On a boxing-rich day for Canadian fight fans — with Steven Butler headlining in Rimouski and Jean Pascal challenging for a world title in Atlantic City — Groupe Yvon Michel staged an entertaining afternoon gala featuring a slew of local fan favourites and prospects. More significantly though were the two headlining bouts showcasing all-action slugger Francis Lafreniere and returning lightweight contender Tony Luis, both intent on securing important victories to set up career-altering 2019 campaigns.
Lafreniere (17-7-2), aptly nicknamed “The People’s Champ”, was fighting just over a month after his last victory, a bounce-back first round TKO following his surprise majority decision defeat to Albertan Albert Onolunose in March. The Onolunose war snapped Lafreniere’s 13-bout winning streak, which had seen the likable slugger claim three minor titles, burnish his reputation as an all-action warrior, and set himself up for a run at genuine contender status.
But after dropping a majority decision to Jose de Jesus Macias (24-9-2) in a fight where only Lafreniere’s unrivaled heart and chin carried him on wobbly legs to the final bell, it’s time to take stock and reassess his career path. At 30, Francis needed this win to establish firm footing for an ambitious and career-defining campaign in 2019, but now he finds himself mired in the second full-fledged rebuild of his fascinating and tumultuous career.
Make no mistake, Lafreniere, as expected, was gallant in defeat, perhaps too gallant for his own good. Macias was the clear winner of a contest that will be looked back on fondly as one of the most brutal and compelling bouts held in Canada in 2018, and the scores of 78-74, 77-75, along with an unfathomable 76-76, reflected the fierce, sustained action. Once again, “The People’s Champ” gave his fans a memorable and action-packed show, something this brave warrior who idolizes Arturo Gatti prides himself on. But the decision in fact should have been unanimous as Macias simply landed the harder, more hurtful blows while being far more judicious and ruthless with his punch selection.
“We tried to put on a good fight,” said a classy-in-defeat Lafreniere. “Macias was tougher than expected. He hit me with some body shots and some good uppercuts that I dealt with, but the body shots hurt and the way he came at me — he did good tonight.”
It must be noted that Lafreniere entered the bout with a serious hand injury, though Francis refused to make excuses, showing genuine sportsmanship in defeat. But clearly he was pushing his punches for much of the contest, and his jab lacked the snap necessary to deter Macias’ offensive bursts. More significantly, a Macias barrage in the fourth had Lafreniere doing a slow-motion, shaky-leg dance that echoed Zab Judah’s infamous waddle against Kostya Tszyu. That Lafreniere remained upright defies both logic and physics, but at the same time comes as no surprise for those who have followed closely the career of the courageous “People’s Champ.”
“The doctor told me I’ll need four to six months [for my hand],” said Lafreniere. Trainer Otis Grant interjected. “Looking from the corner, he got hurt in the fourth and I think that took something out of him,” said the former world champion. “His energy wasn’t there and he was defensive. But he stayed in and gutted it out. He got hurt more than once, but he fought a hell of a fight.”
Lafreniere never fully recovered from that fourth round shellacking. Despite pressing forward at multiple junctures in the last two rounds, he could not sustain any serious offence while being forced to absorb multiple flush shots, including punishing body blows. All credit to the hometown hero: he never took his foot off the gas, never stopped battling hard, but at the same time it seemed he couldn’t quite get out of third gear.
Overall, the action was too breathtakingly brutal to closely catalogue, as the myriad volleys of power punches launched by both men had a dizzying effect on all in attendance. But now one has to wonder if Lafreniere is entering a stage of his career where it must be questioned if the kind of intense, all-action fights he has used to burnish his reputation are worth the physical toll and, more to the point, if they are still his best bet for ring success.
Lafreniere’s struggles stood in stark contrast to the performance from the other established name on Saturday’s show. For Tony Luis, things have come full circle. He began his pro career in Montreal fighting under GYM’s promotional banner, and yesterday saw him end a frustrating year-long hiatus by returning to Canada’s marquee fight city to propel himself towards what should be a pivotal 2019 campaign.
Luis (26-3) looked sensational in stopping rock-solid journeyman Edgar Ramirez in the sixth round of a scheduled eight. As expected, Luis put Ramirez (17-14-1) through the patented thresher that most of his foes are fed through and then spat back out. Ramirez, despite possessing solid power, was never remotely in the fight. Luis controlled the contest with exceptional distance management behind a fast, educated jab that he often doubled and tripled.
