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The Old One-Two

Boxing may be in decline worldwide, but A.J. Leibling’s “sweet science of bruising” has found a second wind in Montreal.

FROM THE BOTTOM of the stairs, you hear the sharp crack of skipping ropes. Halfway up, the fitful pounding of a heavy bag. Before you reach the door, you smell the sweat, and once inside you feel the heat.

It’s Monday afternoon, just before five, and the Underdog Boxing Gym is busy. A group of young prospects warm up—shadow boxing, stretching, winding hand-wraps around their knuckles. In the ring, Moncef Askri and Antonin Decarie. Both undefeated, both preparing for bouts on the weekend. Askri, the taller and leaner of the two, snaps quick jabs as Decarie stalks him, cutting off the ring, looking to trap Askri on the ropes.

In another corner of the gym, a very different crowd: novices, wannabes, fitness types. In contrast to the regulars, this group stands in straight rows, all different shapes and sizes but identical in their position and movements. Hands coiled into fists held at face level, left feet forward in the orthodox stance, eyes fixed on the wall-size mirror, they move in unison, responding to their instructor. Right now they are practicing the classic one-two combination, left jab followed by the right cross, hips swivelling to transfer the weight properly, then quickly back, fists snapping up again to the ready position.

The urban gym remains an essential part of the lore of boxing, transformed by the movies into a cultural cliché: the grimy dungeon where would-be fighters grunt and sweat and crusty old trainers bark and scowl. A few of the historic ones still exist. In New York there’s Gleason’s, where Roberto Duran used to work and the crowds of onlookers would become so thick the great Panamanian champion hardly had room to skip rope. But most of the storied boxing clubs have faded away. The Fifth Street Gym in Miami, where Muhammad Ali honed his craft, was razed and turned into a parking lot. Legendary Stillman’s in New York has vanished. And just a few months ago the famous Kronk Gym in Detroit closed its doors for good after last-ditch fund-raising efforts fell short and thieves broke in to steal all the copper plumbing.

Something equally sad and sordid has happened to the sport itself. Thirty years ago, boxing was riding high on the immense popularity of Muhammad Ali, the Rocky movies, and young stars like Sugar Ray Leonard. In the 1980s, boxing was huge business and a bona fide mainstream attraction. Champions defended their titles regularly on network television and the major clashes between top fighters were huge media events, spilling over from the sports section and onto the front page.

Today boxers never appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, virtually none have high-profile endorsement deals, and major networks and sponsors want little to do with a sport that recently had a convicted rapist as its No. 1 attraction and whose most famous elder statesman, once floating like a butterfly, is now a flesh and blood appeal for the game’s abolition. Indeed, much of the urgency surrounding last spring’s ridiculously overhyped Floyd Mayweather Jr.–Oscar De La Hoya matchup was the feeling that it might be the final bout of its kind, the last “super fight” with major crossover appeal.

But while boxing’s decline is indisputable, it would appear someone forgot to tell sports fans in Quebec. In fact, 2007 was the year professional boxing asserted itself as one of Montreal’s major sports and entertainment attractions. Consider that no fewer than four Quebec-based boxers fought for world titles in 2007, with two of them winning their bouts in Montreal. And when Lucian Bute and Joachim Alcine fought and won at the Bell Centre, with relatively little attention paid by the mainstream English-language media, they attracted crowds of more than 13,000 and 15,000 respectively. Consider that the Montreal Casino has been hosting almost monthly pro-boxing cards to sizable audiences. Perhaps most significantly, consider that most of these events have been broadcast on live television: several on TVA, a French-language network, and several others to American audiences via ESPN. The case can be made that, outside of Las Vegas, Montreal and its environs might just be the hottest centre for boxing in all of North America.

The Underdog Boxing Gym’s success reflects this burgeoning fight fever. Since opening at the corner of St. Catherine and St. Laurent in 2007, it has gained a reputation as one of the best gyms of its kind in the province. More than three hundred people have purchased memberships, the daily “boxercise” classes are fully booked, and many of the top pugilists in Montreal come here to work. The boxers training at Underdog today constitute a veritable Who’s Who of exciting prospects: Manolis Plaitis, an undefeated pro welterweight; Ariane Fortin, one of the best female amateur boxers in the world; Dierry Jean, a Haitian-born undefeated light welterweight regarded as one of the hottest prospects in Canada; and Jean Pascal, a rising star in the super-middleweight class, past winner of seven Canadian amateur championships and twenty pro bouts.

