Few sports have a history as rich as boxing’s and one does not have to look too far back to recall when defeats were not regarded as reasons to dismiss a boxer’s potential, but instead as the marks of maturation and character. The age of television changed all that, as did the acceleration of development. Instead of toiling for years to gain the required experience and skill, it’s become common for young boxers to move as quickly as possible through the ranks, many seeking to run before they can walk and fighting for world titles before having a chance to properly hone their skills.
Hubris and over-confidence usually have something to do with this, but it’s safe to say these hazards will never plague Francis Lafreniere, a young middleweight who is as modest and unassuming a young man as one could ever hope to find. A clear departure and a breath of fresh air from all the boastful, cock-of-the-walk types one encounters in boxing gyms, Lafreniere freely admits he has no huge ego and that, at times, this can be a liability. Confidence does not come easily for the hard working boxer and family man of the small town of Saint-Clet, Quebec. But with a five fight win streak under his belt, now is maybe a good time for Lafreniere to walk tall.
Perhaps starting out with the wrong sport had something to do with a lack of self-assurance. Like so many youngsters in Canada, Francis gave ice hockey a serious try but eventually it was clear this was not the best choice and in a family that was crazy about wrestling and combat sports, boxing seemed a better fit. It was Francis’ father who strove to give his son confidence, pushing him on when he felt discouraged after a loss in the amateurs.
“He would tell me, ‘Don’t stop. Continue. You’ll see,'” recalls Lafreniere. “And he was right.”
But some of the defeats were hard to take and, in Francis’ eyes, highly questionable. Soon enough the decision was made to go pro, a move which entailed a change in trainers. Lafreniere credits Raynald Lavigne with guiding him through 73 amateur contests, but he was taken on by the Grant Brothers when he turned professional.
But tough losses followed the young fighter into the paid ranks. Just two-and-a-half years ago, his record stood at 2-3-2. And Francis soon learned that overcoming setbacks so early in a pro career required fortitude and dedication of a different kind altogether.
“It’s tough,” says Francis of the early days of his career. “It’s very tough. They call you at the last minute and you’re not ready, but you take it because you don’t know when you’re next fight is going to be. Then they rob you and on top of that, you don’t make any money. It’s very tough. But I didn’t give up and now I have five wins in a row and a great team backing me.”
Does he regret some of those decisions, taking matches on such short notice?
“No, not really,” says the tough battler with the fan-friendly, all-action style. “Of course every boxer wants a perfect record but it also gave me experience and mental toughness. After five losses, so many people would quit. But those defeats have made me stronger and more determined.”
And the rewards of that inner strength and resolve are quantifiable. In addition to his boxing career, Francis is a successful trainer and business man, the owner of his own gym, Club de Boxe Lafreniere, which attracts clients from the town of St-Clet and the surrounding Vaudreuil-Soulanges region. Working 70 hours a week at his own business while pursuing a pro boxing career speaks for itself in terms of energy, drive and perseverance.
“I opened the gym in my garage but I had a lot of clients,” says Francis. “Now I rent a big space and employ four trainers and the gym pays the bills while I focus on boxing.”
But even with so much time and energy invested in his work, his training, plus his growing young family, Francis finds the time to give back, working with underprivileged children free of charge and giving them access to the gym. “When someone asks,” he says, “I try to help.”
Does he enjoy coaching? Is training something he might do after his boxing career is finished?
“Sure, absolutely! When I work with kids and I see them smile, or when I train people and they lose weight and they call and say ‘Thank you,’ it’s great. And many of my boxers are winning tournaments, while I never did!”
But right now, the focus is on his own career and his headlining tonight’s Grant Brothers boxing card. His opponent, Salomon Rodriguez Bailon, is not to be taken lightly, something the modest-to-a-fault Lafreniere understands well. And if he forgets, chances are good Howard Grant will remind him.
“Otis and Howard are very good coaches,” says Francis of the brothers who have worked for years to help him develop his skills. “Howard is more tough. He doesn’t talk a lot, but you learn on the spot. And when you need help, he’s there.”
As for confidence, the 27-year-old middleweight contender, currently ranked 15 by the NABO, only has to look back to some recent elite-level gym work and the success of one of his Quebec compatriots to reaffirm his morale. “I’ve sparred with Lucian Bute. I’ve sparred with David Lemieux. I gave Lemieux eight tough rounds and now he’s a world champion.”
Another win tonight will only bolster that self-assurance, not to mention add more fuel to the fire. It’s safe to say Lafreniere’s confidence, like his career, is on the rise.
— Michael Carbert