A few years ago the city of Montreal had more than just one of the most active combat sports scenes in the world. A few years ago it appeared on the verge of becoming something more, something so vibrant and alive that even mainstream sports fans would have to sit up and take notice. A few years ago it seemed inevitable that the pugilistic hotbed we call The Fight City, which literally has as many or more serious fight gyms as the rest of Canada put together, would boldly assert itself with a series of exciting cross-town rivalries and high-profile fight cards. And much of this optimism came from the fact that a small, upstart firm called Rixa Promotions was doing its best to help make all that happen.
Allied with the highly respected Grant brothers — Otis a world champion; Howard an Olympian — and boasting such impressive young talents as Erik Bazinyan and Francis Lafreniere, Rixa staged a series of fight cards at different locations, including, most notably, the Tohu Theatre. These events and all the work and preparation behind them appeared to be putting in place a strong foundation for the future success of Rixa’s fighters, as well as providing an ideal platform for local pugilists from the city and its environs to do battle and draw the attention of Montreal sports fans.
Ironically, the most convincing evidence that such ambitions were being realized came from what may prove to be Rixa’s final show in March of last year. While all of Rixa’s fight cards up to this point (and, before them, those staged by the Grant Brothers) had drawn respectable crowds, this was the first time they had a total sell-out. Outside, not a single parking space could be had, while inside no seat was unoccupied. And the key point is this: Rixa’s two top attractions, Bazinyan and Lafreniere, were not even on the bill. Bazinyan had, for reasons unknown, walked away from the team that made it possible for him to be world ranked with a record of 17-0, while Lafreniere had competed less than two weeks before on a Groupe Yvon Michel casino card.
Rixa’s matchmaker, Maxime Fortin, had a serious dilemma: how would he inspire ticket sales when the two boxers with the biggest followings couldn’t be part of the event? His solution was as simple as it was effective: match local fighters against local fighters. Instead of doing the usual and pitting hometown prospects against grizzled veterans with spotty records from Mexico or Jamaica, Fortin tore up the script and matched young Quebec fighters against each other. In other words, a show populated with intriguing turf wars. Every bout was meaningful in its own way and as fight night approached, the buzz, not to mention the brisk ticket sales, was impossible to ignore. The fact that the card itself proved satisfying in every way, with a lively crowd getting one action-packed slugfest after another, was just the proverbial icing on the cake. As I wrote at the time: “There may not have been a big name at the top of the marquee for this particular show, but we didn’t need one and it wasn’t missed.”
But instead of building on the momentum from that major success, Rixa has retreated. No doubt the Bazinyan defection has much to do with that, as does the fact that Lafreniere lost two out of three in 2018, prompting him to move on from the Grant brothers and work instead with trainer Stephan Larouche. The winning formula that Fortin had concocted and then served up to appreciative Montreal fight fans was seemingly left on the shelf with no one willing or able to recognize the significance of what he had done.
But then came the announcement of a fledgling outfit called “New Era,” an enterprise pooling the resources of promoter Yvon Michel, veteran fighter Yan Pellerin, and famed champion strongman Hugo Girard. And from the start it was made clear that, in addition to a stated mandate to promote both boxing and mixed martial arts, a major part of New Era’s mission is to help build the local scene and provide opportunities for Quebec fighters. And in a tip of the hat to Fortin and Rixa, New Era’s first event last May in the city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu featured a rematch of a four round scorcher Fortin had put together for Rixa’s swan song, Jan Michael Poulin vs Jean Michel Bolivar. That rivalry now stands at 2-0 for Poulin.
All of which brings us to Friday night and New Era’s second show, which, while not a sell-out, saw strong attendance and a completely full parking lot at the Pierre Charbonneau Centre, an arena sitting in the shadow of Montreal’s hulking Olympic Stadium. And indeed the main event would have no doubt earned Fortin’s approval as it constituted a legit crosstown rivalry duel, Francis Lafreniere vs Francesco Cotroni for the Canadian middleweight title.
A fight fan from outside Montreal could be forgiven for glancing at the records and dismissing Lafreniere vs Cotroni as something unworthy of attention, but they wouldn’t know about the back story to this particular fight. In 2012 Cotroni was 3-0 and Lafreniere was 1-2-1 when these two unknowns battled in a four rounder on the undercard of a local show. Cotroni got the decision after a close, toe-to-toe war, and while in the years since there had been talk of a rematch, for one reason or another it never came to pass.