The man behind Underdog’s rise is a twenty-five-year-old amateur  boxer named Sylvera (Sly) Louis. Tall and muscular, he can often be seen leading the fitness class in one corner of the gym, instructing his students to double up on the left jab.

“I just had all this anger inside of me,” says Sly about growing up in the north Montreal suburb of Anjou. “There were so many times when I wanted to fight back, wanted to hurt someone. I would get the occasional racial insult, ‘nigger’ this, ‘blackie’ that, but other times I would just be angry for no reason. My friends would be like, ‘What’s wrong? Why are you so pissed off?’ And I couldn’t explain it.”

This inner rage eventually led to minor acts of vandalism and school suspensions. Club de Boxe Champions on Belanger became the place where Sly, who recently won gold in the heavyweight class at the Canadian Amateur Boxing Champion-ships, “turned a negative into a positive.”

“I never really worked hard at anything before boxing. I did just okay in school, nothing great. But at the gym, I really dedicated myself. To succeed at boxing, you have to give it everything you’ve got. Otherwise, you’re going to get your ass kicked.  So at the gym I learned how to work hard, how to concentrate.”

It was also where he noticed something interesting: boxing gyms were not welcoming places. “There’s really no sense of customer service. Unless you’re an incredibly gifted athlete, nobody will pay any attention to you. You’re on your own. I decided I wanted to run a gym someday but I wanted to do it differently.”

A visitor to Underdog can’t help noticing how every fighter pauses at the front desk to solemnly shake hands with Sly or any of the other co-owners who might be present.  Underdog Boxing’s communal spirit began with the group of friends who founded the gym. Along with Sly’s older brother Ludovic, himself a former kickboxer, there’s also Pastor Ovando, who’s in charge of publicity, and backer Alex Paradis-Coderre. Recently added to the team is Mike Moffa, a former amateur national champion and currently one of the top pro trainers in Canada.

“I don’t want it to be a business-type relationship with the guys who come to the gym,” says Sly. “I want them to feel comfortable here, like they belong.”

As to why the boxing scene in Quebec has become so vital of late, Sly notes a number of factors: the careers of fan favourites, Quebec-based boxers Eric Lucas and Arturo Gatti; the shrewd work of Yvon Michel (without question the most influential promoter and manager in Quebec); and the debut, in recent years, of several exciting Quebec prospects—Jean Pascal, Antonin Decarie and Sebastien Demers. But the spark that lit all of this dry tinder? The season-long National Hockey League lockout.

“Yeah, that was the turning point,” says Sly. “All of a sudden there’s no Montreal Canadiens hockey, and people were looking for something exciting to watch. Now there’s more boxing shows here than almost anywhere. But this isn’t something that happened overnight. There was already a strong foundation.”

Indeed, the history of boxing in Quebec is filled with memorable fights. One of the greatest, the famous battle between Yvon Durelle and the legendary Archie Moore, took place at the Montreal Forum back in 1958. Moore had to survive four knockdowns before coming back to stop New Brunswick’s Durelle in the eleventh round. Almost thirty years later, Montreal’s Matthew Hilton won a world title by decision over Buster Drayton in the same arena.

But without question, the biggest match to take place in Quebec—if not Canada—was the Brawl in Montreal, June 20, 1980, when Roberto Duran scored the greatest victory of his career, a fifteen-round decision over Sugar Ray Leonard at Olympic Stadium. (It was also a tragic night: boxer Cleveland Denny, on the undercard, died after his knockout loss.) More than 40,000 fans came out to see the two best combatants in the game engage in a tough, gruelling struggle that cemented Duran’s status as a fighter for the ages.

What made the fight so compelling was the contrasting styles of the two men. Duran was a boxer renowned for his savagery. He spoke openly about wanting to kill his opponents and wasn’t above using dirty tactics in the ring. Leonard, having won an Olympic gold medal in Montreal four years before, was the clean-cut media darling. His bright smile could be seen on television endorsing everything from new cars to soda pop. Throughout North America there was no doubt which of the two fighters was the sentimental favourite, not to mention the one expected to win.