As the match went on, Luis worked his way inside, laying the foundation of his stoppage with a merciless, soul-sapping body attack. The combination that worked particularly well for Luis was a double left hook–body then head–launched at the end of a three or four punch flurry.
“I chopped that tree down,” said Luis afterwards. “I had to take away the distance, take away his legs, but I knew he would come to me so his height wouldn’t be as big a factor as it looked on paper. I knew he was tough and he was going to give me rounds.”
The crispness and fluidity of Luis’ fusillades deserves to be highlighted when you consider he last faced live competition in October of 2017. But it’s not surprising, either. Luis has proven he belongs at world level, most notably when he traveled to Derry Mathews’ backyard on short notice and came up on the short end of a controversial verdict.
Luis was clearly in tremendous shape, as he steadily amped up his pace and was able to avoid Ramirez’s looping shots while timing the Mexican with thudding counters. For the most part, though, Luis was leading this violent dance, and it was almost painful to watch him relentlessly dig to Ramirez’s body. What was also evident was that Luis possesses power that belies his knockout record. Thanks to a combination of balance and technique, he’s able to get tremendous torque on his power shots, which complements his eye-catching, twitchy speed.
Luis emphasized that his jab was integral to controlling the match and that he made a concerted effort to work off of Ramirez’s jab as well. “I gave him the right hand too, down and up,” added Tony, “so he wouldn’t see the left hook coming.”
At times, Luis did load up on some punches, particularly his vaunted left hook, but advice from his corner reminded him to establish optimal distance, remain defensively responsible, and set-up his attacks. Luis heeded this counsel, and his patience after dropping Ramirez on the seat of his pants in the third round was a reminder that Luis is firmly entrenched in the “experienced contender” phase of his career. He undoubtedly has the brains to match his brawn.
“My corner wanted me to put him away and go for the kill,” Luis said when discussing the first knockdown. “I tried at first, but he was ready to rumble. I saw that he was still fresh, so I didn’t want to run into anything stupid and give away my hand too soon.”
The rest of the card showcased a few prospects, most notably the sturdy Mazlum Akdeniz (7-0), a compelling young talent who blasted out experienced journeyman Javier Pena (12-12-1) in the final round of a scheduled six in a clinical and mature performance.
Other results included Devin Tomko (6-0) labouring to a fortunate majority decision win over the tough Augustin Malecot (3-8-1); Vislan Dalkhaev (10-1) bouncing back from his first career defeat to halt the solid Emmanuel Villamar (10-6); local crowd pleasers Yan Pellerin (4-1) and Danyk Croteau (4-2) scoring stoppage wins, and Jean Michel Bolivar biting off a bit more than he could chew against cagey veteran Manuel Garcia, who outfought Bolivar to claim a majority decision.
But let’s return to the main attractions as it would appear that Francis Lafreniere and Tony Luis, both tremendous ambassadors for Canadian boxing, are heading in radically different directions.
Lafreniere is at the point where he needs to heal and reflect. A meticulously planned ring return might lead to one more string of wins to position him for the kind of big money fight one hopes he can secure. But it’s fair to wonder if Lafreniere’s relentless, punishing fighting style, and his willingness to absorb flush shots to deliver his own, is catching up to him. Indeed, he has earned the right for total support as he embarks on another rebuild, but what he needs first is rest and recuperation. Then, hopefully, a career rejuvenation can occur.
As for Luis, his skills, timing, and overall boxing savvy were so vastly superior to everyone competing on this card that it only reinforced how 2019, assuming he actually gets the opportunities he deserves, has to be about finally landing a world title shot. A quick return against a respectable veteran could make sense, but the feeling here is that Luis is ready to strike immediately. Give him a top ten contender at lightweight, or the right marquee name at 140, and let’s see if they can handle Luis’ unique combination of tenacity and skill.
“I really wanted to make the statement that regardless of the layoff, I wasn’t going to show any rust, that I took care of myself, that I didn’t let myself go,” Luis said. “I am back. And I want a title shot. Now is the time.” — Zachary Alapi
Photos by Kieron Yates