And while Cotroni was 2-8 in his last ten bouts, Montreal boxing people know he always comes to fight and is a better boxer than his record would indicate. For example, on the forementioned Rixa show he had battled undefeated Jordan Balmir in the main event and was highly competitive, despite being the smaller man. Out-sized and physically dominated, Cotroni never stopped competing, never gave up on himself, and even edged the final round in a losing cause.
A similar type of clash was expected on Friday: Cotroni’s experience and more disciplined style against the swarming attack of Lafreniere, aka “The People’s Champ.” But more on Francesco vs Francis a bit later. First, a recap of an entertaining, if somewhat erratic, undercard, featuring a mix of boxing and mixed martial arts fights, plus loud 80’s rock on the sound system, alluring ring card girls, and a festive Friday night party atmosphere.
The show opened with a literal bang as super middleweight Kevin Menoche of nearby Repentigny (4-0) stopped Ottawa’s Roody Rene (1-6-1) in round four with a brutal, one-punch knockout. Rene didn’t keep his hands up and he paid the price as a vicious right landed flush on his jaw and put him down for the count. Undefeated Montreal welterweight Hamza Khabbaz then scored his second pro win as he overwhelmed Roberto Gonzalez (3-2) with a barrage of right hands in the first round. Next, a duel between local pros fighting at 143 pounds saw Montreal’s Abed El-Safadi (3-0) get the decision over Laval’s Dwayne Durel (6-4).
Then it was time for the first mixed martial arts bout of the show as popular Corrine Laframboise of Montreal (4-3) took on Dee Begley of Ireland, the latter making her pro debut. While the match took place in a boxing ring, it otherwise was conducted under standard MMA rules and the local crowd was happy when at the end of all the grappling and wrestling and kicking Laframboise got the win by TKO in round three.
Next up, a name to remember: Dieudonne Wilfried Seyi Ntsengue. Yes, it’s a mouthful, so if you prefer just use his nickname, “Free Boy,” as this undefeated super middleweight has serious potential. He represented Cameroon at the 2016 Olympics and the 21-year-old is a prospect to keep an eye on. Jair Sena (8-4-2) of Mexico had little answer for “Free Boy’s” advantages in height, reach and speed, rising from a knockdown in the opening round and then boxing to survive. The bout became an anti-climactic mismatch as “Free Boy” toyed with his opponent and the macho Mexican swallowed a heaping helping of knuckle sandwiches, but to Sena’s credit he ate ’em all and survived to hear the final bell. After the decision was announced Seyi, obviously a born showman, performed his customary back-flip to celebrate notching win number seven.
Alexandre Roberge vs Tom Vautour was something of an oddity as this was the 38-year-old Roberge’s pro debut. Vautour, aka “Frankenstein” or “Tom The Bomb,” also has a unique back story of his own, and while originally from Saint John, New Brunswick, he trains out of the Donnybrook Gym with Ian MacKillop and is now a genuine Montreal fighter. That said, he was coming off a long layoff, but this still qualified as a turf war and Vautour and Roberge didn’t disappoint if you were looking for wild and crazy action.
Vautour answered the opening bell winging ferocious right hands, almost all of them missing, but near round’s end one of them landed and Roberge hit the canvas. “Tom The Bomb” looked like a man possessed as he kept pitching leather after Roberge went down, and even after the bell sounded. But despite the knockdown, Roberge was the one who boxed with a modicum of discipline and landed the straighter, cleaner punches. The match devolved into a wild brawl, the fighters swinging and lurching about the ring and Vautour’s trunks almost falling off in the final round. The crowd appreciated the lively show and Roberge got the split decision.
Perhaps the less said about Adam Dyczka’s heavyweight debut, the better, as his opponent, Michal Lukacik (2-3-1), was unable to offer any kind of resistance and hit the canvas for the full count just two minutes in. Replay showed an actual punch did in fact account for the knockdown but Lukacik barely tried to rise and judging from the boos coming from the crowd, your faithful correspondent wasn’t the only one left disappointed by Lukacik’s non-effort. But for Dyczka, who hails from the nearby city of Granby, a win is a win and his pro career is now officially underway.
