It’s difficult to know just what to make of Jean Pascal at this point in his career and the more one considers the moves he’s made of late, the more one senses he doesn’t know what to make of himself either. This apparent confusion made for an uncomfortable scene today at the final press conference ahead of Saturday night’s rematch between Pascal and light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev.
The rematch itself is an odd thing as last March’s first encounter, also held at the Bell Centre in Montreal, while action-packed and highly entertaining, was entirely conclusive: the better pugilist, in virtually every regard, is the rock-fisted Russian. The hometown hero made a gallant stand, but absorbed an alarming amount of punishment in eight frenzied rounds. Known for having a solid chin, he was staggered repeatedly, knocked down for the first time in his career, and rendered defenseless before the match was stopped. And if Pascal’s subsequent outing in July against Yunieski Gonzalez was intended to make the case for a more competitive rematch, it completely backfired; most thought Gonzalez deserved the decision that went the Montrealer’s way.
That said, Kovalev and Pascal are stranded in no man’s land in terms of lucrative opportunities thanks to both men’s associations with HBO and the fact the other big name in the division, Adonis Stevenson, is signed with Al Haymon and Showtime. Right now, their biggest paydays are each other, so from a strictly monetary view, a rematch makes sense and a rematch was made. And then the weirdness began.
In an attempt to drum up publicity and give a superfluous fight some urgency and drama, Pascal declared that this match was “personal,” the ostensible reason being that Kovalev, a white Russian, is prejudiced against black people. As evidence, Pascal, who is part of the large Haitian community in Montreal, cited a post on social media which showed Kovalev smiling and pointing to an image of a chimpanzee with boxing gloves, with a caption that read, “Adonis looks great!” Not long after the image was posted on twitter last April, Kovalev took it down and publicly apologized, but the damage was done. Now Pascal was using it to hype a fight few thought worthy of hype.
Pascal also took the major step of changing trainers as long-time coach Marc Ramsay has been replaced with Freddie Roach. So in addition to this match being “personal,” the challenger is sending the message that this will be a new and improved version of Jean Pascal facing Kovalev the second time around. Because surely Roach wouldn’t take the job of cornering Pascal if he didn’t believe the former champion had a serious chance to win, right? Presumably Roach saw things in the first contest that most did not, though he gave away nothing at today’s press conference, stating only that the training camp with his new fighter was “really good” and that they are “ready and going to war.”
Pascal was next to take the mic and he began by announcing he was not only a boxer now, but also a promoter. He called up California-based super-featherweight Joel Diaz, who fights on the undercard Saturday night, and introduced him as his first boxer, before going on to explain that the reason he is a promoter now and has signed “this young lion” is because “Kovalev said he’s gonna end my career.” He then encouraged Diaz to, “Do good on Saturday night.”
Then Pascal switched mode saying, “Now, the boxer!” and after stating he did not want to “trash talk” anyone, he referred to his “white coach, Freddie Roach” before wondering aloud if he was “a rapper.” “Am I the black Eminem?” he asked with a laugh, the implications of the joke seemingly funny to no one but him.
After boasting about how great his training camp was, Pascal then announced he had skipped breakfast that morning and was hungry, so he took some bananas out of a plastic bag and after peeling one and taking a bite, began offering them to everyone. “Hey, Kovie,” he said, gesturing to the champion seated next to promoter Kathy Duva. “Do you want a banana? I know you’re white and [banana] is only for black people. But maybe you want to keep it for your black coach?”
When Kovalev didn’t respond, Pascal walked over to the champion’s trainer, John David Jackson, and dropped a banana in front of him. Pascal then went back to the podium to cite past statements and insults on Kovalev’s part which, according to him, prove that the Russian is a racist. “When you make a mistake once, it’s a mistake. But when you [repeat it], it’s not a mistake anymore, it’s a habit, a pattern.” Then referencing Kovalev’s April tweet, Pascal declared that “on Saturday night, he’s going to see that I’m not a monkey; I’m a gorilla!”
If this sounds like it was awkward and embarrassing, I can assure you the entire bizarre performance was positively cringe-inducing and, as has been the case with Pascal in the past, unintentionally amusing at the same time. And if its object was to either unsettle Kovalev or inspire confidence in the underdog, it failed miserably. But this didn’t stop Pascal from then proceeding to repeat the entire lecture in French.
