Camille Estephan always makes eye contact. Standing on the press conference podium, his bulky musculature sheathed in a fitted suit jacket, the Eye of the Tiger promoter will politely address reporters by their first names and wait until they finish speaking before he responds. His physicality is offset by soft, measured speech that relies on double adverbs (“very, very”) to emphasize the seriousness of his message, and like all prosperous alphas he gives every indication of being in control, possessing the mixture of intelligence, social grace and vanity that ushers certain people into power.
Here, control is an appropriate word: it captures the promoter’s self-possession, the deliberate pace with which his company was built, and Estephan’s newfound grip over the Montreal boxing scene.
In 2017, he emerged as the city’s leading boxing promoter, a position once occupied by Yvon Michel. Estephan accomplished this by regularly staging events in Quebec and placing fighters like David Lemieux on HBO. In June, the same formula that allowed for Eye of the Tiger’s rise – mounting frequent provincial shows around rising fighters – will see heavyweight Simon Kean fight Adam Braidwood in Shawinigan. It is the sort of bombastically-marketed homegrown fight Canadian boxing needs more of, and one consistent with the company’s history of granting fans their wishes: in quantity, and often quality, Estephan’s firm has delivered.
Originally from Lebanon, the promoter came to Montreal as a teenager in 1986 when his family escaped the Lebanese Civil war. He became a father as a young man and rose quickly in the financial services field, where he continues to work today, leaving many of his company’s boxing responsibilities to Antonin Decarie. Estephan’s 2008 foray into the sport occurred after making the acquaintance of heavyweight Bermane Stiverne, whose career he began managing. Their partnership climaxed in Stiverne’s 2014 WBC heavyweight title win over Chris Arreola.
In 2015, a strangely dehydrated “BWare” lost his first title defense to Deontay Wilder. Later that year, Estephan parted from his first client because of philosophical differences with Don King over the direction of Stiverne’s career. (In the United States, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act prohibits individuals from acting on behalf of a boxer as both a manager and promoter. In their former partnership, Estephan managed Stiverne and King promoted him.)
A talented heavyweight whose defining image may be one of unconscious near-obesity, Stiverne was a fighter without a country, his roots not identifiable with any one place but tentacled across Haiti, Montreal and the United States. His career would have prospered had it been built in Quebec, but “BWare’s” rise and eye-blink reign occurred just as Eye of the Tiger Management, which he had once been an avatar for, was gathering strength. While Estephan had started as a manager, he moved into promotion and his company’s fortunes steadily improved. He soon became involved with David Lemieux, perhaps the fighter he is most closely-aligned with, who was then under contract with GYM. This liaison led to a 2015 lawsuit from Yvon Michel.
If the truest barometer of success in boxing is the amount of exposure fighters get on premium cable, then by the time it signed Lemieux, Eye of the Tiger had already started its enviable run. Unfortunately, the results weren’t always agreeable. In 2014, lightweight Dierry Jean faced Lamont Peterson on Showtime and lost a unanimous decision; in 2015, after much pre-fight boasting, he was beaten decisively by Terrence Crawford on HBO. If Jean’s time in the spotlight was fleeting, stablemate Lemieux has experienced more enduring fame. But he, too, came up short in the biggest moments Estephan had arranged for him: first on pay per view in 2015, when he was dominated and stopped by Gennady Golovkin at Madison Square Garden, and again this past December when Lemieux was plainly outclassed in his hometown by BJ Saunders. Both matches were broadcast on HBO.
In one sense, the promoter’s work has been impressive: Estephan has shown the guile and business savvy not only to maneuver his fighters onto boxing’s biggest platforms, but to stage well-attended, internationally-recognized shows in Montreal. In this sense, his work his been exemplary. But the year in which Estephan reached the top was perfectly indicative of his business’ strengths and weaknesses.
For Eye of the Tiger, 2017 was an eventful twelve months book-ended by large events that ended in disappointment. In January, then 21-year old Steven Butler, whom Estephan once called “the Sidney Crosby of boxing,” lost in his first appearance as the headliner of a Bell Centre show. “Bang Bang” was stopped by Ajax’s Brandon Cook in the seventh round of an exciting fire-fight, after which his incensed fans started a brawl and someone launched a metal bucket into the ring that struck Cook in the head.
Estephan’s relationship with Butler is particularly telling of the promoter’s ambition. For readers outside of Canada and Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby is the Lionel Messi of his sport: a savant who subjugated world class competition from the moment he turned professional. But against Cook, Butler — a skilled, charismatic and understandably flawed prospect (who, aside from Floyd Mayweather, isn’t at 21?) — saw his propensity to get hit exposed. He’s spent the last fifteen months rebuilding, and in retrospect, the comparison to Crosby – whose mighty skills were guided by a maturity far beyond his age – was always doomed to fall short. But the fact that it got made, even in the hyperbolic world of boxing promotion, spoke of Estephan’s willingness to distance his pack from the rest.