So it was something of a surprise to the millions of sports fans watching on closed-circuit television when the massive crowd rejected the American superstar in favour of the man with the black eyes and the stone hands. The plan to return Leonard to the site of his Olympic victory backfired completely. Caring nothing about which fighter was supposedly more popular, French Canadians adopted Duran as their favourite and cheered loud and long when the decision in his favour was announced.

And so it is today. The gurus of Madison Avenue may have decided boxing is yesterday’s news, but people here aren’t paying much attention. Quebecers, as has often been observed, make up their own minds.

“People in Quebec have always loved boxing,” Sly tells me. “And not just in Montreal. This isn’t some fad springing up in the big city. All you have to do is check out some of the smaller towns, like St. Hyacinthe, and you’ll see that boxing is popular all over the place.”

SEBASTIEN “DOUBLE TROUBLE” DEMERS is a likeable guy. There’s a swagger in his movements, a cockiness in his easy smile, but he is never anything other than polite and agreeable.  Like most athletes, he is particular about his appearance. He keeps his hair extremely short, his goatee precisely trimmed, and on the bicep of his right arm is a de rigueur tattoo, comprised of Chinese characters. Also like most athletes, his dreams have been built on the need to be something other than ordinary.  For Demers, that dream began on summer nights in the streets of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec.

“My friends and me, we always had a backpack with boxing gloves in it, and at night we would get the gloves out and fight. And the only rule we had was when you’re bleeding, we stop. But then the one who’s bleeding never wants to stop, so it becomes a war.”

Demers’ enthusiasm for combat led him at sixteen to the St. Hyacinthe Boxing Club. Under the tutelage of trainer Marc Seyer, he began to learn how to hook off the jab and throw a proper right cross. A successful amateur career followed: 137 fights, numerous Golden Glove titles and the opportunity to represent Canada at international tournaments in such countries as Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Russia. He narrowly missed competing in the 2004 Athens Olympics after dropping a close decision.

When I first spoke to him back in early 2007, Demers was in the final stages of training for a bout taking place four days later at the Montreal Casino. He was set to defend his Canadian championship against Jason Naugler, a Halifax fighter with a pro record of 15-6-1 and a reputation for being a very tough customer.

When asked about his style in the ring, Demers replied with all the robust confidence of a twenty-seven-year-old undefeated professional fighter on the cusp of notoriety. “For a middleweight, I’m very fast. And I’m smart. If I want, I can modify my strategy during the fight. I’m a complete boxer. I’ve got a good punch too, but I’m not trying for a knockout. I prefer to defeat a guy mentally, technically.”

As he spoke, Demers was wrapping his hands in preparation for a light workout session. He began his workout by skipping rope for ten minutes, loosening himself up, before climbing into the ring and shadow-boxing for a few rounds. He possesses a slender body with a long, lean torso, an appearance he emphasizes by wearing his trunks lower than most fighters, hip-hop style. Demers has fought most of his nineteen professional fights at the 154-pound weight class. That would make him a junior middleweight, while Naugler is bigger, having even fought once as a light heavyweight. The likely plan would be for Demers to keep his distance, to “stick and move,” using his jab and some nimble footwork to stay out of harm’s way. But watching him work, Demers exhibits little interest in using constant movement to keep one step ahead of a heavier, slower opponent.

Eventually Seyer entered the ring, his hands enclosed in a pair of punch mitts, each roughly the size of a small dinner plate. He held the mitts up as targets, moving them about like a man on a runway signalling to an advancing aircraft as Demers hit them with hooks and crosses. Seyer called for specific combinations of punches as he moved the punch mitts. Demers moved forward, forcing Seyer to give ground as he pummeled his trainer’s hands with sharp blows. With each round, the pace became more intense.

They worked through five rounds like this, the last one at a torrid pace involving flurries of machine-gun punches, ten or twelve at a time. The ring session over, Seyer, seemingly satisfied, began putting equipment away as Demers moved to the striking bag to work on his timing before going three rounds on the heavy bag, practicing his power shots, left hooks and right hands thrown with bad intentions.

While Demers cooled down and unwound his hand wraps, talk turned to who might be his next opponent once he defeats Naugler. His last fight, a victory over Montreal-based Ian MacKillop, earned him recognition from the International Boxing Federation (IBF). Demer’s promoter, Yvon Michel, was currently negotiating a possible bout with the IBF world champion, Arthur Abrams of Germany. A fight with Abrams would be a huge opportunity, both financially and in terms of exposure. Knowing this, was it more difficult to stay focused on Naugler?

