One of boxing’s most intriguing stories of the last few years continues to unfold with the next chapter to be written Saturday night at the historic DC Armory in Washington D.C. The main event of the Showtime Championship Boxing card will see Lucian Bute challenge Badou Jack for the WBC super middleweight championship in a match which will either fully establish Jack as one of the best fighters in the division, or mark the unlikely return to the pinnacle of Bute, a boxer who had been written off by almost everyone just a short year before.
The latter narrative is of course the more dramatic one, not to mention more surprising. The transformation which has taken place over the last 12 months has been fascinating in both its particulars and its rapid progression. Should Bute triumph on Saturday the end result will be of a kind which no one outside of the former champion’s inner circle could have foreseen.
After defeating fringe contender Andrea Di Luisa last August in his first fight in 19 months, and first with new trainers Howard and Otis Grant, few anticipated Bute’s very next match would be for a world title. Given everything he had been through since his ruinous defeat to Carl Froch in 2012, surely one or two more confidence-builders were in order. Instead Bute set himself to challenge IBF super middleweight champion James DeGale and the vast majority of pundits expected a routine win for the champion over a 35-year-old challenger who had fought just once in 22 months.
But instead of the beatdown many anticipated and which DeGale promised, we got a hard-fought and highly competitive 12 round struggle which saw Bute get stronger as the battle went on. While the judges handed in surprisingly wide scores for the champion, most saw it a close fight, not to mention a candidate for 2015’s Fight of the Year.
But as it turned out, the official result hardly mattered; the real winner was Bute. Not only did he exceed all expectations, but in a matter of weeks he was signing contracts for another title fight, not to mention the main event of a nationally televised card with, wait for it, James DeGale in a supporting role. Evidently the people at Showtime recognize an inspiring comeback story when they see one. Or maybe Mayweather Promotions is pulling some strings and hoping their fighter, Badou Jack, can become a major new attraction. Whatever the case, it’s passing strange to see the loser of a title fight get top billing over the man who defeated him.
But the competitiveness of Bute vs DeGale last November aside — and make no mistake, it was a close fight; word is DeGale’s people even made polite inquiries regarding a rematch while waiting for the official decision — the real victory for Bute that night was the rediscovery of his inner confidence, something severely damaged when he fell to Froch back in 2012.
“Di Luisa was the question,” reflected Manny Montreal to this writer not long ago. “And DeGale was the answer.” And even though the decision didn’t go Bute’s way, the ‘answer’ did. Simply put, you still got it. There may be more lines on your handsome visage and fewer sands in the hourglass, not to mention fewer fans chanting your name, but it doesn’t matter. Despite all the setbacks, you belong at the elite level.
Confidence. There’s no substitute for the genuine thing, for a deeply held conviction that one is a winner. No competitor can achieve lasting success without it, and right now it’s all anyone talks about at the Grant Brothers Boxing Gym where Lucian Bute trains six days a week. Watching Bute workout for the first time in several months, the change in his comportment and his fluidity in the ring is striking. He had looked good before DeGale: fit, sharp, proficient. But now he looks better. Now he looks dangerous.
One searches in vain for a concrete explanation, something tangible, something related to technique or tactics. Conditioning coach Daniel Ortega comes closest when he talks about how, having worked with Bute since last summer, he notes a steady progression in the former champion’s overall physical capacity. “He’s faster and stronger now. And he’s punching better. Because power comes from the legs and they’re stronger than before.”
But that’s about it. Other than conditioning and stronger legs, no one refers to anything physical or specific when asked about the change in Bute’s bearing and performance. “He’s more confident,” says young prospect and sparring partner Erik Bazinyan who has traded punches with Lucian in his last two training camps. “He’s got confidence now,” says manager Chris Ganescu with an irritated shrug of his shoulders. “His confidence is back,” says trainer Howard Grant. “He had some doubts before, but not anymore.”
Thankfully, promoter Yvon Michel is more voluble, though no less emphatic. “Absolutely,” he replies when asked if he agrees that Bute looks even sharper than he did before the DeGale fight. “You know, you just can’t get in training the kind of experience he got from that fight with DeGale. Sparring with top level guys helps, but there’s no substitute for the real thing. He was matching DeGale, competing with him, gave him a really tough fight. So now he knows he can do it. Plus, he’s even more comfortable with his new trainers.”
But while Michel recognizes the confidence and Bute’s progression, he also sounds a note of caution. “In a way though, this is a bigger challenge than DeGale, because the expectations are different. Jack is a more mechanical fighter, doesn’t have as many dimensions, not a great puncher. His biggest victories he won because of his conditioning, but you can’t be better conditioned than Bute. So while almost no one thought Lucian could beat DeGale, now there is hope and people think he can win. Plus, it’s two title shots in a row. So there’s pressure that wasn’t there before.”
For his part, trainer Howard Grant doesn’t see it that way: “Yeah, we gotta capitalize on a second title shot. But remember, we’re not supposed to be here. We’re the underdog. The pressure is on Jack. We got no pressure. We’ve done our due diligence, done all the work, didn’t cut any corners, and we’re ready to go.”
As for the tactical side of things, Grant agrees: Jack should present fewer problems.
“DeGale beat us on the inside with his ‘pot-shots,’ hitting and moving, but Jack doesn’t move as much. And he’s not a southpaw. He’s a good fighter, fundamentally very sound, but he’s a bit of a slow starter so we hope to take advantage of that. We want Bute using both hands on the inside, going to the body more.”
But the key to victory, the difference between this title shot and the last one? There’s that word again: “He’s got the confidence back. He’s hitting harder, moving better, and he just seems more sure of himself. Everyone can see it: he’s better. Otis and I see it, the media sees it, the sparring partners see it, and the fighter himself sees it. So that lifts him up.”
It’s an assertion backed up by Bute’s recent comments to the media, but also by a final reflection from Yvon Michel: “You know, if I were Badou Jack’s manager, I would have turned this match down. Because you don’t take on a guy coming off that kind of performance, who got such a huge boost of confidence as Bute did against DeGale. I would have said, ‘No, we pass. There will be other opportunities.'”
There’s an irresistible sweep to this story, a narrative energy which Michel is eyeing and which Jack will be working to resist on Saturday. From being written off by almost everyone, to being a dangerous challenger in a title fight that many believe he can win, all in the span of a single year. It’s the kind of momentum a driven competitor feeds on, takes strength from, that inspires him to greater heights. Simply put, Bute may be the underdog on Saturday night, but he’s a live one, to say the least. Not to mention a confident one. — Michael Carbert
Training camp photos by Manny Montreal.