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Adonis Stevenson has become the latest in a line of Quebec-based international boxing champions that stretches through the decades. He’s the most recent product of a quirky microcosm that has undergone multiple rebirths. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Adonis Stevenson has become the latest in a line of Quebec-based international boxing champions that stretches through the decades. He’s the most recent product of a quirky microcosm that has undergone multiple rebirths. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

analysis

Quebec, the heavyweight champion of Canadian boxing Add to ...

The name was given to him at birth. Thirty-five years later, it can be extended into a full-on moniker.

Adonis Stevenson, Quebec’s latest boxing deity.

In Greek mythology, Adonis was the god of beauty and desire, who died in Aphrodite’s arms and, depending on the version, was resurrected.

Not to get too overwrought with the metaphor, but given the latter day Adonis’s life story – it stretches from the streets of Port-au-Prince to the South Shore of Montreal through prison and adulthood redemption – you might say Stevenson is aptly named.

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“The god of beauty, that’s me, right?” he said with a laugh this week.

The man can afford to crack wise.

Stevenson is the new WBC light-heavyweight champion of the world, having made short work – 76 seconds – of title-holder Chad Dawson a week ago. As such, Stevenson becomes the latest in a line of Quebec-based international boxing champions that stretches through the decades. He’s the most recent product of a quirky microcosm that has undergone multiple rebirths.

American promoter Gary Shaw – a crusty, old-school sort who has been known to use the theme from Rocky as the ring tone for his phone – recently proclaimed Montreal one of a tiny, dwindling handful of boxing markets in the world that can reliably draw big crowds.

“In the U.S. we have maybe four fighters – maybe – who can bring 10,000 people into an arena. But here? It’s no problem,” he marvelled in an interview. “This is great fight country, for whatever reason. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know if it’s your weather, or the water or what.”

Why hasn’t Quebec turned its back on the sweet science like everywhere else?

“The reason boxing succeeds in Montreal is it’s tied into the sporting soul of the Québécois,” said Russ Anber, a long-time Montreal boxing trainer and frequent television commentator. “This isn’t new.”

History buttresses that argument.

Newspaper accounts suggest prize fighting was a sporting staple in Montreal as early as the 1820s. In the late 19th century, boxers like Gus Lambert and Côme Leclerc were household names, despite the best efforts of civic leaders to ban their sport (“crude amusement,” one of them sniffed to a newspaper called Le Canadien).

According to an article by sports historian Donald Guay for sportetsociete.com, a website that focuses on Quebec’s sporting history, Lambert’s fame grew only when he starting training legendary strongman Louis Cyr (back in the day, boxing, wrestling and feats of strength went hand in hand).

Another famous wrestler and pugilist from the era, George Kennedy, later bought a fledgling hockey team called Club de hockey Canadien.

Academics have speculated that a fighting culture comes naturally to a large, mostly working-class city like Montreal, which has gone through a couple of centuries of income inequality and social tension. But if Quebec boxing fans once cared about homegrown fighters above all others – and there have been plenty from Fernand Marcotte in the 1970s and Gaëtan Hart and Mario Cusson in the 1980s – that has changed.

Rarely do promoters resort to pitting an anglophone boxer against a francophone to make money any more, although the trilogy of fights between Dave Hilton Jr. and Stéphane Ouellet in the late 1990s generated monstrous gates.

The string of champions continued through the Hilton brothers (Matthew and Dave), Otis Grant, Eric Lucas, Hall of Famer Arturo Gatti, Leonard Dorin and Joachim Alcine, who in 2007 became the first major world title-holder to emerge from Montreal’s large Haitian community.

“Alcine did something no one else had. Not only was he black, he was a technical boxer. He never should have been able to sell tickets, but he did,” said Anber, who trained the Jamaican-born Grant in the late 1980s and recalls that “he never fought a local Quebec guy, it didn’t happen then.”

Alcine was embraced by a broader audience, likewise for former light-heavyweight champ Jean Pascal, another boxer with Haitian roots.

Stevenson? Not so much, at least not yet.

Boxing is riddled with athletes who have checkered pasts, – ageless light-heavyweight Bernard Hopkins, a sure-fire hall of famer, was once sentenced to a 19-year prison term for assorted felonies – but even by the sport’s forgiving standards, Stevenson’s story is problematic.

