Canada's thriving fight tradition

Montreal's Stevenson, fighting in Quebec City, is at epicenter of Canadian boxing

Updated: November 27, 2013, 3:33 PM ET
By Nigel Collins | ESPN.com

I wondered what all the noise was about, so I got out of bed, tiptoed down the hall and peeked into the living room. My father and three friends were drinking beer and watching television, hooting and hollering at what was taking place on the small black-and-white screen.

They were watching a boxing match.

[+] EnlargeMoore, Durelle
AP PhotoWhen light heavyweight champ Archie Moore escaped a 1958 challenge from Yvon Durelle in Montreal with a win, the fight left quite an impression on a future fight scribe.

My father saw me lurking in the doorway and invited me to join the party. I didn't get any beer, but I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime and watch the fight. And what a mesmerizing sight it was that unfolded before my 12-year-old eyes.

The fight was the celebrated first bout between light heavyweight champion Archie Moore and Canadian challenger Yvon Durelle, in which Moore survived four knockdowns before rallying back to stop "The Fighting Fisherman" in the 11th round. One couldn't ask for a more mind-boggling introduction to the sweet science.

The fight took place in Montreal, more than 450 miles away from our apartment in Pennsylvania, but it was what I saw in the living room on the night of Dec. 10, 1958 that turned me into a lifelong boxing fan and ultimately led to my life's work.

The boxing world will again focus on Canada this Saturday when local muscleman Adonis Stevenson defends the light heavyweight championship against Englishman Tony Bellew. The site will be in Quebec City instead of Montreal. Together, the two cities, which are located about 175 miles apart, make up the epicenter of Canadian boxing and one of the sport's enduring bastions of stability.

Although technically illegal at the time, boxing had already taken root in Quebec by the 1870s, and soon became a significant part of the province's sporting culture. By the second decade of the 20th century, the Montreal/Quebec City scene had grown to a point that it became a regular destination for prominent boxers from around the world: Jack Johnson, Joe Walcott, Harry Greb, Kid Chocolate, Beau Jack, Kid Gavilan, Willie Pep, Emile Griffith and Bernard Hopkins are among the notable non-Canadians who have fought there.

And we can't forget the classic first encounter between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, in 1980, when 46,317 fans at Montreal's Olympic Stadium watched Duran bully his way to a close decision over Leonard in a marvelous fight.

Compared to Quebec, the rest of Canadian boxing has had a spotty history at best. The Maritime Provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) were once a boxing hotbed, but that was a long time ago. Toronto has had its moments, though not nearly as many as you would expect from the nation's most populous city. The Pacific Northwest and the prairie provinces never came close to rivaling the East, but at least they were once viable boxing territory.

Quebec province, however, has withstood the test of time and emerged as the undisputed champion of Canadian boxing. Without it, the sport in the Great White North would be on life support, if not already dead and buried.

Yvon Michel, the promoter of Stevenson-Bellew, thinks the fact that Quebec is the country's only French-speaking province has a lot to do with its unique position in Canadian boxing.

[+] EnlargeBernard Hopkins, Jean Pascal
Rogerio Barbosa/AFP/Getty ImagesWhen Bernard Hopkins took Jean Pascal's light heavyweight belt in 2011, he also robbed Canada of its only titleholder at the time.

"The French-speaking people are a bit like the Mexicans," Michel said. "They are very passionate and like combat sports. Also, people in Quebec like to support winners and champions. We have produced world champions on a regular basis, which has made it a major league sport here. It is considered trendy to attend a boxing event.

"But it is still fragile. There was no world champion here after Jean Pascal lost to Bernard Hopkins. With no champion, it was more difficult to hold a boxing event. But when Stevenson knocked out Chad Dawson to win the title, boxing became popular again."

There was a time, however, when local rivalries drove the sport to new heights of popularity, especially when an Anglophone was matched with a Francophone.

"When I was starting out in the late 1970s, there was a promoter named Regis Levesque," said Russ Anber, a Canadian trainer who does double duty as broadcaster and host of "In This Corner" on The Sports Network.

"Regis was old-school and came from the days when you had to sell tickets to make money. Levesque did all sorts of crazy things to get publicity, and created a situation where upward of 20,000 fans would show up for a fight between two local guys. It got to a point that being the champion of Quebec was almost as important as being champion of the world!"

Levesque, a larger-than-life purveyor of boxing bunkum, promoted many hometown heroes, including Montreal heavyweight Bob Cleroux, who won two out of three national title fights with George Chuvalo. He also worked with Donato Paduano, Joey Durelle, Jean-Claude LeClaire and Fernand Marcotte -- ticket sellers and Canadian champs, one and all.

