged journeyman Cesar Hernan Reynoso (15-12-4, 7 KOs), while Jukembayev (15-0, 12 KOs) appeared somewhat sluggish in winning a wide decision over late replacement Gilberto Meza (10-6-1, 6 KOs).
Apart from Artem Oganesyan, Sabirov (9-0, 8 KOs) was the standout fighter from the two cards. Yes, there were moments where the Kazakh took some unnecessary shots but the ferocity and speed of his combinations electrified the crowd, his fusillades Golovkin-like in their dynamism. His willingness to press for the stoppage and get it against a battle-hardened foe was encouraging, and from the eye-test standpoint, Sabirov oozes that “silent destroyer” vibe. He has the kind of fast-twitch fluidity to his power shots you simply can’t teach; it’s what separates contenders from potential champions.
Batyr Jukembayev has had a rough six months. Prior to decisioning Gilberto Meza — who had given friend and stablemate Ablaikhan Khussainov a rough ride last year — Jukembayev appeared to split with Eye of the Tiger after the company’s mysterious dispute with trainer Stephane Larouche, only to return to the fold. Against Meza, the typically explosive Jukembayev seemed disinterred for long stretches. Although he clearly won, he allowed himself to get touched far too often, and his face was visibly marked up after ten hard rounds. That said, Meza is a fellow southpaw and has never been stopped, but this performance, combined with Jukembayev getting dropped in previous outings, makes the rest of 2019 critical. Is he regressing, or is this merely a bump in the road? Time will tell.
Kim Clavel (7-0, 2 KOs) deserves to be singled out for the clinic she put on in scoring a shutout decision over former world title challenger Soledad Macedo (17-15-1, 4 KOs). Clavel’s technical abilities are world-class and the variety of her attack and positioning were virtually flawless. With Marie-Eve Dicaire having recently becoming the first Quebecois woman to win a world title, don’t be surprised if Clavel is positioned to become the second by the end of this year.
Some quick hits: Eye of the Tiger has a tough decision to make about Francois Bernard Pratte (8-1-1), who was brutally knocked out in the sixth round of a very tough fight. Through eight wins, Pratte has never scored a stoppage. He’ll also turn 29 soon, making this a devastating setback. Clovis Drolet (9-0, 5 KOs) can look ponderous at times, but that’s actually because he’s so methodical and comfortable fighting within himself; here’s hoping he ca position himself for a run at minor titles in 2020. Artur Ziyatdinov (9-0, 8 KOs) scored an impressive stoppage over rugged Pole Michal Ludwiczak (16-10, 8 KOs), largely because his body shots forced Ludwiczak to gag and then throw up in his spit bucket — literally. Andranik Grigoryan (10-0, 1 KOs) produced an at times brilliant, and at times ludicrous, performance; he oozes natural talent, but his peacocking got him knocked right on his ass.
This double-header was the perfect springboard for what should be a busy few months for Eye of the Tiger. Expect Lemieux, Ulysse, Butler, and Bazinyan to have fight dates and opponents within the week, and there should be a slew of local cards announced. Now, the real work begins in earnest. — Zachary Alapi
Action photos by Vincent Ethier