This Saturday night, the eyes of the boxing world turn once again to Montreal, and while the focus for most fight fans will be the main event, Kovalev vs Pascal II, the undercard features a clash of particular interest to The Fight City. Francis Lafreniere and Renan St Juste are both Canadian, both based in Quebec, and both have significant fan followings in Montreal. Their ten round showdown is for local bragging rights and is an absolutely crucial contest for the careers of both men. Plus, the IBF International Middleweight Title will be on the line.
This is also a classic youth vs experience match-up. St Juste, a rugged veteran, has held various titles and mixed it up with top ranked fighters such as Allan Green and Anthony Dirrell. Lafreniere, who had a rocky start to his pro career, is currently enjoying a seven fight win streak and looking to break into world class contention. To put that IBF belt alongside his Canadian middleweight strap would represent a major step forward.
But this is a serious test for Lafreniere and he doesn’t hesitate when asked if St Juste, even at age 43, represents the biggest challenge of his career thus far. “For sure,” he responds. “Because of the experience and the power, absolutely.”
Francis gave a similar answer back in June when, after earning an action-packed decision win over tough Salomon Rodriguez of Mexico, he watched St Juste climb into the ring to interrupt Francis’s post-fight interview and publicly challenge the younger man. “I have great respect for Renan,” responded Francis at the time. “… he has an impressive record and is globally ranked.”
Then, in October, both men shared top billing on a card in St Juste’s hometown of Repentigny, just east of Montreal, the veteran scoring a perfunctory seventh round knockout over Devon Moncrieffe while Francis was involved in an intense war with British Columbia’s Aubrey Morrow. Lafreniere won by eighth round TKO but a frightening scene followed with his opponent collapsing in the ring before being transported to a waiting ambulance. Thankfully, Morrow did not suffer permanent injury.
Now it’s time for the showdown between arguably the two best middleweights in Canada who are not named David Lemieux. Lafreniere, for his part, says he’s definitely ready after the best training camp of his career. St Juste is the first southpaw Francis has faced, but he feels confident after getting top level sparring from lefties Jo Jo Dan and Lucian Bute, as well as Erik Bazinyan who, while not a southpaw, switches stances with ease.
But if St Juste brings a new look for Lafreniere, it’s not going to have much effect on the younger man’s essential style, which is all about pressure and a high volume attack.
“I’ll be going right after him,” says Lafreniere during a pause in training at the Grant Brothers Boxing Gym in Dorval, a short drive away from downtown Montreal and the Bell Centre, where Jean Pascal and Sergey Kovalev will throw down Saturday night after Lafreniere and St Juste have their time in the spotlight. “I’m not underestimating him, but I’ll be on his ass all the time, putting on the pressure, and then really going to work in the middle rounds.”
But while he has no plans to modify his customary fan-friendly game plan, Lafreniere admits he and trainer Howard Grant have also done their due diligence in regards to defense. “I have to watch out for his big left hand and not take unnecessary chances.”
There has been speculation in recent days that St Juste, who has competed in the past at 168 and 175, may be having trouble making 160 and might have gone a fight too far, especially at the lighter weight and against a young, hungry battler like Lafreniere. But Francis dismisses such talk. “I’m preparing for the best St-Juste. Age doesn’t matter. I’m not underestimating him. It’s a big challenge. But after a couple rounds he’s going to see something new. I don’t think he’s fought anyone like me.”
One senses that Lafreniere, a father of two young children, clearly understands the importance of this opportunity, both for him and his family: “This is my time. First fight at the Bell Centre. IBF International title. On pay-per-view. A win puts me in the top 15 in the world. Great opportunity.”
But did seeing Aubrey Morrow leave the ring on a gurney last June have any lasting effects, especially for a family man with a young wife and children? “No, none. It just gave me more confidence because he fought his heart out and hit me with big shots, but he never hurt me.”
Though Francis acknowledges that putting an opponent into the critical care unit is not something any boxer wants to deal with. “You know, I actually said before the fight, as a joke, that I was going to put him in the hospital. But when that came true and the family came to congratulate me and the mother is crying and the father is very emotional, that was tough. Very tough. But that’s the sport. This can happen to any fighter.”
— Michael Carbert