The Last Stand Of Jean Pascal

The brutal image of Jean Pascal‘s indented face after his second stoppage defeat to Sergey Kovalev, which horrifically resembled a Picasso portrait, is one Montreal boxing fans will not soon forget. Nor is the dejected, defeated expression the courageous Pascal had stamped onto his mug by the hammer-fisted Kovalev, who pulverized the former lineal light heavyweight champion over seven agonizing rounds last January.

Before HBO’s post-fight interview with Kovalev, another memorable image was captured, that of Pascal slumped on his stool, his arms hanging heavily on the ring ropes. And after Adonis Stevenson burst into the ring to shout at Kovalev and usurp Pascal’s time at the mic, the spectacle felt like only one thing: the end for one of Montreal’s most iconic fighters.

Bernard Hopkins‘ recent curtain call, which ended in literally the most ignominious and slapstick way possible, actually provides an apt entry point into a 2017 campaign that will be Jean Pascal’s last stand. Hopkins, whose draw and historic win over Pascal at age 46 altered the course of the Montrealer’s career, flew too close to the proverbial sun, tempting both fate and Father Time with the odd combination of gumption and blind arrogance that only Hopkins can muster.

Pascal merits a casual “thumbs up” for his recent win in Trois-Rivières in front of fewer than a thousand fans, an entirely necessary stoppage of soft-touch foe Ricardo Marcelo Ramallo. It was in fact Pascal’s first clearcut victory since he beat Lucian Bute in 2014, and it helped erase some of the memories from the second Kovalev fight where Pascal, despite admirable bravery, wasn’t remotely competitive.

But back to Hopkins, whose late-career history is indelibly intertwined with Pascal’s. Over two fights, Bernard exposed Pascal’s greatest weakness: suspect mental fortitude. The younger man’s athleticism, speed, explosive right hand and granite chin could not overcome the self-doubt Hopkins planted within him. That Pascal was lucky to escape with a draw in a fight where he dropped Hopkins twice is the great missed opportunity of his career; had Pascal fought Hopkins the way Joe Smith Jr. did, we may be talking about him as a truly great fighter now, instead of as a once excellent champion.

So, will Pascal suffer the same fate as the man who first derailed him? Well, it depends. Even if he were to string together a few solid wins, no sane individual can justify Pascal ever getting another shot at Kovalev, even if “Krusher” were to regain his old belts and snatch Adonis Stevenson’s WBC strap and Pascal were to prove he’s still a viable contender. That’s the kind of match that would see Pascal suffer a fate more disturbing and potentially damaging than Hopkins did last weekend. Fortunately, everyone in boxing knows this, and there’s no way a third match will happen.

Before assessing some of Pascal’s other options, it’s important to articulate that his credentials as a fighter do justify another run at a world title, though this is somewhat disturbing, as well as an exercise in self-deception. If you were to say outright that Pascal is shot and must retire now, you’d have a compelling case to make. That, however, isn’t the way boxing works. Name recognition and drawing power will always make fighters like Pascal relevant far beyond their actual expiry date. Even more damning is that as an aging fighter, Pascal needs to adapt and become more cerebral, not a likely prospect based on the Hopkins bouts.

However, the most encouraging aspect of the former champion’s comeback is that new trainer Stéphan Larouche is opting for a methodical approach. Pascal is eyeing at least three fights in 2017, which means Larouche is clearly aiming to bring out something new in his charge, or work on honing a new tactical and mental approach. It would be tempting to get Pascal an easy win and then use his clout to leap into a meaningful fight, but that’s a recipe for disaster. With the plan Larouche has laid out, Pascal can notch another low-profile win or two before an inevitable crossroads fight against the likes of, say, Sullivan Barrera.

Barrera has been calling Pascal out for ages, but until now Jean has never needed him. In fact, the way the former champion struggled against Yunieski Gonzalez makes fighting someone like Barrera symbolic; the first Kovalev loss knocked Pascal down to Gonzalez’s rung in the contender scrap heap, whereas the second Kovalev bludgeoning sent him plummeting even further, to the point where he needs to actually rebuild towards a Barrera or Gonzalez-type fight.

Jean Pascal scored a much needed stoppage on December 16.
Jean Pascal scored a much needed stoppage on December 16.

In an unexpected development, Pascal has split with InterBox and Eye of the Tiger’s Camille Estephan, which means that fights against Artur Beterbiev, Eleider Alvarez, Lucian Bute and Adonis Stevenson (all Montreal-based fighters) are suddenly, and unexpectedly, in play. Realistically, however, Pascal is two fights away from facing anyone of that calibre (and please, never Beterbiev). And yet, Adonis Stevenson, in many respects, is the ideal endgame were Jean to pick up three quick and convincing wins in 2017. The likely outcome would be Stevenson by stoppage, but don’t discount Pascal’s own power and boxing skills. One thing fans shouldn’t want to see, though, is Pascal, now that he’s a free agent, abandon his carefully plotted comeback in favour of a seductive payday or opportunity that he isn’t mentally or physically prepared for.

Regardless of who he’s slated to face by the end of 2017, Jean Pascal’s current path is building up to one thing: a contender-level crossroads fight. Again, let’s use Sullivan Barrera as the litmus test. If Pascal were to beat Barrera, especially if it’s convincing, bring on another title shot. But the problem is that based on recent form, you can’t favour Pascal against Barrera. This isn’t to say that he’d be a massive underdog; rather, it would have to be viewed as a straight-up 50-50 contest. And therein lies the problem.

The eye test of Jean Pascal, someone who deserves immense respect for his willingness to fight everyone, should not be misread. He’s a shell of the fighter who beat Chad Dawson. While that may seem overly pessimistic, or even offensive, it isn’t meant to be disrespectful. It simply reflects a harsh reality: Pascal is a fighter in his mid-30s who has been in many wars and absorbed tremendous punishment.

Maybe Pascal still needs to scratch a competitive itch, and no doubt he could beat opponents like Ricardo Marcelo Ramallo until he’s hobbling around like Roy Jones Jr. But here’s the challenge every admirer of Jean Pascal should put out to those handling his career: If he fights and ekes out a win over a Sullivan Barrera type, have the guts to then pull the plug. Pascal is a fighter who has given so much to fans and he deserves a nobler end than being fed to a young lion who everyone knows he can’t beat, payday be damned.

Jean Pascal doesn’t have an ounce of quit in him; it’s why he’s beloved by so many. So while we should follow the smooth and hopeful stage of his comeback with genuine intrigue and tempered excitement, fans, pundits and (hopefully) his handlers need to hawkishly watch for the slightest sign of a stumble. Pascal’s time as a prizefighter is nearing its end, but the final chapter need not be tragic.

— Zachary Alapi

Photos by Bob Levesque.

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