Jan Michael Poulin vs Danyk Croteau qualified as another all-Quebec turf war, not to mention an important fight for two guys who have been in the pro game for a while but have yet to make serious progress beyond the local level. But while the match didn’t lack for action, it was also a messy and cumbersome episode, though to be fair, that had much to do with the inherent awkwardness of a southpaw vs orthodox clash. But for reasons unknown, lefty Poulin appeared reluctant to throw his jab with conviction or commit to his attack, while Croteau lacked the quickness to capitalize and seize the initiative. The result was a sloppy fight with as many clinches as clean punches, and even more wild misses, not to mention plenty of pushing, mauling, holding and hitting, and other rough stuff.
But Croteau broke through at the end of the fourth and staggered Poulin with a couple of hard right hands, which then led to a slugfest in the fifth, Poulin boxing with urgency and finally doing some clean work. Both knew the fight was up for grabs as the bell rang for round six and they battled accordingly, giving the crowd an action-packed stanza. Overall, Poulin had the edge with his quicker hands and straighter shots and all three judges scored him the winner.
Then it was time for the second MMA bout of the show and people got loud for Michael Dufort of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (7-3) who battered Miguel Arizmendi (7-3) and won by TKO in round three. Dufort obviously had a sizable following present and they reveled in his win, but not for long as the organizers at New Era kept the show briskly moving and suddenly Frank Cotroni and Francis Lafreniere were in the ring.
Local fight fans knew this was going to be an intense battle and they were not wrong. But what was a bit of a surprise was that it was Cotroni, not Lafreniere, who was the aggressor, bulling forward from the opening bell and refusing to give ground, coming out of the clinches faster and beating Francis to the punch. The rounds were not easy to score as both were active and throwing plenty when they could, Lafreniere scoring at times with heavy body punches, but the prevalent theme was Cotroni’s non-stop efforts to be first and keep the normally aggressive Lafreniere on the back foot. Still, one wondered how long either man could keep up the frenetic pace.
In the third Cotroni continued to have the edge, getting off first and punching with more conviction, even putting Lafreniere on the canvas with his ferocious attack, though the referee ruled it a slip. Finally, near the end of the round, it was Cotroni with his back to the ropes but Lafreniere couldn’t keep him there. However, he did start to counter some of Cotroni’s wild right hands with clean left hooks.
In round four one saw the first tell-tale signs of Cotroni slowing down and “The People’s Champ” responded by getting his jab going, but his stubborn opponent just kept boring in and constantly forcing clinches. Near the end of the round a frustrated Francis picked Cotroni up and threw him to the floor. Seconds later it was Lafreniere on the canvas but the referee again ruled no knockdown. Cotroni waved his arms in frustration but the non-call proved irrelevant in the end.
Round five was a slugfest but it was now obvious that the still aggressive Cotroni was tiring badly, while Lafreniere appeared to be just getting started, working to find punching room and using his left hand effectively. And in fact, it was a series of jabs which led to the end of the bout. As Francis got home his left lead, Cotroni attempted to retreat and in the process somehow strained his right leg and fell to the canvas. The stricken fighter appeared to massage his calf or ankle for a moment before beating the count, and then, despite limping, he insisted he could continue. But it didn’t take long for the referee to see that Cotroni could barely stand, let alone properly defend himself, and the bout was stopped, much to the dismay of Frank who was seen seconds later pounding the corner turnbuckle in frustration.
It was an unsatisfying conclusion, but that said, it looked to this observer as only a matter of time before Cotroni would have been completely exhausted, while Lafreniere still had plenty in the tank and was just starting to find his rhythm.
But even though Lafreniere vs Cotroni was the main event of the night, the show wasn’t over. Next up, an exhibition boxing match between former MMA star Patrick “The Predator” Côté and champion strongman Hugo Girard. But this final bout was not just part of the show, but also a fund-raiser in support of the AlterGo Group, an organization working to provide sports activities for people with disabilities. But make no mistake: both Côté and Girard, the latter tipping the scales at an awesome 330 pounds of muscle, made it an honest fight of sorts and did throw some stiff shots at each other. It all made for some light entertainment to bring the night’s festivities to a close.
In the end, there was something for everyone at the second New Era show: some serious boxing, some serious MMA, female fighters, beautiful ringcard girls, a consequential main event, and then the chance to see one of the strongest muscle men on the planet throw hands. And, most importantly, it was a needed showcase for local fight talent and local turf wars. New Era is picking up where Rixa left off and here’s hoping Montreal won’t have to wait too long before their next event. All things considered, one suspects Maxime Fortin would approve. — Michael Carbert