The Times They Are A-Changin’
“The times, they are a changin’.” These lyrics, so endlessly applicable, are what serenaded David Lemieux’s ring walk on Saturday night. Dylan’s poetry ostensibly heralds a changing middleweight division through Lemieux’s rise, while, at a more personal level, they intimate the fighter’s maturation, which was stressed in the weeks leading up to this IBF title bout. No longer young and recklessly green, Lemieux is older, wiser, and more refined, with sophisticated skills to match his abundant power. But what Lemieux showed Saturday wasn’t a personal transformation so much as it was a more assertive version of what we have seen before. The truly significant ‘change’ was the increased enthusiasm for Lemieux on the part of Montreal fight fans.
The Bell Centre floor on Saturday was a teeming mass of tight clothing and heaving silicone as the city’s boxing’s cognoscenti snaked their way through and around the media tables, entourages in tow. Jean Pascal wore a tight red shirt, a brilliant gold chain, and sunglasses. Adonis Stevenson, even more impressively tailored in his light blue blazer, entered amid much pageantry, surrounded by attractive women and flanked by a group of impressively large men. Georges St. Pierre received a huge cheer when he appeared on the jumbotron, as did Patrick Cote. Seated close by was Chris Nilan, the former Montreal Canadiens enforcer, now the subject of books and documentary films and host of his own radio show. Other, lesser-known local celebrities and fighters circulated among the masses, exchanging handshakes and posing for pictures with a bored-looking Pascal.
Everyone was on hand to revel in the sensory spectacle that is big-time boxing in Montreal. They were also there because David Lemieux has become a fighter worth caring about.
The Bell Centre’s lower bowl was mostly full by the main event, but during the undercard the building had been relatively subdued. The introductory fights were unimpressive, save for some exciting moments in Dierry Jean’s win over Jerry Belmontes, and Luis ‘King Kong’ Ortiz’s knockout of the bowling ball-shaped Byron Polley and his subsequent chest beating. Lemieux vs N’Dam was not the most heavily anticipated event in recent Montreal boxing history. This is partly because Hassan N’Dam, an incredibly tough but mostly unknown Frenchman, is not the sort of opponent that will help sell a main event.
David Lemieux is the sort of fighter who can sell a main event, and that’s precisely why Golden Boy has lined up behind him. Oscar de la Hoya (whose profile, with its tremendously big head and prominent hair, resembles that of a male lion’s) and Bernard Hopkins were on hand to promote the event, but HBO was not. In the United States it was carried on Fox, meaning fans were deprived of the pleasure of witnessing a Max Kellerman post-fight interview.
The bout was to contest the vacant IBF middleweight championship, which had been vacated by the troubled Jermain Taylor. As the A-side, it made obvious sense to stage the fight in Lemieux’s hometown, where it’s expected he’ll be a headliner for years. He has a significant fan base in Montreal but until Saturday he’d yet to earn a career-defining win there. In arguably his biggest Bell Centre moment up to this point, he had been stopped by Marco Antonio Rubio, and in his next fight, held at the same venue, he was decisioned by Joachim Alcine. These losses, the only two Lemieux has suffered as a professional, are essentially the pivot around which his career has turned. Between Alcine and N’Dam he notched eight consecutive victories, seven by stoppage.
Once lost in boxing’s wasteland, David Lemieux was back and better than ever. Hassan N’Dam was to be a tough, skilled, and punchless opponent for him to win a title against before taking on the elite. It is a journey that ends, of course, with Golovkin.
Short of scoring a knockout, Saturday’s fight went exactly the way Lemieux’s team hoped it would. Alternatively exciting, brutal, dominant, and gutsy, he brought the rounded entertainment package on which his brand is built. Lemieux began the first round furiously, throwing huge bombs that just narrowly missed their target. There was an urgency to his violence that stirred the crowd, which swelled every time he came forward to launch one of his power shots.
