“Francis works so hard, always gives his all. So we’ve made some adjustments. We want to make sure he doesn’t leave too much in the gym and instead brings it to the ring.”
The words are from trainer Howard Grant and in reference to Francis Lafreniere, the Canadian middleweight champion, set to do battle this coming Saturday at The Tohu Theatre in Montreal. The popular French-Canadian boxer is riding a 12 fight winning streak that has seen him go from a record of 3-5-2 to holding both the Canadian and NABO middleweight titles. A relative unknown not that long ago, the man they call “The People’s Champ” is now a legit attraction, his all-action style drawing fans through the turnstiles at arenas in Quebec City and Montreal. His thrilling ten round donnybrook with Renan St-Juste on the undercard of Kovalev vs Pascal II garnered international praise, the intense battle universally acclaimed as one of 2016’s best fights.
But in his last outing, Lafreniere skirted alarmingly close to the edge of defeat, a place he’s been before but is determined to never journey again. This past February, on the undercard of Eleider Alvarez’s knockout win over Lucian Bute, Francis and Uriel Gonzalez of Mexico gave the crowd ten hard-fought rounds and local fans breathed a sigh of relief when the scorecards were read and the decision went Lafreniere’s way. Our own Zachary Alapi was ringside and described the match as one “that featured hellacious in-fighting [and] multiple momentum swings,” and while a “case could be made for a Gonzalez win,” Lafreniere was “the deserved victor in a brutal and very close bout.”
“There’s no way Francis lost that fight,” states Grant. “It was close, sure, but the other guy was trying to steal the rounds by throwing a lot of punches just before the bell. My guy was the one doing all the work. You have to fight for three minutes of every round, not just the last 15 seconds.”
And indeed, there are few boxers who can hope to outwork Francis Lafreniere. But at the same time, there are no easy fights for “The People’s Champ.” An action warrior in the mould of his idol, Arturo Gatti, Francis sets a savage pace every time out and is more than willing to take punishment in order to get inside and impose his will; as a result, almost every time Lafreniere steps into the ring, the ensuing contest is a war.
It’s a style that provides much in the way of excitement for the fans, but also takes a physical toll. It also requires nothing less than superb conditioning and Lafreniere’s discipline and work ethic are second to none. But, in terms of maintaining his energy and avoiding too much wear and tear, as Grant admits, Francis may need to be saved from himself.
“He always gives a hundred percent in the gym, so we have to be careful,” says Howard, a former amateur champion and Olympian. “Maybe he had a bad day at the office last fight. It happens. No one can be at their best every time out. So we’ve made some changes, little adjustments. For example, he had his last rounds of sparring for this camp a few days ago. He doesn’t need anymore. He’s ready. He works so hard, never cuts corners, so we can relax a bit now and he’ll be that much stronger come June 10.”
And come June 10 at the Tohu Theatre, Lafreniere will be the headliner for another Grant Brothers/Rixa Promotions fight card that could very well mark a turning point in the careers of both Lafreniere and stablemate Erik Bazinyan. They are the leaders of the Rixa stable and as Operations Manager Maxime Fortin states, the June 10th show is the fledgling company’s biggest event yet. It’s the first time that Lafreniere, who faces Mexico’s Oscar Cortez (26-2), will defend one of his titles at the Tohu, and, according to Fortin, Bazinyan is in tough against Rolando Paredes (13-4-2) who has ten knockouts in his 13 wins and is coming off the biggest victory of his career, a stoppage of Mario Aguilar (17-2) for the WBC Fecombox light heavyweight title.
“He’s probably the best light heavyweight in all of Mexico right now,” says Fortin. “And maybe the most dangerous opponent of Erik’s career so far. I know he’s coming to fight and it’s been a long time since Erik has had to face this kind of style, someone who’s going to apply a lot of pressure and throw big punches and just keep coming.”
Fortin knows that both Lafreniere and Bazinyan are anxious to move on to bigger challenges and bigger financial rewards, but he also knows that, for both fighters, time is still their ally.
