Boxing fans in Montreal, whether they realize it or not, are spoiled rotten and last night’s event at the Tohu Theatre only further reinforced this fact. Another solid fight card from the people at Grant Brothers Boxing and Rixa Promotions featuring plenty of fast-paced action; it’s become almost routine. In 2016 we enjoyed three such events, but last night’s show kicks off a more ambitious year. The plan is for five shows in 2017 at the Tohu, the circular arena an ideal venue for fisticuffs, but the talent in the Grant Brothers stable is also branching out and finding matches and exposure at other locales. But more on that a bit later.
Hot prospect and WBO Youth super middleweight champ Erik Bazinyan was originally scheduled to be the headliner last night, but a training injury scrapped those plans. So popular Francis Lafreniere stepped up to once again be the main draw and indeed there was no discernible negative effect on ticket sales with few empty seats to be seen. As with past Grant Brothers/Rixa fight cards, the event was a chance to watch the continued development of their young prospects and all of the house fighters notched significant wins.
The show got off to a fast start with lightweight Whitney Baille (4-0) stopping Arturo Lujano (7-7) after just 56 seconds with a hard left hand to the liver. Next up, super middleweight Jordan “Django” Balmir (3-0) was just too strong and physical for Roody Rene (1-5-1) as he manhandled his opponent in a chaotic fight, eventually landing some clean punches to force a stoppage in round four. Balmir has the potential to be a major force, but in the future he will have to be far more disciplined. His mauling and brawling tactics could lead to disaster against someone more skilled and powerful.
The third fight of the night featured Joël Thériault (2-0), the legendary Quebec hockey enforcer, in his second pro outing. His first fight in September had been a physical mismatch and was over in the opening round. This time Thériault faced more formidable opposition in 250 pound Jose Vazquez (5-4) and he never came close to scoring a stoppage. Instead of a blowout, fans were treated to a four round heavyweight brawl that pushed Thériault, aka “The Animal,” to the brink.
The match started with the taller and seemingly stronger Thériault advancing behind his jab and boxing with discipline, but a sharp exchange brought a murderous look into the eyes of “The Animal” and it was abruptly a toe-to-toe slugfest. However, it was Vazquez with the better timing and accuracy and he rocked Thériault twice with hard shots to the chin before the round had ended. In his corner, Joël received some animated instructions from trainer Paul Evans, the coach urging him to use his jab, which he did to start the second. But by the end of the round it was, to the delight of the crowd, back to fast-paced brawling, both men giving and taking.
The heavyweights battled on fairly even terms in the third before Thériault connected with some clean shots just before the bell. However, by now one could see that “The Animal” was approaching the limits of his stamina. It had been a rough-and-tough battle through three rounds and it was Joël who was panting in his corner. But with the crowd chanting Thériault! Thériault! the hometown hero rescued the fight in the last round, though just barely in the eyes of this observer. Credit to the 40-year-old’s fighting heart as it was obvious he was totally exhausted but he was the one throwing and landing shots just before the final bell. He won a unanimous decision by wide scores from the judges, but there was no mistaking the look of palpable relief on his face as he gave respect to his opponent and saluted the crowd.
Next up, Dwayne Durel (6-0) taking on the more experienced Isidro Toala (11-5) in a bout that on paper looked like a major challenge for “Diamond.” Instead, Durel made short work of Toala and scored an impressive second round KO. The first round was close with Durel busier and landing a sharp jab while Toala connected with some heavy body punches. But 30 seconds into round two the bout was over as the Mexican hit the canvas and could not rise after absorbing a combination of shots to his midsection. Durel clearly has some serious power as the punches did not appear particularly heavy, but Toala was in obvious agony as he was counted out.
No doubt this was not the result Maximino Toala (12-5) was hoping for, but if he was affected by his brother’s defeat he didn’t show it at all as in the next match he gave Golden Garcia (8-0) a competitive and action-packed battle over eight stirring rounds. This was a terrific fight, even though it was evident that Garcia had all the advantages. The more powerful and accurate puncher, Golden had things his way when he fought with discipline behind his jab, but for long stretches the left lead was put on the shelf and the crowd was treated to fast-paced, toe-to-toe action, both men landing hard shots.
