Behind The Smiles: Boxe Mania Press Conference

Boxing press conferences, as many know, often involve a certain degree of tension and discomfort and even, on occasion, violence. Thus, as your friendly journalist enters the appointed room, finds a chair and gets oriented, the thought uppermost in his mind is that soon the principals, men whose profession is hand-to-hand combat, will be present, in the flesh, sitting and standing close to one another, naturally on guard against giving up even the slightest psychological edge to their future opponent. One cannot overlook the potential for chaos and conflict, especially as the table the boxers are about to share seems rather small, the room too confining.

But the press conference yesterday to officially announce the event billed as “Boxe Mania” was a friendly affair with plenty of smiles and cordial exchanges, no doubt a good thing given the fact that, in addition to the fighters, at least three hulking bodyguards stood mutely in the background like monoliths from Stonehenge, presumably ready to pounce should anyone get out of line. The boxers on hand included Jean Pascal, who has been given to theatrics of his own at press conferences for bouts with Sergey Kovalev and Bernard Hopkins, but this time was on his best behaviour. His slated opponent, Eleider Alvarez, was quiet and intensely serious, while the affable Andrzej Fonfara appeared serene, if not bored; inscrutable behind dark glasses, as others talked he sat stone still, his mouth half open, causing one to wonder if he was dozing off.

That left the floor open to the irrepressible Adonis “Superman” Stevenson, surely one of the most eccentric personalities in all of pugilism, if not all of professional sports. Outside the ring Adonis cultivates an ebullient and high-spirited persona, his self-taken videos showing him always smiling and enjoying himself at exotic locations or inside expensive sports cars. His kinetic celebrations in the ring following knockout victories are almost legendary for their over-the-top exuberance and, along with his criminal past, his gratuitous flaunting of his wealth, and his seeming reluctance to fight Sergey Kovalev (which is somewhat debatable), they have provoked no small measure of dislike. Stevenson is the champion many boxing fans love to hate but, as he proved yesterday, the negative attention does not inhibit him in the least and, to be completely honest, this writer finds him a most intriguing character. One thing is certain: he isn’t boring, especially as his outsized personality is matched by equally outsized punching power.

Adonis answers questions.

Some who are close to him have reported to this observer that privately he is a most likable person, not to mention a doting father, but of course there’s no way the public can be convinced of this, especially since Adonis is most comfortable communicating in French and has zero interest in granting media access beyond the interval he allows at occasional press conferences. Thus he will continue to be the bad guy, a role he seems resigned to, though yesterday’s display suggests the black hat has become for him quite comfortable. At the very least, Stevenson understands the image he projects. Bodyguards; self-aggrandizing videos; taunting opponents with that constant, beaming smile; a ruby on his hand yesterday the size of a small bar of soap: either he simply takes genuine pleasure from his antics and the manifestations of his success, or he sees the value in being the villain in the boxing melodrama. Or maybe it’s both.

In any case, as fight fans are now well aware, the June 3rd event will feature two compelling matches in the light heavyweight division: an elimination bout pitting top contender Eleider Alvarez against former champion Pascal, and a rematch between WBC titlist Stevenson and top contender Andrzej Fonfara. Thus the head table at the Bell Centre’s 9-4-10 Restaurant (the numbers corresponding to Montreal Canadien legends Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur) was a bit crowded. In fact the seating at the table was two layers deep with Stevenson’s henchmen and heavyweight Oscar Rivas (presumably Eleider Alvarez’s bodyguard for the event) standing behind everyone. In addition to the four fighters, the table included three of the four trainers involved — Marc Ramsay, Sugar Hill Steward, Stephan Larouche — along with Québecor Média vice president Michel Granger and promoters Yvon Michel and Leon Margules.

The light heavyweight division is one of the more competitive in boxing right now and with this card Michel is making a strong statement regarding his influence over it. Ostensibly, the winners of the two June 3rd fights will clash in September, a compelling match between champion and legit top-notch contender, but Michel also has in his stable undefeated knockout artist Artur Beterbiev, who is in line to face the winner of the upcoming rematch between Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward. Thus it’s possible that by the end of this year all of the light heavyweight title belts will have been contested for by boxers from Groupe Yvon Michel. By putting both Stevenson vs Fonfara II and Alvarez vs Pascal, either match a potential main event, on the same card, Michel is marking his territory: big money fights at 175 will, for the foreseeable future at least, almost certainly necessitate his involvement.

The press conference proceeded with a series of statements from the various participants which revealed two main themes: the city of Montreal and Al Haymon. Everyone visiting The Fight City expressed their admiration for it, and almost everyone went out of their way to pay tribute to the mysterious figure behind Premier Boxing Champions. “I truly love this city,” declared Leon Margules of Warriors Boxing. “Thanks to Haymon and Showtime, I’m back,” said Jean Pascal. “I want to thank Al Haymon, the best manager in the world,” proclaimed Adonis Stevenson.

