When you walk up the stairs leading to Club De Boxe Champions on Belanger Street in the Saint-Michel district of Montreal, you are climbing the same steps that Yves Ulysse Jr. climbed when he first began his adventure in boxing just over a decade ago. Same steps, same gym. It was the summer of 2007 and still fresh in Yves’ mind was the big fight that happened two months before: Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs Oscar De La Hoya.
“I was inspired by Floyd to go there,” recalls Yves. “I was amazed how he could make $25 million in one night! It was July 1st, Canada Day, national holiday. Everything was closed, but the gym was open. Before this, I played basketball, football, taekwondo. I came in and I said, ‘I’m an athlete and I have a lot of medals. But I’m tired of medals. I want a belt.'”
If young Ulysse picked a quiet day to visit the gym, he also picked the right day to meet the right man. There were two trainers at ‘Champions’ that afternoon, and one found Yves’ words amusing. The other did not.
“The first coach laughed, but the other one looked at me serious. What I said got his attention. He told me later he had never heard anyone say that before. He had heard people say they wanted the money or the fame, but he had never heard someone say, ‘I want the belt.'”
Venerable Montreal trainer Rénald Boisvert gave the cocky teenager in front of him a hard look and asked, “You know what it takes to win a belt? The work? The sacrifice?”
“Give it to me,” said Ulysse. “I can take it.”
“We’ll see,” said Boisvert. “Be here tomorrow at 7 am.”
The next morning, there was young Yves Ulysse, waiting outside the door at 6:30.
In the years that followed Yves could be found at the gym virtually every single day. In the afternoon, ‘Champions’ re-opens at four and closes at eight and every day Yves Ulysse was waiting to be let in at four and had to be chased out at closing time. He worked and he worked, following Boisvert’s instructions to the letter. And in one year he was a Golden Gloves champion. In just two years he was Senior National Champion. That, admits Boisvert, is a remarkable feat.
“When he began, he was too excited, too hyper,” recalls the respected coach who trains numerous prospects, including Steven Butler. “And he wanted to fight with anyone and everyone. He even wanted to fight his coach! He was cocky and flamboyant, always laughing, and he would even bring girls to come and watch him train. But in fact, from the beginning, he was serious. He wanted to learn. He wanted to become a champion.”
Though in truth he had no choice but to be serious about this new initiative.
“When I told my parents, my dad said, ‘Are you sure? That’s a dirty world.’ He knew about the corruption, the bad things that can happen. But my mom was like, ‘Okay. But listen: I will kick your ass every time you lose a fight.'”
And the matriarch of the Ulysse home was not joking around.
“I had 95 amateur wins and twelve defeats,” says Yves. “So twelve times I had to go sleep somewhere else. I didn’t dare go home. It’s not that my mom doesn’t love me, but she was letting me know, this is not a game. If I was going to be a boxer, I better take it serious and I better win. Because my parents know how rough things can be. They come from Haiti and here in Saint-Michel, it’s tough. Nothing comes easy. So no matter what, you have to work hard. For me, I always knew it would be athletics. I love sports and I love to perform. And when I found boxing, I found my place.”
But if Boisvert and Yves’ mother made sure he took pugilism very seriously, it was someone else who inspired him to make the leap from the amateur game to professional prizefighting.
“I had been training with Lucian Bute. He’s my role model, my mentor. I had lost in the qualifiers for the Olympics and he told me ‘You have nothing left to prove at the amateur level. It’s time to turn pro.’ He helped me a lot and my first fight was on the undercard of Bute vs Pascal at the Bell Centre.”
As Ulysse speaks to me he is wrapping his hands, getting ready for another workout. It’s past eight in the evening and the gym is closed to the public. Boisvert is there, as is assistant trainer Jessy Ross Thompson and other members of Yves’ team. The mood is relaxed but focused. The contender’s natural sense of humour is evident, but so is a serious regard for the task at hand. After all, the upcoming challenge is nothing less than the most significant opportunity of Ulysse’s career thus far, a chance to perform at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of the Canelo vs Fielding title match.
No one involved in the fight game questions whether Yves should be regarded one of the top contenders in the super lightweight division. In fact, Yves is respected to such a degree that for many the only question is why he was not included in the ongoing World Boxing Super Series tournament for that weight class. Perhaps one factor is that his ring record is not unblemished. In October of last year Ulysse suffered a points defeat to Alberta’s Steve Claggett, a decision which many, if not most, observers found difficult to take seriously.
