To succeed at the highest level in professional boxing, one must have the confidence and mental fortitude to win in hostile territory. That means venturing onto your opponent’s home turf, rebuffing all attempts at intimidation, and then executing your game plan to quell the rabid crowd desperate to see you fail. Facing and overcoming this trial demonstrates that a boxer possesses an essential ingredient for championship success: rock-solid self-belief.
One of the best examples of how a fighter should face this challenge and maximize their chances of success comes from Montreal’s own Otis Grant. When this site paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of “The Magic Man” bringing home the WBO middleweight title, we got a detailed first-hand account of how Grant and his team left nothing to chance in order to maximize a critical opportunity. From organizing travel and lodging, to finding the right training facilities and sparring partners, to putting together the winning strategy for the fight, Grant gives us an insider’s view on how to prepare in such demanding circumstances.
And now another Montreal-based pugilist gets ready to march into the lion’s den, so to speak, as heavyweight Oscar Rivas (26-0) will, like Grant, journey to England for the biggest opportunity of his career. On July 20 at the O2 Arena in London he faces dangerous puncher Dillian Whyte (25-1) on the home turf of “The Body Snatcher.” It’s a daunting challenge but Rivas and his team believe it’s one they will rise to. Indeed, it is one on which he must capitalize to finally fulfill his potential after a full decade in the pro ranks.
Both Whyte and Rivas have journeyed from their homelands to pursue success in the fight game. Whyte emigrated at the age of 12 from Jamaica to England and it was in the “Land of Hope and Glory” that he started his journey in combat sports, first as a kick-boxer, then as an MMA fighter, before embarking on a pro boxing career in 2011. Meanwhile, Rivas developed his ring skills in his native Colombia and represented his home nation at the 2008 Olympics before signing on with Groupe Yvon Michel and basing his pro career out of Montreal.
And part of what makes Whyte vs Rivas such an attractive showdown is that both are coming off major victories. In December Whyte defeated fellow Briton Dereck Chisora in their rematch, scoring a one-shot knockout in round eleven of a grueling slugfest. Meanwhile Rivas demonstrated his excellent conditioning and stamina in January when he launched a ferocious attack in the final round of a high-stakes bout to floor Bryant Jennings and then force a dramatic stoppage. It was, by far, the biggest win of his career, and Oscar intends to keep his momentum going when he travels to Whyte’s backyard in July. The winner of this showdown will be perfectly positioned to secure a chance for a world title in the near future.
But while Rivas can look to Otis Grant for inspiration, in fact other Quebec fighters have failed in more recent attempts to duplicate the success of “The Magic Man” and win big fights in the UK. Both Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute came up short in their respective trips across the pond, as they suffered defeats to Carl Froch in Nottingham in 2008 and 2012 respectively. Pascal dropped a close decision in an action-packed, back-and-forth battle with “The Cobra,” while Bute never got out of first gear and was battered into submission in five one-sided rounds.
But Rivas isn’t particularly concerned with recent boxing history, or with what will surely be a boisterous crowd in London, as he made clear during last Wednesday’s media gathering at the offices of Groupe Yvon Michel. “For me, the crowd isn’t a big deal,” says Rivas. “When we get into the ring, it’s just me, him and the referee and that’s it. I’m not intimidated by the fans and in fact, it will be better, more exciting, if there’s a big crowd in the arena.”
Rivas went on to recall how at the start of the Jennings fight, everyone was cheering for the American, but by the seventh or eighth round people were chanting his nickname, “Kaboom.” There’s also the fact that Rivas has competed on foreign soil for most of his career, both amateur and pro. Being far away from the comforts of home and the support of partisan fans is nothing new for him.
For his part, Yvon Michel can speak from experience when it comes to traveling to England to challenge for a world title as he was directly involved in Jean Pascal’s title shot against Froch. Michel highlighted the importance of subduing the home fighter’s fans, explaining that while he believed his fighter should have gotten the decision against Froch, Pascal’s decision to go to war with “The Cobra” stirred up the crowd at the Nottingham Arena, which may in turn have influenced the judges.
Michel pointed to welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr. as the better example of how to perform when on foreign shores, citing his title winning effort against Kell Brook in May 2017. In that contest, Spence controlled the fight so it unfolded at a more measured pace, and in doing so, he controlled the crowd.
In any case, despite the fact that Whyte boasts the scalps of Chisora and Joseph Parker, among others, Michel is brimming with confidence for his rising heavyweight contender. “He has a great amateur background, speed, power, and good technique. And he has the experience to be able to use all of this at the right time. He has been, in my opinion, the dark horse of the heavyweight division for a long time. Now it’s time for him to shine.”
One senses that the confidence of the Rivas camp stems from the knowledge that nothing will be left to chance in preparation for Whyte. Until recently, Oscar’s bouts were not high profile enough to warrant spending large sums on training camps, but for the Jennings fight they allocated more resources and the result speaks for itself. Naturally the plan is for Rivas to have the same kind of intense preparation for this new challenge. After spending the first weeks of camp in Montreal, Rivas will have three weeks in Bogota, Colombia, before moving to Paris for the final three weeks. There he will train at INSEP, France’s National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance, in order to adjust to the time change well in advance of fight night.
Although he is facing the toughest opponent of his career to date, Rivas believes everything is in place for him to maximize this huge chance and continue his quest to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Again, the confidence and satisfaction of all present in the offices of Groupe Yvon Michel could not have been more evident. Clearly Rivas and his team are not overlooking the importance of preparation going into this, the biggest fight of his career.
“I feel strong and I know we will do a lot of things to give me the confidence to win this fight,” says Rivas. “I have more technique than him and I think when we enter the ring and let the punches fly, we will see who is best prepared.” — Jamie Rebner