The first two rounds were close with Toala responding to his opponent’s combinations with a two-fisted body attack. But Garcia began to pull away in rounds three and four, putting his punches together beautifully, though the young Mexican warrior never stopped battling back. Indeed, his resilience and courage were inspiring to watch as he ate punch after punch from Garcia before pressing forward and throwing his own leather, his most effective work to Golden’s body.
It had already been a terrific action fight but round seven saw the most furious exchanges yet as it was almost non-stop slugging at close quarters for the entire three minutes, both men giving and taking. Garcia was rocked for the first time in the match and his corner exhorted him to go back to the jab, but it was clear he was having too much fun trading shots with his brave opponent. At round’s end the fighters acknowledged each other and tapped gloves.
It was more of the same in the final round. Toala needed a stoppage to win but that was unlikely as many of his punches were hitting gloves and arms. Garcia finished with a flourish, landing combination after combination, but his gallant adversary never came close to going down. In the end it was a unanimous decision win for Garcia and eight tough rounds under his belt, which will certainly benefit his continued development. Indeed, Garcia stands out in the Grant Brothers/Rixa stable as a boxer whose skills have clearly improved over the course of the last year.
The penultimate match of the night was a scheduled eight round tilt between Roody Pierre-Paul (13-3-1) and Abraham Gomez (26-13-1), and while over the years Grant Brothers and Rixa have proven to be excellent match-makers, consistently providing action-packed bouts, this was anything but. It should have been an opportunity for Pierre-Paul to show off his speed and natural talent, but instead it was eight tedious rounds with plenty of showboating but few meaningful exchanges. Pierre-Paul got the decision and everyone was happy to move on to the main event.
And thankfully the headlining match was, as is always the case when Francis Lafreniere performs, a fast-paced, action-packed slugfest, as “The People’s Champ” (14-5-2) and Mexico’s Manuel Garcia (15-13-2) went to war, brawling with abandon right from the opening bell. There was more action in this scrap’s first round than in all eight of the previous bout put together, as Francis and Manuel exchanged vicious body punches, the combat intense on the ropes and in the corners as Lafreniere continually pushed forward and kept his opponent on the back foot.
The rounds rushed by at high speed as the pace and tactics of the match never varied: the aggressive Lafreniere forcing the action, the courageous Garcia doing his best to respond in kind. It was obvious from early on that Francis was both the better catcher and the sharper puncher and thus Garcia had little chance to prevail. But to the delight of the crowd he fought back with fury, at times even out-working Lafreniere. Rounds four, five and six were all non-stop slugfest stanzas, all won by Lafreniere as the crowd chanted Francis! Francis! and his harder, sharper punches snapped the Mexican’s head back again and again.
Round seven saw Lafreniere’s furious attack finally overwhelm his game adversary. He drove him to the canvas twice, the second time Garcia almost falling through the ropes. The referee finished the count as Garcia’s corner signalled surrender and the crowd roared.
Following the fight’s violent conclusion and the official announcement of the result, Eric Kerub of Rixa and Yvon Michel of Groupe Yvon Michel entered the ring and addressed the crowd. The purpose was to inform everyone of a major opportunity for Francis Lafreniere as he will next be fighting on the undercard of the February 24 light heavyweight showdown in Quebec City between Eleider Alvarez and Lucian Bute. And this could be the biggest challenge of Lafreniere’s career thus far, as he will be facing Florida middleweight Marcus Willis (17-4-2) for the vacant NABO middleweight championship.
“Francis Lafreniere is one of the most spectacular boxers in Quebec,” stated Michel to loud cheers. “It is a great privilege for us to be able to present a Francis fight in Quebec City on February 24. ”
So last night was something more than another quality fight card at the La Tohu theatre featuring talented prospects such as Dwayne Durel and Golden Garcia and another exciting brawl from Francis Lafreniere. It also represents a major step forward for “The People’s Champ” and the organization behind him as, like Erik Bazinyan before him, Francis receives an important chance to shine on a larger stage, one provided by Yvon Michel. In short, Rixa Promotions and GYM are working together to further develop exciting local talent and the biggest winners continue to be boxing fans in The Fight City. — Michael Carbert
Photos by Bob Levesque