The last half of the second round was spectacular. A left hook to N’Dam’s head sent him to the canvas, which brought every one out of their seats. The Frenchman got back to this feet, as he would three more times during the fight, and resumed fighting, even as Lemieux battered him around the ring. With his back against the ropes, doing everything to avoid having an unseen right hand land squarely on his chin, N’Dam resolved to stay alive as Lemieux swung furiously away. During this exchange, whose wildness approached that of a street fight, it seemed like every person in the Bell Centre was screaming and cheering.
Though Lemieux landed the more impressive shots, N’Dam showed his boxing ability throughout. Several times his clean punches staggered the Montrealer, but while N’Dam may have scored in bunches, there was a dramatic difference in the effect Lemieux’s blows had. The Frenchman is not a big puncher and you could hear the difference when Lemieux loaded up, acquiring leverage by twisting his wide torso and launching his entire body into his punches. And though he missed repeatedly with his right hand, Lemieux consistently found N’Dam’s body and head with his left hook. It was a punch the Frenchman couldn’t defend himself from, and one Lemieux will ride as far as it will take him.
In spite of the serious punishment he absorbed, N’Dam didn’t quit. His bravery won the respect of the crowd, which had lightheartedly booed him before the opening bell. The smaller ring was too snug for N’Dam’s preferred brand of fighting, in which he uses the entire ring to make defensive space for himself. At one point an aggrieved fan shrieked at him for running, but it would have been suicidal to stand and trade with a considerably heavier puncher. Rather than quit or allow himself to be run over, N’Dam made the fight competitive, even winning the twelfth, in which he landed some crisply beautiful punches.
The result of the decision was obvious, and when the fight ended both men embraced and Lemieux kissed N’Dam on his forehead in a display of sportsmanship and respect. When N’Dam stood atop the turnbuckle he received a resounding ovation; his courage had allowed for a competitive fight. When Lemieux did the same, he was met with an appreciative roar.
Montreal wants to embrace David Lemieux, and he gave them every reason to Saturday as chants of “Lemieux! Lemieux!” rose up several times. Quebecois fight fans like action-oriented fighters who refuse to take a step backwards, a tradition that goes back decades. It is a decidedly macho form of prizefighting, and one that David Lemieux epitomizes. Leaping up from his stool at the beginning of each round, he took command of the ring as he tracked N’Dam down. He is the archetypal Montreal boxer, who comes to fight, doesn’t run, launches bombs designed to decapitate his opponent, and fights through a barrage. It is a stylistic marriage of heart and savage grace.
After the bout, a visibly elated Oscar De La Hoya and a beaming Bernard Hopkins (who, resplendent in a tailored grey blazer, was seen gentlemanly praising the strikingly attractive national anthem singer for her rousing version of ‘O Canada’) gushed over Lemieux’s victory, both in love with the marketing potential he represents. Where will they take him next? Looming somewhere in the middleweight hinterlands is Gennady Golovkin. That would be a fun, exciting fight, and doubtlessly explosive, but Lemieux’s team might be wise to let their man collect a few more wins before it happens. Among those nearby in press row, none gave Lemieux a serious chance of defeating Triple-G.
As thrillingly as Lemieux fought on Saturday, his flaws were also evident. He threw off-balance shots, pressed too hard to land power punches, at times left himself wide open, and should have patiently worked N’Dam’s body to better set up his attack. Such flaws will doom him against Golovkin, who brutally penalizes even the smallest mistakes. This is why Lemieux’s team should tread carefully, lest he be thrown too swiftly into a fight only because it makes immediate financial sense. Put another way, momentary pain, in the form of a premature fight with Golovkin, will not lead to long term gain. Lemieux can and should be further developed against other contenders in the middleweight division.
With Pascal looking to rebound, Bute inactive for the last year and a half, and Stevenson perhaps headed to Haiti for his next title defense, Montrealers are in need of a hometown headliner. Lemieux made an irrefutable case for himself on Saturday, breathing life into a staid arena and giving fans exactly what was expected. His urgency gestured to the seriousness with which he approached the opportunity; Lemieux’s time is now, and he and his team know it. For 36 minutes his fists made muscles flex and bosoms swell in Montreal, and more big fights await, but haste cannot overrule prudence. Caution must attend the engineering of David Lemieux’s career, climaxing, as it likely will, with a Kazakh.
— Eliott McCormick