Belying his eminent position in boxing and celebrity status in Quebec, promoter Yvon Michel is refreshingly personable and candid, not always the case in the world of professional boxing. Instead of a blustery or bellicose pitchman, a la Don King, or a tight-lipped strategist, Michel is affable and expansive. Before he entered the boxing world, he was a teacher and one speculates that his receptive manner and communication skills made him an effective one.
But instead of being an esteemed educator, Michel has had to settle for being the most prolific boxing entrepreneur in Canadian history. And he shows no signs of slowing down. His next gala is Thursday night at the Montreal Casino and it’s a card populated with young prospects, a signal that Groupe Yvon Michel is playing the long game and looking confidently to the future.
And indeed, beneath Michel’s urbane manner is a resolute businessman, ambitious and focused, who keeps a firm hand on the helm of his ship. If in recent years Montreal has become a global hot-spot for professional boxing, it is not by accident. Historical and cultural factors have played a part; the city has numerous well-established gyms and over the decades has attracted more than its share of big fights. Archie Moore, Roberto Duran, Jake LaMotta, Otis Grant and Bernard Hopkins are just some of the champions who heard the cheers in this singular city. But perhaps the key figure in the resurgence of the last several years is the impresario, promoter, television personality and former coach who has staged hundreds of events while helping to guide the careers of such champions as Eric Lucas, Joachim Alcine, Adonis Stevenson and Jean Pascal.
But in fact Yvon Michel never foresaw himself taking on such a large role, or even being involved in professional boxing. Sports and athletics were his passion but growing up in Arthabaska and Trois Rivieres it was his dream to play pro football. Like many young men in Quebec where boxing has deep roots, he trained and sparred to stay in shape, but never considered a career in the fight game. At the Université du Québec he studied education and while there he coached football and volleyball and offered instruction in boxing. The university added pugilism to their athletic curriculum and the course became popular and it was this development that caught the attention of the Quebec Federation of Olympic Boxing.
Michel graduated from university and was soon busy coaching and teaching physical education but the federation approached and asked him to revamp their training and certification programs. He accepted the offer, deciding to take one year off from teaching to work on the project, but in fact that decision marked the end of Michel’s school career. In 1980 he was appointed Technical Director of the federation and he initiated some significant changes while exhibiting the authoritarian side of his pedagogical style.
“I basically threw out everything they were doing in their certification program and started from scratch. There was no other way to implement a serious training program. But some people were not happy. I was the Technical Director, but my nickname,” Michel says with a smile, “was ‘The Technical Dictator.'”
But if some were not enthralled with Michel’s methods, there was no arguing with the results, which soon attracted the notice of the national amateur program. He was then invited to make the same kind of changes for the entire country and what followed was a steady climb up through the coaching ranks of the national program as Michel was appointed National Junior Coach, then National Senior Coach, and finally Canadian Olympic Boxing Coach and leader of the national team. At the same time Michel came to prominence on Quebec television, doing commentary for Olympic broadcasts and co-hosting a regular show on the RDS network.
During that time, Canada was a major player in amateur boxing, winning numerous international titles and Olympic medals. The success Canada saw in the 80’s with champions Shawn O’Sullivan, Willie de Witt, Egerton Marcus and Lennox Lewis, continued in the 90’s with Benoit Gaudet, Dale Brown, Jean-François Bergeron, Hercules Kyvelos and Mike Strange. Michel served as the head national coach from 1992 to 1998, leading Canada to its best ever results at both the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and the Pan American Games in 1995.
“We were a force in the world in amateur boxing,” states Michel with pride. “And at that time, the best pros in Canada were not strong enough to spar with my amateurs.”
Michel enjoyed his work with the national team and was pleased with the success of the different programs he helped establish, but in 1990 came the first signal that more ambitious, not to mention more profitable, initiatives lay ahead.
“A very good amateur named Arturo Gatti came to see me. And he said ‘I like you very much but I’m going to leave the national team and I’m going to turn pro. But there’s no pro boxing here, so I’m going to the U.S.’ And at that time I said, ‘No, don’t do it. You’re making a big mistake,’ but, obviously, he was right and I was wrong. And before that I had worked with Lennox Lewis and after he won the gold medal at the Olympics, it was the same thing. He decided to turn pro but there was nothing here to help him succeed, so he went to Great Britain.
“So I reflected on these things and then in 1991, two boxers came to see me who I had worked with since they were 13 or 14-years-old, Eric Lucas and Stéphane Ouellet, and they said, ‘We don’t want to stay in the amateurs or go to the Olympics. We want to turn pro, so either you help us, or we have to go somewhere else.’
“I actually didn’t like pro boxing then. At that time we had a joke that the pros here were led by the amateurs, while the amateurs were led by the pros. Because the fact was we had the resources and the backing to do things the right way, while for the professionals there was no organization or leadership and no one could make any money.
“But I decided I needed to help them and I wondered if maybe at the same time I could also help make pro boxing better here. So then Ouellet became very popular and Lucas became a world champion and that’s when I realized professional success was possible in Canada.”
