With COVID-19 ravaging the province of Quebec unlike anywhere else in Canada, the local boxing scene, which boasts a strong stable of world class talent, was one of many industries to be hit particularly hard. But as Quebec prematurely opened up over the summer, allowing various forms of recreation to resume, combat sports were, inexplicably, put on the shelf. Despite the fact that south of the border fight cards of various stripes were being safely staged for months, the Quebec authorities seemed intent on stifling, and perhaps irreparably damaging, one of its few internationally regarded industries. Strange times, indeed.
When the green light was finally given, Camille Estephan and Eye of the Tiger Management, which had lobbied the province’s ship of fools government for months, sprung to action and organized a three-fight card at the Centre Gervais Auto in Shawinigan, the site of past events stacked with heavyweight donnybrooks and a slew of the most exciting prospects you’ve probably never heard of. Last night, that card finally took place. It followed all the COVID-19 protocols mandated by the province, it featured three of Eye of the Tiger’s most prominent fighters, and the event revealed some harsh truths about where we stand with boxing in Quebec, and where we might head from here.
For starters, Estephan, his promotional outfit, and all the fighters and staff deserve immense credit for pulling this off in a safe and professional way that served as a reminder that they could have been doing shows on this scale for months. With that in mind, it’s sobering to recall that at this point last year Estephan was promoting his ninth card of the year. After a fast start to 2020 that saw compelling action in January and February, the pandemic brought everything to a halt, and with coronavirus cases spiking again in Quebec thanks to widespread institutional idiocy, the rest of the year will be a challenging exercise in trying to reclaim what has been lost.
The first step towards a return to normalcy took place last night and proved equal measures thrilling and frustrating. Lexson Mathieu, a genuine blue chip prospect, improved to 9-0 with eight knockouts after destroying veteran Tim Cronin inside a round to claim the NABF super middleweight title. Mathieu, who ended the fight with a vicious left hook to the body, displayed all the gifts that have people talking about his prospects as a future world champ. But if for the foreseeable future he is restricted to facing domestic opposition, it’s hard to imagine results different from this one. And this is not intended as a slight against Cronin who is a solid fighter in his own right; rather, Mathieu is so gifted one wonders whether it’s already time to strike a co-promotional deal with an American partner and send him abroad to impress.
And speaking of needing to secure a fight abroad, Russian behemoth Arslanbek Makhmudov and his handlers need, like desperately need, to get him a big fight in the United States, or anywhere other than Quebec at this point. Makhmudov’s one-punch, 27 second knockout of Dillon Carman was the unsurprising result when you match someone with a legit chance to be heavyweight champion of the world against a good domestic fighter who hasn’t fought in sixteen months. Makhmudov threw a grand total of two punches in this fight, both left hands, a jab and then a sort of hybrid jab/hook that connected clean on the chin and put Carman down hard. One shot and the fight was over.
The outcome only reinforces the fact that it’s already time for Makhmudov, who has eleven knockouts in eleven fights, to take his campaign to the U.S. market. Domestically, there’s simply no viable opposition. With outfits like Top Rank putting on consistent shows in their Las Vegas bubble, Eye of the Tiger may want to explore new partnerships with big money American counterparts. At age 31, Makhmudov is in his prime and at this point I like his chances against virtually anyone in the division, seriously.
In the main event, Eye of the Tiger’s flagship fighter, middleweight battering ram David Lemieux, brutally knocked Francy Ntetu out in five punishing rounds. Coming off his hellacious and thrilling split decision win against Max Bursak where Lemieux (42-4) was floored twice and nearly stopped in a nightmare super middleweight debut, it was fair to wonder whether some thirteen years in the punch for pay ranks, 40-plus pro fights, and a punishing, brawling style were all starting to catch up with Canada’s favourite action fighter. But against Ntetu (17-4), Lemieux did his usual thing, stalking behind thudding power shots that consistently forced his opponent to the ropes. When Ntetu started to gas in the fourth and fifth rounds, Lemieux pounced, showing snap and frightening power in that vaunted left hook. Two knockdowns in the fifth brought the match to its conclusion.
Lemieux, to a certain extent, still seems like a man without a division. He simply cannot make middleweight at age 31, and his stature and reach don’t look suited for 168 pounds either. However, his power remains a unique asset, even if it might not be as thunderous as it was at middleweight. And while Ntetu didn’t offer major resistance other than appearing to drop Lemieux in the fourth with a counter shot that didn’t do much meaningful damage (ruled a slip), Lemieux showed discipline in breaking him down. But the Bursak fight does, at this juncture, remain a far more noteworthy bout in terms of what one can likely expect from Lemieux at 168, so while the Ntetu win served to shake off the rust, it didn’t really prove anything one way or the other.
But what’s undeniable is that Lemieux is pure entertainment and has one of the most likeable styles in all of boxing. No scare against Max Bursak was ever going to dent his swagger. That plus his credentials as a former title-holder mean that if he secures another meaningful win or two, he’ll probably get a title shot. But American pundits and fans have grown skeptical of his abilities, so Lemieux enters the next phase of his career with everything to prove. And the truth is that with his tremendous power comes great vulnerability, but that’s a recipe for exciting fights and why we love him so much.
In the end, Eye of the Tiger put on a safe and professional show, demonstrating that they’re more than capable of delivering a quality product under pandemic conditions. While the wait between fights was interminable and issues with domestic matchmaking definitely conflicted with featuring their elite talent, Eye of the Tiger shook off some of their own ring rust. The bottom line is that our province needs them, and as long as they can put on fight cards safely, the government and fans need to throw their support behind them. Here’s hoping Quebec’s boxing scene has started its long healing process. — Zachary Alapi
Photos by Vincent Ethier.