In his late teens, he fell in with a street gang and became involved in a prostitution ring. He was later sentenced to four years in jail.

Stevenson has kept on the straight path ever since. He’s teetotal now, and in a long-term relationship. He has two young daughters, one of whom was old enough to recognize highlights of her dad bounding maniacally around the ring in victory.

“Listen, I was 19 when that happened,” Stevenson said. “Now I’m 35, I’m mature, I’m a man, I have a family now. I guess I’m a living example that you should never give up.”

A late bloomer, Stevenson plans to leverage his new earning power and fame, and hopes to fight twice more this year. Perhaps his status as a champion will make him a bigger draw.

But the fight everyone in Montreal is clamouring to see involves a pair of former champions: Jean Pascal and Lucian Bute. They were supposed to tangle in May, but a hand injury suffered by Bute scotched those plans. They will now meet in the fall. It’s a given the card will be a sell-out.

Promoter Yvon Michel, who represents Stevenson and Pascal, believes the boxing market in Quebec is vibrant, but that doesn’t mean his job is easy.

“It’s tough in Montreal,” Michel said. “People here will support champions, winners, but the event has to be prestigious. Our Fast and Furious series [a circuit of lesser-lights events where Stevenson made his name] is helping our guys progress, but it doesn’t provide anything close to the financial resources we need to develop the talent here. We’re always starting from scratch. There’s only two boxers here who are known by people beyond the boxing nuts: Lucian Bute and Jean Pascal. And even with those guys . . .”

According to Michel, the Stevenson/Dawson matchup drew a modest 6,336 paying fans, a turnout made all the more disappointing by the fact Cuban star Yuriorkis Gamboa was in the co-feature. It won’t go down as a resounding financial success, but Michel said that’s the price of keeping the ball rolling. In a sense, he gambled a win by Stevenson would open other doors – and provide the leverage to jam them open.

“We’re investing for the medium term,” he said.

But when excitement for a fight does take hold, fans turn up. Pascal’s first title bout with Hopkins, in Quebec City, sold 16,000 tickets in a couple of hours. The rematch, which Pascal lost, attracted nearly 18,000 in Montreal.

Bute has reliably drawn that many to the Bell Centre in Montreal (the building remains the epicentre of boxing in the province, although there are also regular cards at smaller venues like the Lac Leamy Casino in Gatineau).

Michel said the boxing industry as we know it today wouldn’t be around if Eric Lucas hadn’t won a surprise victory over British fighter Glenn Catley in 2001 to claim the WBC super-middleweight crown. The next year, Leonard Dorin won the WBA lightweight title, setting the scene for two other Romanian-born Montreal fighters, Adrian Diaconu and Bute, who would both go on to hold titles.

The legacy, though fragile, endures.

Not that anyone in the rest of Canada appears to have noticed. None of the major national television networks seem interested in bidding to broadcast major cards in Montreal (HBO and Showtime have been more than happy to step into the breach).

“That is mind boggling,” Anber said. “There’s more interest in Quebec fighters in the U.S. than there is in Canada. It’s insane.”

Some of that doubtless has to do with dollars and rival sports like mixed martial arts. Quebec is not immune; Georges St-Pierre is more famous than any boxer. Perhaps it’s also due to the collapsing popularity of high-level amateur boxing across the country.

Maybe that’s the story: Quebec boxing constitutes a self-contained trend rooted in culture, circumstance and recent history.

Anber reckons a healthy share of the credit should go to a new generation of promoters, led by Michel, who have elevated the game in terms of business savvy.

Michel engineered Lucas’s success, which, like that of Grant and Gatti (who mostly fought out of New Jersey), inspired an entire generation of boxers. When Stevenson switched from kick boxing to regular boxing at 17, he trained in the same gym where Gatti had learned his craft.

In the intervening years, several boxers who call Quebec home have stepped to the fore, and a new wave is building with the likes of David Lemieux, Antonin Décarie, Dierry Jean, Kevin Bizier, Mikael Zewski and Russian émigré Artur Beterbiev.

But for the moment, the biggest hopes – financial and otherwise – are vested in a man whose nom de ring is Superman. Given Adonis Stevenson’s name, life and accomplishments, the handle doesn’t seem that absurd a redundancy.

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