There was a time when Lucian Bute, then the only elite super middleweight not invited to participate in the Super Six World Boxing Classic, stirred up plenty of debate by piling up title defenses as the lone champion on the outside looking in.
Was he the top-10 pound-for-pound fighter that some had believed due to his glossy record and highlight-reel knockouts? Or was he simply untested and overrated?
We thought he had our answer when Bute was stopped in the fifth round by Super Six runner-up Carl Froch in May, but still, a glimmer of doubt remained.
But before Bute could test that doubt in a looming rematch, there was Saturday's meeting with unbeaten prospect Denis Grachev to attend to, where the verdict -- a unanimous decision win for Bute -- predictably left us where we started: with more questions than answers.
The Romanian-born Bute (31-1, 24 KOs), fighting in his adopted hometown of Montreal, overcame cuts and bruises to finish strong in the championship rounds and hold off the hard-charging Grachev by a slim margin (115-113, 118-110, 116-112) in an exciting fight.
What we learned was that Bute, at 32, is no longer an elite fighter (whether he ever was or not), as evidenced by the punishment he absorbed from the awkward, but raw Grachev (12-1-1, 8 KOs). Bute, a talented counter puncher, abandoned his jab and allowed Grachev to get off first for long stretches, with Bute consistently backed up into the ropes and corners.
But we also saw another side of Bute when he needed it most: the heart of a champion.
The same fighter who defended his super middleweight title nine times from 2008 to 2011 landed hard and clean counter shots in the late rounds, saving his best for last -- an inspiring 12th round where Bute emptied the tank in the center of the ring with power shots while cleverly avoiding Grachev's counter strikes.
Bute gave us both the good and bad against Grachev, a fighter who mimics Froch's own awkward style well despite being much-less refined as a boxer. Both fighters hold their left hand low, bending forward at the waist with lead left hooks from multiple angles.
When Bute used his jab against Grachev, he landed it at will, setting up his dangerous left uppercut to bank rounds. But when Bute spent too much time sitting back and waiting for the perfect window to counter instead of getting off first, he was a sitting duck to Grachev's body attack and leaping hooks.
We certainly know enough now to clearly favor Froch in a rematch with Bute --- one that still presents plenty of storylines and potential for action and drama. But we also don't know enough about what's left inside of Bute to fully count him out.
Bute may not be the elite fighter some once thought him to be, but through his heart, talent and vulnerability, he's proving to be must-see enough not to hold it against him.