Both Lucas and Ouellet were world ranked and Lucas went on to win the WBC super middleweight title in 2001. In 1997 Michel left amateur boxing and soon became CEO of Interbox, the promotional company which guided the careers of Lucas, Ouellete, and others, including Leonard Dorin, who won the WBA lightweight championship in 2002. In 2004 Michel broke away from Interbox to found his own company, Groupe Yvon Michel, and he has since been involved in hundreds of pro boxing events, guiding numerous fighters to the elite level and world title bouts.
When asked what was key to achieving success at the professional level, Michel replies that it was not markedly different from the formula he applied for the Quebec and national amateur teams.
“Talent is important,” says Michel, “but it’s overrated. Most important is dedication. You need an athlete who is totally committed to developing their ability. And if you give that person the right support, surround them with the right people, in my experience they can be competitive with anyone.
“I learned this principal in my coaching work in volleyball and football and it applies in boxing. If you have a fighter who is completely dedicated and focused and willing to work hard, day in and day out, then you give him what he needs: the right team, the right trainers, the best environment, plus intelligent matchmaking, and then you guide him so he can reach his potential.”
“It’s about trust,” continues Michel. “I would never make a commitment to a boxer who I don’t believe in or who works with a trainer I don’t believe in. I believe in Otis and Howard Grant. I believe in Marc Ramsay. I believe in John Scully and Javan Hill. So then I give them the responsibility to take care of the day-to-day training. The details get taken care of if you have the right people making sure the athlete is looked after. But if you can’t control those things or give the fighter a positive environment, it’s not going to work.
“And I’ve seen so many excellent prospects, super talented boxers, who never realized their potential because they didn’t have a support system in place and the right people looking out for them. There’s a group in New York that keeps asking if I want to help them develop some young boxers, but I’m not interested in working with fighters if they’re not going to come to Montreal. It’s here where I have the resources and I can make sure everything is in place. For me, there’s no point in going somewhere else.”
But has Michel always come through for his fighters? A criticism one hears is that some of his boxers have been pushed into title fights and major tests before they were truly ready and in a position to succeed. But the promoter is having none of it.
“When people say that, they are forgetting that the boxer in question might never have gotten to that level in the first place without our support,” states Michel with some vehemence. “People are taking our success for granted. It’s like when the Montreal Canadiens kept winning Stanley Cups and people forgot how difficult it is to have that level of success, how rare it is.
“Boxing is unlike any other sport. Every fight is a drama because every fight is dictating what is going to happen next, not just in the boxer’s career, but in his life. This is real life, not a game. So you have to assess carefully all of the options and make the best decision for that person. I remember we got an offer for Jean Pascal to fight for a world title and we turned it down because we believed it wasn’t his time yet. Some guys you are holding back, others you are taking whatever chances you can get.
“Eric Lucas was ranked ninth in the world at super middleweight and we got the opportunity to challenge for the NABF title. He lost every round of the fight and afterwards we discussed whether or not he should continue. But then we got an offer, a chance for a world title fight at light heavyweight, big money. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so of course we took it. But then we did everything we could to prepare and maximize his chances. He lost, but he impressed everyone with his performance and so that led to the chance to fight Roy Jones Jr. And yes, he lost that fight too, but he learned so much from it and he made good money. But then people would say to me, ‘Why aren’t you looking out for Eric?’
“We love our fighters. We care about them. We brought Kevin Bizier up to the point where he could challenge for a world title and then he lost to Kell Brook and we all felt terrible for him. We are not cold-hearted about this. But fighting for a world title, having that experience and that opportunity: that’s success. People don’t understand how much work is involved just to get to that level. This business is about maximizing your opportunities, because in boxing you often cannot control what chances you get.”
And after 12 years and 128 boxing events, more than any other organization in Canadian history, it would appear Groupe Yvon Michel is only getting better at maximizing opportunities. While faced with serious competition from rival organization Eye Of The Tiger Management, who stage a major card at the Bell Centre on Saturday, Michel is resolute and determined to capitalize on his achievements.
Last month he announced commitments and partnerships allowing for no fewer than ten major shows within the next year and a total of 18 casino cards over the next three years, those events being in addition to what fight cards may be organized with Premier Boxing Champions. And beyond the excitement of knowing we have so many events to look forward to, one is struck by how Michel is investing in the future and showcasing young prospects such as Custio Clayton (9-0), Vislan Dalkhaev (7-0), Marie Eve Dicaire (4-0), Patrice Volny (2-0), and, in association with Rixa Promotions, Dwayne Durel (4-0) and Dario Bredicean (9-0). All are in action this Thursday night.
When asked if he had enjoyed his teaching work many years ago, Michel responds in the affirmative. “My goal then was to become a university teacher. And I enjoyed coaching.”
And as everyone knows, good teaching is not just about what you say in the classroom, but the example you set outside the school. Thursday night boxing fans will come to the Montreal Casino and see the next chapter in the visceral and sometimes cruel drama that is professional boxing. And those fans now know, whatever the outcome, that there will be many more such shows to experience in the years ahead. If dedication and commitment is more important than talent, then Michel is putting his money where his mouth is, as his team works to create new opportunities for the boxers campaigning under the GYM banner. It will be up to the fighters to maximize those opportunities and to vindicate Michel’s trust. — Michael Carbert
Photo of Yvon Michel by Bob Levesque.