“No way. You have to take things one fight at a time. But this means there’s more pressure on me for this fight. I have to win before I can get my title shot. But I can handle pressure. I like it.”

I asked Demers about the Chinese characters on his arm. It’s the name of his best friend, he told me, who killed himself six years ago. He was the toughest, bravest person Demers knew, willing to fight anyone on the street back when Demers and his friends carried boxing gloves around and battled each other for fun. Overwhelmed by personal issues and family difficulties, Demers’ friend hanged himself.

“When this happened, I had just started boxing and I was training every day, fighting in tournaments every weekend, travelling, so I lost contact with my friends. And then he committed suicide. I was shocked.  And I realized you have to keep in contact with people. Even if it’s just a phone call, it’s important. So afterwards all of my friends, we decided together to do this, the tattoo, as a sign of respect.”

He looked at the blue markings in his skin. “I think of him every day,” he said. “He gives me strength.”

IN THE MONTREAL CASINO’S CABARET ROOM, local fighters are introduced with loud music, a light show and dry ice. Opponents enter the ring to significantly less fanfare. It’s a familiar routine, and while this isn’t Las Vegas, the customary trappings are here: the deep-voiced master of ceremonies, the television cameras, the coterie of minor celebrities to be introduced before the main event and the obligatory round-card girls in skimpy outfits and high heels.

At the weigh-in the day before, in the opulent Baccarat Room with its chandeliers and huge windows overlooking the St. Lawrence River, the mood had been far less lively. While the boxers took turns stepping onto the scale and having their weights announced to the small crowd of managers, handlers and press people, everyone was wondering what Yvon Michel was going to do about Jason Naugler, who had arrived some fifteen pounds overweight and complaining to the attending physician of chest pains. With Naugler subsequently sent to the local hospital, Demers, Michel, Seyer and others could be seen huddled in a corner of the room, deliberating their options. The silver-haired promoter later assured everyone that Demers would definitely fight. If not Naugler, then someone else. (“Do we have a main event?” one of the local scribes was heard to ask. “Apparently,” replied a second, “but do we have a fight?”)

Montreal boxer Ian MacKillop,who Demers had defeated twice before, both times by decision, agreed on twenty-four hours’ notice to face Demers again. But this downgrade in the stiffness of Demers’ opposition meant his fight was no longer the main attraction of the afternoon. The climax of the show would instead be the heavyweight match pitting Quebec prospect David Cadieux against American trail horse Ross “The Boss” Puritty.

The other bouts on the card were showcase matches featuring four promising prospects in Yvon Michel’s stable. All four were undefeated while the combined records of their opponents carried no fewer than fifty-two losses. The bouts went as expected with the exception of Andrew Kooner’s match with Roman Campos, a rugged Mexican who decked Kooner and inflicted a nasty cut in a very close fight. Some nervous minutes passed before the decision in Kooner’s favour was announced.

Manolis Plaitis’ fight with Jesus Ortega was noteworthy in that it was the first time I had witnessed firsthand the physiological effects of a hard left hook to the liver. Plaitis, a muscular young welterweight whose looks remind one of Rocky Marciano, sprang out of his corner and attacked Ortega like some kind of mechanical device gone haywire: once he started throwing left hooks, he couldn’t stop. The hook to the liver (the same punch that ended Oscar De La Hoya’s 2004 fight with Bernard Hopkins and left him pounding the canvas in agony) is an incapacitating blow, and the punch had barely landed when Ortega emitted a harsh cry and crumpled to the canvas. But the sudden nature of the knockout obscured the fact that Plaitis had absorbed an unhealthy number of clean blows for such a short bout and had actually been briefly staggered.

In fact, a lack of defensive movement and tactics emerged as a theme that afternoon. Rarely slipping a punch or throwing a feint, the young prospects fought as if their necks were bolted to their shoulders and their spines were rigid bands of steel, their chins unmoving targets for a well-timed counter punch. Even raven-haired Askri, who put on perhaps the most technically impressive performance of the day, took some sharp shots late in his eight-round match that he should have avoided.