[+] EnlargeHilton Brothers
AP Photo/Marty LederhandlerThe fighting Hilton brothers, despite their troubles and transgressions, helped lift Canada's boxing scene in the 1980s and '90s.

Montreal's star-crossed Hilton brothers -- Davey, Matthew, Alex and Stewart -- all fought professionally, with varying degrees of success. Despite a debauched lifestyle and a series of runs-in with the law, Davey and Matthew, with the help of promoter Henri Spitzer, were major box-office stars throughout much of the 1980s and '90s.

Customers liked their bad-boy image and fan-friendly styles, and they turned out in droves to see them fight. But even though Matthew held a super middleweight title for a short while and Davey snagged a middleweight belt in the twilight of his career, the Fighting Hiltons will be remembered more for their trespasses and tragedies than their considerable boxing prowess.

Like their fighting father, Dave Sr., alcohol was the catalyst for their downfall and undoubtedly fueled many of their crimes and misdemeanors. Davey, Matthew and Alex have been incarcerated for offenses ranging from drunk driving and assault to robbery and making death threats. All of that, however, pales in comparison to Davey's conviction for sexually abusing his two daughters, a crime for which he served approximately five years in prison.

Stewart, the youngest of the fighting brothers, turned pro in 1985, won his first four pro bouts, only to be killed in a traffic accident in 1986.

But not even the Hilton family flameout could dampen the province's passion for boxing, and Eric Lucas, who lived in Magog, about 80 miles east of Montreal, became their unlikely hero in the late 1990s. After two failed attempts to win a major title, he was considered little more than a solid journeyman. But Interbox, his promotional entity, obtained Lucas a title shot, and he won a vacant super middleweight title in 2001. He tallied three successful defenses and kept the home fires burning until he lost the title to Markus Beyer in Germany via split decision.

Today, Quebec's three biggest attractions are fighters who were born outside of Canada. Stevenson and Pascal are natives of Haiti, and Lucian Bute is from Romania. Nonetheless, the fans in Montreal and Quebec City have embraced them as their own.

"I don't think you would find anybody here who thinks of Jean Pascal or Adonis Stevenson as anything but Canadian," Anber said. "Their immigration status came when they were infants. They didn't even know what boxing was when they came. They got their boxing education here and came up through the Canadian amateur system.

"The only exception to the rule is Bute. He came here as an adult, and the fans fell in love with him. It's actually somewhat of an anomaly because it has never happened before. Bute was the first fighter considered an outsider that the people really identified with and supported."

Bute was undefeated and the box-office king of Quebec boxing before Carl Froch demolished him in May 2012. He has had one fight since then, a 12-round decision over 13-fight novice Denis Grachev, and he's now scheduled to meet local rival Pascal on Jan. 18 at The Bell Center, home of the NHL's Montreal Canadians. It's a showdown fans have been anticipating for a long time. According to Michel, 17,000 of the 21,000 tickets already have been sold.

Stevenson has yet to reach a point where he can attract a crowd of that size, but Michel is expecting a crowd of around 9,000 to attend his fight with Bellew at the Colisee de Quebec.

"Stevenson's arrival as champion was kind of sudden and it caught the boxing public a bit off guard," Anber said. "He stepped in against Chad Dawson on four weeks' notice and becomes champion. Now, with each victory, he gains popularity."

[+] EnlargeAdonis Stevenson
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz After Tavoris Cloud felt Adonis Stevenson's power in his September challenge for Stevenson's title, the tone of the fight changed quickly.

The one-punch knockout of Dawson confirmed the 36-year-old Stevenson's lethal power, while the skills he displayed en route to a seventh-round TKO of Tavoris Cloud proved he was more than just a knockout artist.

"The first power punch he lands against an opponent changes everything," Michel said. "In the first round [of Stevenson's maiden defense], Tavoris Cloud was very aggressive, and then Adonis landed a left between his high guard, and that was it. After that, Cloud fought to survive."

Although Michel was reluctant to look past the Bellew fight, he knows he won't have any problem finding attractive challengers for Stevenson in the future. The winner of Saturday's co-feature between Sergey Kovalev and Ismayl Sillakh would be one option. A fight with the winner of Bute-Pascal would be another, but Michel figures that rivalry might require a rematch, leaving both fighters unavailable for some time.

It's a shame Archie Moore isn't around to test Stevenson and perhaps add another amazing chapter to the storied history of Quebec boxing. Even so, Michel thinks he knows a perfect substitute: Bernard Hopkins.

"Bernard is a celebrity here," Michel said, "and Adonis believes he will be the one to end [Hopkins'] career."

Most likely, when Durelle knocked down Moore three times in the first round of their first encounter, that's exactly what he thought.

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