The challenger finally finished his speech and sat down but more race-based weirdness was to come. Trainer John David Jackson stepped up to the microphone: “There’s a lot I could say about Jean Pascal but he pretty much expressed it himself. He [just] showed his true colors as a person. This is not about race. Sergey may say things that come out the wrong way, but if he was racist, I wouldn’t be in his corner.”
Pascal then interrupted Jackson with the charge that because Kovalev only takes advantage of Jackson’s services for three weeks prior to a fight, he lacks respect for Jackson as a trainer. “He doesn’t respect you because you’re black! He has no respect to show to camp three weeks before the fight! It’s because you’re black!”
“Shut the fuck up,” responded Jackson. “You had your time! You’re getting knocked out on Saturday! Shut the hell up!” Jackson then raised the matter of Pascal’s personnel change: “Why is Marc [Ramsay] not here? Because he told you you’re gonna get knocked out this fight. That’s the truth.” In response, Pascal stood up and moved toward Jackson shouting, “Stand up for black people! He doesn’t respect you! Stand up for black people!” before the bodyguards moved in to keep the two apart amidst more shouting and much finger pointing.
Eventually order was restored and Kovalev’s manager, Egis Klimas, took the poduim. “Welcome,” he deadpanned, “to circus for free.”
Next, it was Kovalev’s turn and it must be noted that the Russian received a louder ovation from the small group of fans assembled in the casino than the hometown fighter. The champion had little to say other than to call Pascal “a clown” and “a pimp,” the latter no doubt a reference to the Montrealer’s fashion sense which involves a lot of bling and sunglasses. Reinforcing the pimp theme was Duva asking Pascal where he got his “sparkly sneakers” because “I think I need a pair.”
At first it was announced that there would be no staredown, but then presumably both fighters promised to behave and a brief staredown did take place with accompanying whoops and hollers from the spectators. And that was the end of what will no doubt be remembered as “The Bananas Press Conference.” Here’s hoping the fight is as eventful and diverting.
The question hanging over the whole affair is how much Pascal has left given the pounding he took the first time, and whether it’s enough to make this a tougher battle, let alone to score a huge upset victory. The charges of racism and the brandishing of bananas smack of desperation and one can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a final push, not so much to reverse the outcome of the first fight, but to cash in, to secure one last big payday before Pascal’s marketability is gone for good. Mental toughness has never been Pascal’s calling card, while the evidence is clear it is one of Kovalev’s; the fact Pascal must resort to these theatrics tells us far more about him than it does about any prejudices the Russian may or may not have.
With the press conference over, Pascal, perhaps exhausted from his dramatic efforts, immediately departed, while Kovalev and his camp stayed behind to answer questions. John David Jackson reaffirmed his conviction that his fighter is not a racist. “If he was racist he wouldn’t set foot in my gym where everyone is black … he gets along with everybody.” As for any new tactics Roach might introduce, Jackson didn’t see how Pascal could offer anything different. “He may try to box more and stay away, but at some point he’s gonna have to fight.”
Similarly, Kovalev admitted that Freddie Roach is “very talented” and may help Pascal develop some new strategies but, “I don’t think he can change him and make a new boxer.” When asked what he thought of the banana stunt, Kovalev dismissed Pascal as “crazy” and “a trash talker,” but insisted he wasn’t focused on Pascal at all, that he was doing his best to ignore his opponent and “just concentrate on the fight,” an approach to things evidently lost on the challenger.
Fittingly, the final question of the day put all the antics, hype, and talk of racism in their proper place. “How do you hit so hard?” asked a writer. Kovalev smiled. “I cannot explain it. Maybe it’s something God gave me.”
To state the obvious, race and racial politics will be completely irrelevant on Saturday and, I dare say, have almost nothing to do with how many tickets are sold. The people in the Bell Centre that night will be hoping to witness a competitive and exciting confrontation; racism will barely be an afterthought. Because the only thing that really matters is whether or not Pascal can somehow neutralize Kovalev’s lethal gift. And all the bananas in the world can’t change that. — Michael Carbert