Margules, Fonfara’s promoter, paid heart-felt tribute to Yvon Michel, with whom he has been working for some two decades, calling him “a great promoter, a great friend, a great sportsman and a great gentleman.” He then made the case for his fighter, pointing out that Fonfara had moved his family to California so he could train full-time with his new coach, Virgil Hunter. But Margules also gave a tip of the hat to Stevenson for voluntarily granting a rematch to a boxer who had knocked him down and given him a tough battle.

“He doesn’t have to take this fight,” noted the promoter. “For him to accept this opponent, after the rough fight they had the first time, he gets all the credit in the world.” A strong point but one no doubt lost on Stevenson’s detractors which, as mentioned, are legion.

So, as noted, everyone was keeping things friendly and civil. But following statements from all of the fighters and trainers, the floor was opened to inquiries from the media and that’s when things got lively. The question was put to Adonis, with some degree of vehemence, as to why he had never faced crosstown rival Jean Pascal, a match-up which had seemed all but inevitable just a few years ago.

Stevenson confronts Pascal.

In response, Stevenson, to everyone’s surprise, got up from his chair, grabbed the microphone, and walked over to confront Pascal directly. What followed, as all assembled watched with mounting tension, was a discomforting question and answer session which left no doubt as to who was top dog in the room (see video below, complete with English subtitles courtesy of Manny Montreal). The interrogation did in fact answer the reporter’s question as Pascal was forced to admit that he had been offered, more than once, the chance to battle Stevenson but had chosen instead to take more lucrative fights with Sergey Kovalev.

As the condescending line of questioning continued, everyone waited to see if Pascal’s patience might run out, perhaps leading to some fireworks which Stevenson’s huge bodyguards would be called upon to quell, but the former champion stayed calm and the strange scene ended with Adonis planting a kiss on his fellow Haitian-Canadian and declaring, “I love Pascal!” before walking back to his chair as everyone exhaled.

Perhaps due to the obvious tension, the question and answer interval was soon called to an end and, following the obligatory staredowns for the cameras, the fighters were made available for one-on-one interviews. The face-to-face photo sessions were, in keeping with the overall tone of the event, quite cordial, with everyone shaking hands, Stevenson and Fonfara even exchanging compliments on each other’s physiques.

For his part, Jean Pascal confessed to this reporter that he was genuinely taken off guard by Stevenson’s interrogation. “I was surprised, but I’m a veteran and I knew my job was to be patient and stay calm so that’s what I did.”

In regards to facing Alvarez, the WBC’s mandatory contender, Pascal admits the task ahead is daunting, not least because both Eleider and his trainer, Marc Ramsay, have more than a little familiarity with him. “Alvarez was my sparring partner, so he knows me well, and Ramsay was my trainer so he knows me by heart, so it’s going to be tough. I just have to stay focused and train hard and look to pull off the upset. I know this could be one of my last chances, so for me, winning is the only option.”

And indeed, beneath all the cordiality and restraint shown by Pascal and others yesterday are four men trained to do battle, getting ready to fight, for whom defeat is not an option. If Pascal, who is coming off two damaging losses to Sergey Kovalev, is desperate for a victory, the stakes are just as high for the other three pugilists. For example, the reticent Eleider Alvarez has been extraordinarily patient in waiting for his supposedly “mandatory” shot at Stevenson’s belt. The world title chance which has yet to materialize will be his reward for years of toil and sacrifice, the latter including being separated for long stretches from his family in Colombia. A defeat to Pascal would destroy everything he has painstakingly worked for over the last several years.

Yvon Michel stands behind Eleider Alvarez (left) and Jean Pascal.

Similarly, losses at this point for either Stevenson or Fonfara would be devastating to their marketability and future opportunities. But for his part, the Polish challenger exuded confidence as he declared he was now “a different fighter” from the one who exchanged knockdowns with Stevenson in 2014. When asked what was required to get a different result this time, his answer was quick and concise:

“Avoid the big left hand,” he said with a smile. “He’s powerful and fast but he really just has the one weapon. He doesn’t have a good jab or really good footwork, so his threat is the left. So I can’t just stand in front of him, especially in the early rounds. But I showed I can fight with him, both inside and outside, and I feel good about that. I just have to use good boxing, be careful early, use my jab and then the right hand.”

Fonfara: all smiles.

When asked if he is looking for a knockout against a fighter who already took his best shots, the reply was even more direct and, again, with a smile, one that displayed more than a hint of malevolence: “Yes, definitely. He takes a good punch, but I dropped him once so I can drop him again. And this time I will finish him.”

So if cordiality and good manners prevailed yesterday, and if the only discernible tension arose from an impromptu interview that ended with a kiss, behind the smiles lurks enmity, if not desperation, and the desire to win by rendering the opponent unconscious. Yesterday started the build-up to one of the most compelling fight cards, at least on paper, that we’ll see in 2017 and the implications, both for the principals and the light heavyweight division, are more than significant. The stakes are high and championships are on the line and, needless to say, all the pleasantries and good graces will vanish when the bell rings. And once the dust settles boxing fans can look forward to the winners clashing in the fall and that means, assuming Fonfara doesn’t pull off the upset, an all-Montreal world title fight, likely taking place in Montreal. Can’t wait for the press conference for that one.          — Michael Carbert 

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