As all serious fight fans are aware, no sport has more tales of heartbreak and tragedy than boxing. The history of pugilism is littered with broken men, countless stories of fighters who were ruthlessly exploited, or who squandered their talent. Thus, in what some call “the hurt business,” all beginnings are suspect. The hopes for a talented prospect must be tempered by knowledge that countless young men have looked like champions in waiting at the start of their careers, before they somehow lost sight of the path to success, suffered defeat and disappointment, and soon found themselves cast aside and forgotten.
Talent is not enough; numerous factors, some of which are beyond anyone’s control, must be in place for a young boxer to succeed. No doubt many an impresario or manager has daydreamed about the perfect situation that would allow a fledgling talent to grow, flourish and then rise to the heights of world titles and huge paydays. Visualize for a moment a boxing promoter, sitting down with a drink and dreaming not just about the perfect boxer, the ideal prospect, the one he would do almost anything to sign-up, but also about the different elements required to enable that fighter to triumph. The truth is, his fantasy, the final scenario, would likely be almost identical to how Steven Butler’s life looks right now.
Let’s start with pedigree. Just 21-years-old and undefeated in 19 pro fights, Butler is a former amateur champion who couldn’t wait to turn pro. And when asked why he’s a boxer, his answer is simple, almost banal. “It’s in my blood,” he says.
But if it sounds trite, the statement also happens to be true. Steven’s paternal grandfather, Marshall Butler, a welterweight who compiled a 20-5 record in the 1970’s, fought more than a few serious contenders and back in 1972 gave future world champion John H. Stracey his first pro defeat. A smart, nimble boxer with quick hands, the elder Butler earned the appellation “Le Petite Cassius” from Quebec sportswriters, referring of course to boxing superstar Muhammad Ali. But the elder Butler’s success was short-lived. He never fought for a major title and in the last four years of his career had only eight bouts, four of them defeats. Less than six years after his pro debut, Marshall Butler’s career was over.
No doubt it was Steven’s close relationship with his grandfather which inspired him to imagine a future as a fighter. He proudly shows off a photograph of himself wearing boxing gloves when he was only five years old. “This has always been my dream,” says Steven, who visits with his grandfather almost every day.
When he was ten Steven began saving up nickels and dimes so he could eventually buy a membership at Club de Boxe Champions, a storied fight gym in the Saint Michel district of Montreal, close to where Steven grew up. He was 11 when, against his parents’ wishes, he started training there, but after he won his first amateur bout, attitudes changed for the better.
Our boxing promoter’s reverie takes shape. Only 11-years-old and so many of the building blocks are already in place: love of the sport, pedigree, an experienced mentor, family approval. Now add in the fact that Steven had already found the perfect gym and the only coach he would ever know, a trainer whose connection with Butler goes back to before he was born. Decades ago Rénald Boisvert knew a boxer named Marshall Butler, had even trained and sparred with him. When Steven walked into Champions, Boisvert spotted the likeness right away, not to mention the raw talent. A bond was formed immediately and now Steven refers to Rénald as “a second father.”
The vision is taking shape but let’s add some more essential elements. Like deciding at the tender age of 16, and with the full backing of his family, to walk away from all other sports and even quit school so Steven could focus on boxing full-time. Like putting together an outstanding amateur record and becoming a national champion at just 17, his superiority so pronounced his fellow amateurs refuse to fight him. And how about growing up in Montreal, without question the number one city for boxing in Canada, one of the top fight towns in all of North America, no better place to launch a pro career.
Everything is almost ideal, but we can in fact push it a bit further. How about starting that pro career when you’re only 18 and having plenty of time to develop and accrue experience? How about staying active and injury free, fighting ten times in the first year of your career? And being guided by Camille Estephan, a promoter with deep pockets, an impressive stable of talent, and friendly relations with HBO and Golden Boy Promotions? How about a natural flair for the dramatic and in-ring gestures which excite the crowd? And a genuine competitive nature, a desire to take on more challenging opponents? And then how about winning the IBF North American super welterweight title with an electrifying first round knockout in front of your hometown fans?
“It’s a dream,” says young Butler when discussing his career and reflecting on how everything has come together over the last decade. And indeed, one can’t help but conclude that our imaginary boxing promoter could scarcely imagine a better scenario. Though at this point, a note of dread and foreboding rises up. For Butler is not the first young talent to seemingly have everything in place, only to see it all fall apart. The old enemies of temptation and gluttony, a young man’s natural appetite for the more decadent rewards of his toil, has derailed more than a few young champions-to-be.
But such enticements hold no sway over young Steven Butler. For one thing, he listens to his grandfather, whose own career, at least in part, was cut short by his fondness for wine, women and song. The lessons Marshall Butler learned the hard and painful way, Steven has taken to heart. “Not my style,” he says when asked about indulging between matches, maybe partying with the boys once in a while. “I’m focused. Disciplined. I need to do this for my family.”
And with the word “family” we see the final piece of the puzzle fall into place. If our fantasy image of the perfect prospect were a photo collage — the grandfather who was a prizefighter; the five-year-old child who dreamed about boxing; the neighbourhood fight gym; the veteran trainer who is also a second father; parents and siblings cheering him on; adoring crowds chanting his name in fight-mad Montreal — then the image we now add and place in the center is here: Seyla, his fiancee, and their baby boy, Mayson, barely four months old.
“I need to put bread on the table,” says 21-year-old Steven. “They’re counting on me. And I want my son to see me as a world champion, to see me hold up the belt. And Seyla, she looks out for me. If I eat something bad, she’s like ‘Hey, baby, you have to fight. You can’t eat that.’ She’s great with our son and she’s great with me. So I want to win for them.”
“Perfect!” shouts our fantasizing boxing promoter, raising a toast to his dream. “Absolutely perfect!” And who can blame him? No late nights wondering where his young fighter is, who he’s with, what he’s up to. No drama or broken hearts. No distractions. Instead, the perfect motivation: a loving family, wife and child, depending on him to win.
And so we wait to see if Steven Butler can take full advantage of his good fortune and his talent, if he can fulfil all the hopes rising in The Fight City for a young, undefeated boxer who seemingly has everything in place to ensure success, and everything to fight for. On Saturday night he faces undefeated Brandon Cook, his toughest challenge yet, one he personally sought out, the next step on his journey to glory. And while Steven Butler’s dream appears to have all the markings of one destined to come true, this is boxing, the cruelest of sports, a place where so many can’t-miss prospects have fallen, so many dreams have died. And no doubt Brandon Cook has his own dreams to fight for.
Our promoter wakes from his vision, finishes his drink, and ruefully reminds himself that there’s no such thing as perfection. Even so, he would offer Steven Butler a contract in a heartbeat. With a nice, fat signing bonus to boot. But in lieu of that, he’ll be at the Bell Centre on Saturday night, in a ringside seat, anxious to see if the perfect prospect, his own dream come vividly to life, can score another big win. He’s betting he will. After all, Steven Butler may not be the perfect prospect. But he’s pretty damn close.
— Michael Carbert