Quebec fight fans, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for, the return of real professional boxing. And while you will not see the punches fly in person, as of today, despite the raging pandemic, the show is on, the fights are going to happen, and you can watch them live, which is all that matters. On Saturday, Eye Of The Tiger Management will host its first event in many months at the Gervais Auto Center in Shawinigan, Quebec. In-person attendance is not part of the show, but you can watch it via pay-per-view on Eye Of The Tiger’s Punching Grace website.
“The health of athletes and those around them is a priority, so we have worked very hard, together with the [Quebec government] to establish a safety protocol that meets all the recommendations,” announced Camille Estephan, president of Eye Of The Tiger Management. “Although [we were authorized] to present the event in front of the public, we made the decision to keep it televised only, given the current epidemiological context and the [recent] resurgence in the number of cases.”
No doubt serious fight fans will embrace this show with a great sense of relief as the sport’s very existence in Quebec seemed threatened not long ago. For some time the stated position of government health officials was that combat sports would not be permitted until a COVID-19 vaccine was developed and made available. If enforced, and given the timelines involved for an effective vaccine, this may well have led to the demise of professional combat sports in the province.
Naturally, Estephan lobbied hard against that decision. “This is an injustice,” he stated to the media back in July. “It’s unacceptable and dictatorial. It’s like Julius Caesar in Rome.” What made the situation even more ridiculous was the fact that other combat sports promoters, including UFC and Top Rank, had been successfully staging shows in a safe and professional manner since June.
Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed and as of September officials have allowed combat sports training to resume. With that return to some semblance of normalcy, Eye Of The Tiger then stepped up to put on the first pro card, fittingly titled “Liberté,” meaning freedom. It will feature three major bouts showcasing three of the outfit’s most marketable and exciting talents in intriguing, all-Canadian match-ups.
“We opted for local fights, not only because we wanted to avoid international air travel and the associated risks, but also to allow Canadian boxers to get back into action,” said Estephan. “Local duels are always popular with boxing fans because they are often the most exciting and electrifying. We are very proud of the card that we have managed to put together in such a context, and we are convinced that it will delight boxing fans across the country.”
Despite Estephan’s optimism, it will be surprising if any of the three fights are highly competitive, though in fairness, it only makes sense for Eye Of The Tiger to give three of their top draws the chance to shake off some ring rust and add another win to their records. And it should be noted that while all three should prevail without significant difficulty, these will constitute meaningful wins, not pointless mismatches.
Heavy-handed fan-favorite David Lemieux (41-4) resumes his campaign in the super middleweight ranks as he takes on former sparring partner Francy Ntetu (17-3). Ntetu is 38 years old and last fought in 2018, when undefeated Erik Bazinyan stopped him in round six. If his other two losses also came at the hands of top talents in Marcus Browne and David Benavidez, he still came up short when stepping up in class.
But Lemieux isn’t exactly on a hot streak himself. He struggled mightily in his 168 pound debut last December, overcoming two knockdowns to win a split decision over Maksym Bursak in one of 2019’s most action-packed fights, his performance strongly suggesting that the 31-year-old’s best days are behind him. Despite that, I don’t expect Ntetu to be able to take advantage of the former champion’s limited skills or physical decline. After all, a familiar boxing axiom is that the last thing a fighter loses is his punch and one imagines Lemieux would still have his even if he were 51 and not 31. Meanwhile Ntetu has a grand total of four career knockouts, so “The Demolisher” won’t need to worry much about what’s coming back at him. If he can get inside and land one of his patented bombs, it could be a quick night for Lemieux.
But that’s not the only match with a high potential to end early. Also on the card is colossal Russian heavyweight Arslanbek “The Lion” Makhmudov (10-0), who will be defending his NABF title against former Canadian champ Dillon Carman (14-5). Makhmudov demolished Samuel Peter in one round on the Lemieux vs Bursak undercard and he will be looking to keep his perfect KO record intact against Carman, who is well-known to Canadian fans thanks to his battles with Simon Kean, not to mention his unforgettable brawl with Eric Martel Bahoeli in 2014. And, despite being 2-3 in his last five outings, there’s no shortage of confidence on Dillon’s part as evidenced by his public statement regarding the fight: “Arslanbek, a Russian tough guy, right? Perfect! Don’t blink your eyes on October 10th!”
But the “don’t blink” incitement cuts both ways. And unfortunately for Carman, he’s been knocked out four times previously, which doesn’t bode well as he takes on one of the most ferocious punchers in the sport, who will likely enjoy a significant weight advantage. In short, prepare for another feasting for “The Lion.” And once Makhmudov finishes picking his teeth, hopefully he can get a match with a ranked contender because that will provide the accurate barometer we need to ascertain just how good he really is.
Rounding out the card is the hottest prospect to grace this province in some time as Lexson “The Next” Mathieu (8-0) faces Tim “The Irish” Cronin (12-4-2) for the NABF super middleweight strap. Mathieu has stopped all but one of his foes, in the process demonstrating some serious skills and impressive athleticism while looking nothing less than sensational. But that’s to be expected given the opposition he’s faced. So it would be potentially educational if Cronin is able to extend Mathieu and take him into the latter stages of this ten round contest. However, at 36 years of age, that’s a big ask.
But assuming Cronin does have the chin to absorb Mathieu’s shots and keep coming, he will force the Quebecer to show us some new weapons in his arsenal. By doing so, Mathieu can demonstrate that he has the mettle to handle adversity because that is the attribute fans will need to see if they are to wholeheartedly pin world title hopes on his young shoulders. That said, at just 21, Lexson has time to develop and Eye Of The Tiger is doing the right thing in not rushing him. Cronin is more than a fair opponent for this stage and as long as the skill level of his opponents increases as he moves forward, no one can fault Mathieu’s current trajectory. An impressive win here will constitute another meaningful step forward in the budding career of “The Next.”
In a typical year, Saturday night’s show would be a fight card of no great significance, featuring as it does three bouts for which the results are highly predictable. But, needless to say, this is far from a typical year. And given everything that’s happened over the last eight months, only the most foolhardy would believe anything can be taken for granted, including whether Saturday’s show even gets off the ground. If the card represents a “triple threat” of three top Eye Of The Tiger talents, the other threat at play here is far more deadly. The dreaded second wave of corona virus has Quebec in its grip and Estephan knows the event is hanging by a thread. “I’m just crossing my fingers we can do this [show],” Estephan recently told CBC Sports. “The numbers are going up every day.”
But if the bell does ring on Saturday, and the fighters get to fight, and in the end all parties are satisfied, then the “Liberté” show means pro boxing is indeed liberated and back in business in Quebec and Canada. And in that case, does it really matter if the matches prove to be one-sided? The bottom line is that fight-starved fans will get to watch some top talents in action. Even if they have to go to Punching Grace to see them. — Jamie Rebner