“With Erik, you have to remember, he’s only 22-years-old. He’s 15-0, has a belt (WBO Youth super middleweight title), and is moving up in the rankings. But we want to get him at least 20 wins before really pushing him into some truly risky fights. But at the same time, we have to challenge him, make sure he’s developing his skills. I know everyone was disappointed with his last opponent. We really thought Alis Sijaric was bringing more to the ring, but this guy, Paredes, I know for sure he’s a real test.”
“It’s tricky,” reflects Fortin. “You want to challenge your fighter but at the same time you don’t want to rush him. We’re not in a hurry and we want to make sure we get Erik the right kind of fights and the right kind of experience and build the foundation properly. In a year or two, he’ll be stronger, tougher, fully matured physically, and that’s when you’ll see him ready to challenge the top guys. I’m confident within the next year or so he’ll be fighting for another belt, just as Francis did, whether it’s WBA, WBO or IBF. That opens more doors and then the bigger opportunities are going to come.”
But with Lafreniere, while the situation is different, Fortin is also counselling patience, though for different reasons. At 27 and with 22 fights under his belt, Francis is poised for something big, something to push him to the next level. But it makes sense for Lafreniere to bide his time for the moment because his career, as Fortin sees it, is at a turning point.
“There’s two ways we can go. Because of his rating he could get a call anytime for a title shot against Billy Joe Saunders. Or we might get a chance to put him on some major undercards in the states, fights with name contenders, guys like Gabriel Rosado or Liam Smith. So we can go that route, exploit that NABO title and get him some serious international exposure. Or, we can take a different approach and take advantage of his popularity here. There’s big fights for him north of the border.”
And some of those potential big fights in Canada would be very attractive indeed for Francis should he be in the mood to settle some old scores, avenge some of those questionable losses he took early in his career.
“Francis still has Brandon Cook on his mind. Still has Brandon Brewer on his mind. And he’s able and willing to go down to 154 to get those fights. He’s ready to do that anytime. Rematches with Cook and Brewer are what he really wants. And the weight isn’t an issue. He has no difficulty making 160 and sometimes without even trying to cut weight, he comes in at like 156, so no doubt he can do 154 if it’s for a major fight.”
And for his part, Francis affirms he’s ready to drop down in weight if that’s what’s required: “I’m willing to fight anyone, 160 or 154. I can do either weight, no problem. But the one I would be really motivated to fight at 154 is Cook. He’s ranked number five in the WBA, so that would be a great opportunity. When we fought back in 2011 it was very close but you can watch the video where at the final bell Billy Irwin says I won it. So it’s revenge, plus it’s Ontario vs Quebec. That would be a great fight. Cook is the one I really want.”
But right now the focus has to be for this Saturday. Oscar Cortez is a late substitute and a definite underdog, but he’s talented and experienced and while Francis Lafreniere may be anxiously anticipating the opportunities that are just around the corner, he can’t be looking past anyone. There’s too much at stake, too much to lose. But Howard Grant, for one, isn’t losing any sleep.
“I’m not worried,” says Grant with a smile. “I don’t get worried when I know my guy has put in the work. Like I say, Francis never cuts corners. We’ve had a great camp and we’re ready to go.”
So, patience is what Maxime Fortin counsels to his two top prospects as they eagerly look forward to the high-profile, big money battles they sense are coming, can just make out on the horizon, getting closer and closer. It’s wise advice because on Saturday night they’ll both have hungry opponents in the corners opposite, men with little to lose but plenty to gain, fighters who want to take a piece of what Erik Bazinyan and Francis Lafreniere have worked so hard to secure. At the end of the night, if all goes as it should, solid wins will represent the next steps closer to the time when Fortin stops talking about patience but instead starts talking contracts, new deals, bigger paydays. But that’s for the future. Right now it’s about winning, not taking anything for granted, and believing in the big chances to come. — Michael Carbert