Like all promoters, Camille is eager to sell you on the virtues of his fighters. Unlike many, he is also willing to expose them to risk. Speaking over the phone prior to Saunders vs Lemieux, the promoter outlined his strategy for developing boxing talent and spoke of Steven Butler’s developmental arc.
“Challenge is very, very important. If you’re not challenged you’re not getting better. Yes, you’ve got to be careful, you don’t want to go too fast. At the same time you don’t want to go too slow. A lot of guys will be wasting talent, wasting time, not really building records to try and get that 20-0 [that] looks good on paper. We’ve been in situations where people say ‘wow, you’re taking a big risk,’ but without the risk there is no reward, and our fighter is not going to get better. We have to assess the risk. There is a lot of money involved, [and] if your guy loses, sometimes it sets you back, [but] you live with it and keep moving forward.
“Steven learned a lot. He went through an experience where he encountered defeat. He encountered a challenge he could not overcome for many, many reasons, [things] that happened prior to the fight and during the fight. And now he’s learned from it. Since then he’s gone to camps with Miguel Cotto in California and Canelo Alvarez. And experience is a massive, massive component to his improvement. He has the potential to be a superstar down the road. He has that talent, but he needed to go through a pothole, unfortunately. He’s fixed a tire and now he’s better than ever.”
Only time will reveal whether Butler fulfills expectations, but Montreal is thirsting for a new star. Before Lemieux vs Saunders, RDS writer Francis Paquin said that the city’s boxing scene is at a “low ebb” right now, a characterization difficult to refute. There is a fine depth of talent but no single fighter marked for stardom. Butler continues to develop. Erik Bazinyan, an excellent homegrown prospect who recently defected to Eye of the Tiger from Rixa Promotions in a major coup, and who, like Butler, has the in-ring magnetism fans crave, is still unproven. Custio Clayton, a 2017 addition to Estephan’s clan, is now 30 and must shift his career into a faster gear. Yves Ulysse, a silky and charismatic junior welterweight who received valuable exposure on December’s Lemieux-Saunders undercard, needs a return to the spotlight. The city’s champions — Adonis Stevenson and Artur Beterbiev, neither of whom fight for EOTTM – have managed their careers poorly and inspire less excitement in the public than more minor talents from the past.
Perhaps the city’s finest prospect is Batyr Jukembayev, a 27-year-old Kazahk lightweight now in his third year under Estephan’s direction. Only 12 fights into a career initially slowed by injury, Jukembayev’s anonymity among non-hardcore boxing fans is symptomatic of the problem that some international boxers, who don’t speak conversational French or English, have forging bonds with Montrealers. It will be interesting to see if Sadriddin Ahkmedov, the company’s newest recruit (who, like Jukembayev, came by way of eagle-eyed manager Anna Reva) will have the same problem. By every indication he is a fabulous prospect with the same loaded amateur pedigree of his recent Eurasian forebears.
It will be Estephan’s job to help facilitate their popularization, and it is not likely lost on the promoter that he shares a similar story with both Kazahks: each came to Montreal in search of better opportunities, and while the promoter has established himself at the top, it will be his duty to ensure they reach the same height. In theory, this should be possible, as Jukembayev is more complete than Lemieux, and Ahkmedov may be as well. Whether they have the same marketing potential as a fighter who’s been a commercial success in spite of his failings is a different question.
There’s an important issue at play involving international fighters who come to Montreal, some of whom are the brightest talents on Estephan’s roster. They arrive here because of the scene’s strong infrastructure: talented boxers will get television exposure, fight before sizeable crowds, and receive help to develop. But whether they become popular is another matter. The boxing machine rewards popularity before skill, which is why Lemieux gets repeated chances and Jukembayev’s name is little known beyond Montreal. But for Eye of the Tiger to firmly establish itself on a world level, it’s fighters of Batyr’s stripe who’ll win the important titles. This will happen only when the company’s best, rather than its most marketable, are maneuvered into premium slots.
Will they? It’ll be a test of Camille’s talent to identify the right alchemy to popularize these exceptional foreign boxers and propel his firm upwards by their success, and though Montreal fighters often move at a frustrating place, Estephan deserves our faith. While the name of his company is either hackneyed or inspiring, depending on your taste, the promoter’s aggressive climb has demonstrated the ethic it invokes. It’s time one of his fighters does the same. — Eliott McCormick