When I later asked Sly about this, he put it down to a lack of motivation. “They know the guys they’re going in against aren’t that good. They’ve seen their records. They don’t respect the opponent so they’re not inspired to give their best effort.”

Demers and MacKillop also performed with a reckless disregard for self-protection. The official story was that MacKillop happened to be currently in training so he was prepared to compete with Demers, even on such short notice. And yet at the bell he stormed out of his corner, kamikaze-like, as if his only chance of winning was to ambush Demers and somehow force an early stoppage. For a moment Demers seemed surprised at MacKillop’s choice of tactics. Then, to the delight of the crowd, he accepted MacKillop’s terms, and the fighters engaged in a spirited toe-to-toe exchange. While both men landed heavy blows, Demers’ punches were clearly sharper. A hard right connected with audible authority, forcing MacKillop to give ground. Demers began to establish his left jab, jolting back MacKillop’s head several times, and by the end of the round the outcome of the match was already evident. Demers had landed the more effective punches and seized control of the fight. MacKillop’s gamble had failed.

Any suspicions about MacKillop’s conditioning were confirmed midway through the second. His breathing was laboured, his face crimson, his guard dropping. His punches now lacked leverage—weak, looping efforts that left him wide open. Demers took full advantage, his jab landing flush. Just before the bell, Demers connected with a right lead/left hook/right cross combination, staggering MacKillop. Returning to his corner after only two rounds, MacKillop’s face, an alarming shade of red, bore the inward, desultory look of a fighter who realizes he cannot win, who knows he is about to be publicly humbled.

Coming out for the third round, Demers threw fewer jabs, instead driving more hooks through MacKillop’s guard, bullying him around the ring with the force of his attack. The crowd, sensing that the end was near, became more vocal, urging Demers on. Trapping his opponent on the ropes, Demers landed a series of hard left hooks before abruptly changing tactics to throw right-hand leads. The blows landed cleanly, snapping MacKillop’s head back. Then, at the moment the referee finally stepped between the fighters, MacKillop collapsed, dropping to one knee. The referee waved his arms and the crowd exulted.

Never mind that Demers had just defeated a fighter he had already beaten twice before. Never mind that he remains untested, with all his fights in Canada against less than rugged opposition. Never mind that the fight took place in a small venue with no international media present. The local hero is a winner and everyone indulges in the moment. Yvon Michel leapt onto the ring apron and held Sebastien’s arm aloft for the cameras while the music played and the round-card girls posed and preened. Later we all watched on the huge screen above us as Demers was interviewed by a beautiful young woman for the television audience.

MONTREAL’S LOCAL HERO went on to challenge Abrams in Germany in May 2007 and was handed the first defeat of his professional career.But to date, it has been his only loss, as he bounced back with wins in September and December. By the end of 2007, his professional record stood at 22-1.

“I’m very positive about the future,” says Sly. “Within the next couple of years, there should be more Montreal boxers competing for world titles. Boxing is now part of the scene here, and I think it’s going to stay that way for a long time to come.”

At the Underdog Boxing Gym, Decarie and Askri are preparing for their last round of sparring. There are different schools of thought about sparring. Ali liked to periodically engage in fifteen-round marathons in the gym, likely so he could have something else to boast about. Duran occasionally rendered his sparring partners helpless and in need of medical aid. On the other hand, some fighters refrain from any sparring at all until the final weeks of training. The problem with sparring, of course, is the high risk of injury: a cut, a broken bone, a concussion, all of it damaging and any of it necessitating the costly postponement of a fight.

But here, between Askri and Decarie, something has happened. They are fighting at close quarters, all defensive tactics cast aside, and exchanging combinations of vicious punches, blows delivered with whiplike velocity and force.  The small crowd of prospects and professionals quiets down, many of them pausing from their warm-ups and calisthenics, and one can hear the grunts and the strange snapping sound of punches landing. Neither man appears to have an advantage. Askri, with his quicker hands, throws a greater volume of blows, but Decarie is landing strong, heavy body shots. They fight with alarming intensity, careening from one side of the ring to the other, taking turns moving forward behind their punches, neither man willing to clinch or slow their pace.

No one in the gym says a word but suddenly all other activity has stopped. At this moment, everyone is watching. 

[Note: This piece received an Honourable Mention in the "Sports & Recreation" category of the National Magazine Awards.]

Read the rest of Issue 27, Spring 2008.