But that setback was followed by the chance to face popular New York contender Cletus Seldin, aka “The Hebrew Hammer,” on the HBO broadcast of Billy Joe Saunders vs David Lemieux. And while Jim Lampley and company were clearly primed to hype Seldin as a major new attraction in boxing, it was Ulysse who looked like a future champion, not the man from Gotham. Seldin was knocked down three times and completely outclassed and the major talking point afterwards was how any of the judges didn’t score the match a total shut-out for the boxer from Montreal.
A win over undefeated Ernesto Espana followed and then came word Ulysse would be part of the DAZN show on December 15. Soon after Steve Claggett let it be known on social media he was available for a rematch. But after Eye Of The Tiger Management sent Claggett’s people a contract and announced the bout, Claggett himself, to the consternation of many, turned the fight down, insisting there wasn’t enough time to prepare. Which of course begged the question why he had issued a public challenge in the first place.
Needless to say, this could easily have been a situation of much stress and agitation for Yves, but he refuses to allow that, even taking his lone professional defeat, however questionable, in stride.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he says with a smile. “Just stay positive. I’m patient. I’m taking my time. I’ve got my team. And I’m moving forward.”
The Claggett situation helps to further illustrate Yves’ impressive maturity and professionalism. While the Alberta fighter insisted that one month was not enough time for a proper training camp, Ulysse has a different perspective on proper fight training and preparation.
“I don’t have training camps,” says Ulysse, who has gone out of his way to make sure he lives in close proximity to Club De Boxe Champions. “My training camp is all year round. I never stop. After a fight, I take two days off and then I’m back in the gym. A while ago, everyone was telling me I needed a break. They told me, ‘Go take a vacation. Go relax.’ Okay. So I go to a resort in Cancun. I spend so much time working out in the pool, after they find out I’m a boxer they keep it open at night just for me. Like I say, I never stop. And I’m always ready.”
As if to illustrate, Ulysse breaks out a bit of shadowboxing. “Christmas Day?” he says. “In the gym. New Year’s Eve? In the gym. My birthday? In the gym.”
“What can I say about Claggett? He won. Nice job. He called me out and says he wants a rematch. Fine. We send him the contract and then he says four weeks isn’t enough time. But if you’re serious, if you want to be champion, the phone can ring anytime. After our fight, I lost the decision, but I got the call from HBO, not him. And when they called, I didn’t say, ‘I’m not ready. I need more time.’ If you want to be champion, you have to be ready for anything. He’s not ready? Okay, we’re moving forward.”
Which means continuing to train every day, working with Boisvert and Thompson on his technique, perfecting his craft. And while Floyd Mayweather is the boxer who inspired him to first climb that set of stairs on Rue Belanger, it’s another legendary champion who Yves points to when asked which pugilist’s technique he admires most.
“Sugar Ray Leonard,” he says, shaking his head in wonder. “He could do it all. I love his footwork. I watch him all the time.”
But as Yves continues to warm up with some light calisthenics and coach Thompson throws your friendly scribe some impatient looks, and as the discussion about discipline and professionalism continues, another name comes up.
“I love to be in the ring,” says Ulysse. “I enjoy all sports but I’m not a team guy. I want the spotlight. I like to entertain, so every time I step in the ring, it’s a show. And at the end, I want to say to everyone, ‘How you like it? Did you enjoy the show?’ Win or lose. ‘How you like it?’ Because I have fun in the ring, so I want everyone else to have fun too.” But then, the smile fades. “But it’s also serious because anything can happen. One punch can change your life. You know Prichard Colón?”
Colón, as many know, was a promising, undefeated young boxer who suffered a serious brain injury in 2015 and was in a coma for over 200 days. He lives at home with his parents now; he cannot walk or speak.
“I knew Pritchard,” says Yves. “I knew him well. I trained with him in the amateurs. So I understand the danger. And that’s another reason why you have to be serious. I never stop training. I’m always ready.”
Of course no amount of training can guarantee a boxer’s safety. And as Yves Ulysse is in New York City tonight, rehydrating after today’s weigh-in and preparing for tomorrow night’s match against Maximilliano Becerra (16-2-2), Adonis Stevenson remains in a hospital bed. No one can know yet if he will survive, let alone speak or walk.
And of course no young, ambitious athlete is thinking of such things when they first climb the stairs up to the neighbourhood boxing gym and announce that they’re tired of trophies and medals, that they want a belt. Or when the wise, old trainer asks: “You know what it takes to win a belt?”
“December 15th,” says Yves Ulysse with a smile, “I’ll be in Madison Square. And it will be my time to shine.” — Michael Carbert