Tomorrow night Montreal hosts another major pro boxing card, this one organized by Eye Of The Tiger Management and featuring no fewer than 12 matches. The venue is the historic Metropolis theatre in downtown Montreal (now renamed “The MTelus”) and the show has been sold-out for some time. The success in terms of ticket sales can be attributed in part to the limited capacity, roughly 1200 seats, but also because the main event, Yves Ulysse vs Steve Claggett, is in fact a truly meaningful bout, which unfortunately is the exception these days, and not the rule.
Credit must be given to all involved in making the Ulysse vs Claggett match a reality, but especially to Steve “The Dragon” Claggett himself. Based in Calgary, Alberta, the world-ranked super lightweight let it be known to everyone through social media that he was frustrated with the lack of serious opportunities coming his way. For those who knew anything about Claggett’s situation, it was impossible not to have some sympathy. He had clawed his way to the upper levels of the division and earned a high-profile match against Chris van Heerden in Las Vegas only for the judges to rob him of a victory he had clearly earned.
Claggett then won the NABA title when he handed highly regarded prospect Emmanuel Robles his first defeat, but since then no major matches had come his way. His repeated calls for a significant fight led to him publicly challenging Ulysse and, somewhat surprisingly, Eye Of The Tiger Management responded and made the all-Canadian clash a reality. And as our own Zachary Alapi notes, this is a high-stakes match for both men.
“Ulysse outclassed undefeated Zachary Ochoa on HBO earlier this year, and his follow-up victory, a lopsided decision over rugged Filipino Ricky Sismundo was also significant. So he’s perfectly positioned to make a major step forward,” says Alapi. “He needs to win tomorrow night and he needs to do so convincingly. At 29, he can’t afford even a lateral step. The stakes have also been raised with the announcement of the Saunders vs Lemieux fight. If Ulysse can score a spectacular knockout, or get through ten rounds fresh and unscathed, he could be in line for another spot on HBO, setting himself up for a title shot in 2018. Meanwhile, a loss for Claggett would be a huge setback. He needs this win to stay relevant.”
So make no mistake, Ulysse vs Claggett is a major showdown in that both fighters are talented, world-ranked, and are the two best 140 pound pugilists in Canada. But it’s also the kind of fight that we should be seeing more often around here. After all, the obvious problem in boxing is that competitive clashes of real significance have become a rare commodity. While we celebrate the fact that 2017 has been, in many respects, an excellent year for the sport, with a number of exciting battles between top-level pugilists, the fact remains too many talented boxers are inactive, or are squandering their primes on a diet of vastly inferior opponents.
Camille Estephan and Eye Of The Tiger Management rightfully received the plaudits of boxing fans when they took their top prospect, Steven Butler, and put him in the ring with Ontario’s Brandon Cook last January. Everyone recognized that this was an excellent test for the young, undefeated fighter and while Cook proved to be the better man on the night, the stoppage defeat did not irreparably damage Butler’s reputation. He’s rebounded with a knockout win and is still widely viewed as a champion in the making while the defeat to Cook may well prove a blessing in disguise. Tomorrow night he faces Mexican journeyman Silverio Ortiz.
But the fight Butler’s team really wanted was against Francis Lafreniere. Or so it seemed when the prospect of a Butler vs Lafreniere showdown became the topic of much discussion in Montreal last month. “Bang Bang Butler” vs “The People’s Champ” is exactly the kind of match that needs to happen, both for the health of boxing in Montreal and to allow the fighters here to maximize their talent and earning potential. But it never came close to being realized, as Lafreniere’s manager, Otis Grant, recently made clear to this scribe.
“We never received an official offer,” says the former world champion. “The matchmaker called and said Butler and his people were interested in a fight with Francis and then there was a lot of talk on social media, but that was really it. At the time, I was working on Francis maybe going up against Demetrius Andrade on HBO. They were interested in Francis, but they eventually decided to go with Alantez Fox instead. So we were focused on that opportunity at the time, which would have been huge for Francis.”
But if no actual discussions took place between Lafreniere’s management team and Eye Of The Tiger, that didn’t stop the local boxing pundits from talking up the match, or from asking Francis what he thought of the idea.
“Someone talked to Francis about it and his comment was that he wasn’t going to take that fight for less than what Brandon Cook got paid. Now maybe Francis shouldn’t have said anything, but what he said wasn’t out of order. And it shouldn’t have prevented Butler’s people from sitting down with us and discussing things. But instead of negotiating, they decided what Francis said was an insult and that was the end of it. But come on, my guy, not Butler, is the one ranked number five by the WBO. He’s got the NABO belt. Butler is moving up from 154, wants a chance for that title, but his people want to call the shots? Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.”
What does this have to do with tomorrow night’s card at the Metropolis? Everything. Because if Ulysse vs Claggett is a meaningful match-up that makes sense for both athletes and offers compelling competition for boxing fans, it unfortunately represents a very rare occurrence. And it looks like this will continue to be the case. Steven Butler vs Francis Lafreniere falls into the same category, plus it would be a truly huge happening on the Montreal scene, one that could fill more than a few M-Telus theatres. But if the power-brokers here can’t even sit down and negotiate, how can any of the potentially great matches between local fighters ever come to fruition? Instead, it looks like serious showdowns on the Montreal scene will continue to be rare as rubies.
“The only person who talked to us about a Lafreniere vs Butler fight was the matchmaker,” explains Grant. “So I can’t negotiate that way. If Butler’s people are serious, they have to be willing to sit down and talk. What, Francis was out of line because he told someone he wants to be paid what he’s worth? How is that anything to be offended by? But instead of proposing that we meet and discuss things, they get all offended and tell the media the offer is withdrawn. But the fact is, Francis is here, he’s not going anywhere, and he’s not running from anyone, especially not Steven Butler.”
The whole incident only reinforces the growing feeling around the city that making significant matches involving co-promotions between either Rixa Promotions or Groupe Yvon Michel and Eye Of The Tiger is increasingly unlikely, if not impossible, and Otis Grant admits he has been making more inquiries south of the border for his fighters because “there’s nothing happening here.”
“In the end, the promoters have to sit down and talk,” adds Howard Grant, Lafreniere’s trainer. “But here people take things too personal. You know, in the states they call each other terrible names, they insult each other, but then they sit down and make a deal. Because that’s what this is about; it’s business. It’s about making money. No one is doing this for the good of their health. We want to do business. But how can you when people don’t talk?” — Michael Carbert