Lafreniere-St.Juste and the greatest fight I’ve ever seen live
Through five fights, the night had done little to excite boxing fans. The arena, while not quite full, had been loud at points when the hometown fighters were victorious, but it was not thunderous by any means.
Many had yet to even focus on the ring at all. Grotesque, oversized men pranced around the floor area of Montreal’s Bell Centre with their trophies, women with dresses a little too short and heels a little too high, as if they were trying to impress the hounds in the stands.
None of this is uncommon at a boxing event, especially in Canada’s greatest fight city. Fight night is a party; everyone is a little bit tipsy and a little bit loose. People care little whether or not others can see the ring and no one is taking things too seriously.
Media row is in the middle of this party-like atmosphere, and sometimes located directly behind it. Focusing on the ring is a monumental task in itself, let alone producing any content of substance. Outside of the French media, which covers the undercard with intrigue, much of the English-speaking media are only there for one reason: the rematch between Jean Pascal and Sergey Kovalev.
But before either Kovalev or Pascal could take to the ring, even before the HBO cameras started rolling, something magical happened.
If you’ve ever been in the arena when a breathtaking fight happens, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The kind of bout that even the trophies stop and admire in sheer shock for the brutality the men put themselves through.
Renan St.Juste and Francis Lafreniere accomplished the unlikely feat on 30 January.
As the first round started and Lafreniere hurried across the ring, it quickly became apparent that the fight was going to be brutal for as long as it lasted.
“I wanted to fight inside with Renan (St.Juste) because he's a big puncher,” Lafreniere said of his gameplan. “When you receive one punch, it's okay, but if he lands two, three, four big punches, he can be dangerous. That's why we wanted to stay inside.”
To his credit, Lafreniere followed the game plan brilliantly throughout the beginning of the fight. He smothered St.Juste, preventing him from landing his heavy punches.
“I was expecting him to fight exactly like he did because you know,” St. Juste told BM. “I trained to fight close. I'm not 20 years old anymore, I can't move like I used to. I trained to make a close fight. I was sure that I would be able to hurt him and to knock him out, but he took all of my punches.”
At 43, St.Juste went into the bout knowing it could be his last. He turned pro at 30 and is intelligent enough to know he’s not the same fighter he was 10 years ago. While he’s still the more mobile of the two fighters, he knew fighting inside could help him conserve energy for the later rounds.
Roughly 12 months ago, St.Juste had surgery on his retina. He thought maybe his career would be over, but when the opportunity presented itself to compete at the Bell Centre for the IBF International Middleweight Title, he couldn’t say no.
“With Francis, I only fought because there was a belt,” St.Juste said. “Before Francis, they offered me Curtis Stevens. When they came back to me with Francis, I knew people would like that fight so I accepted.”
By the end of the first round, Lafreniere’s eye was badly swollen. By the end of the second, despite landing the better shots, a cut had opened above his right eye, on the eyelid, resulting in a lot of blood and doctors taking a close examination before both the third and fourth rounds.
It was at this point that it became evident how invested in the fight fans had become. As the doctor checked the cut, a hush came over the crowd. It was the first time all night that everyone was focused on the ring. And when the doctor said that Lafreniere was cleared to continue, the crowd erupted. It was the thunderous kind of eruption that had been vacant throughout the previous bouts. We knew at this point we were watching something special.
“My eye was cut in the second round,” Lafreniere said. “I was very afraid when the doctor checked my eye before the third and fourth round. I didn't want to lose the belt over a cut. The show was good and I had a great training camp. I stopped working for six weeks. I went all-in for this fight and didn't want to lose over a cut after four rounds.”
The fight was Lefreniere’s first at the Bell Centre, the biggest stage of his career by a considerable margin. Not to mention, the fight also was the opening bout of the Canadian portion of the pay-per-view, meaning that tens of thousands across Canada, and especially Quebec, would be watching.
“I didn't think they would stop the fight,” said St. Juste. “There was a lot of blood but I could see the cut was not too big. When the doctor looked at him I could see the cut was not very important.”
And so, they continued. Inside the proverbial phone booth, the two fighters stood forehead-to-forehead, looking for little openings, trying to separate one from the other.
The exhaustion levels in the two fighters became more apparent as the fight went on. While their legs didn’t move at the same pace as we had seen in early rounds, their hands didn’t stop. By the eighth round, everyone in the building knew they were watching something special.
At that point, the entire HBO crew had abandoned the segments they were working on to watch the fight. Bernard Hopkins, Jim Lampley, Max Kellerman all were supposed to be preparing for their broadcasting duties for later in the night, but they couldn’t take their eyes off the ring.
Michael Buffer put his cue cards in his pocket and was glaring at the fight in awe, as was everyone else in the building. As the eighth round ended, seemingly after both fighters had found a second burst of energy, the entire building, including the aforementioned HBO crew, cheered wildly.
This was Canada’s Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward.
“I heard the crowd, of course,” said St.Juste . “I saw people from HBO watching. After the fight, they told us that they should have put us on HBO, they said they regretted it.”
By the mid-way point of the ninth round, it became clear that St.Juste had slowed significantly. The younger fighter in Lafreniere was taking over, starting to land much more devastating punches. With roughly 30 seconds to go, St.Juste appeared to be damaged goods, backing away from the action and on Bambi legs as he tried to survive. Like any good veteran, he knew how much time was left in the round and that it was about survival at that point.
“I wasn't hurt by punches,” St.Juste said, defiantly. “If you watch the fight again, he gave me a lot of little headbutts. This is his style of boxing, head to head. When you go head to head, heads clash. He's not a hard puncher. This is the first fight I fought like that. He never hurt me with a punch.”
Lafreniere, and most of the people who watched the bout, disagreed. “I wanted to do more to knock him out, but the bell rang,” said Lefreniere. “I didn't want to take too much of a chance. With Renan, if you receive one big punch you can sleep for the night. I was scared to be hit with the big punch, but I tried my best to knock him out before the bell rang.”
At the start of the tenth round, it was now abundantly clear that the two fighters were putting on an all-time great Montreal fight and the crowd roared. The fighters as well knew they were part of something special, as they embraced the moment.
“Honestly, for me when I go to see him and do the hug, it was about saying thank you,” Lefreniere said. “We are two fighters in the ring and if one wants to run, we don't give the fans a good fight. He was still there, doing his best. He tried and gave everything. I wanted to say thanks for giving me a good fight.”
As the fight came to an end, everyone in the building showed their respect. Fans were clapping, much of the French media were also clapping and everyone was elated to have seen such an unbelievably exhausting affair.
The decision went to Lefreniere, but both fighters were pleased with their performance.
“Yeah, I was very happy; I showed people that I can be a warrior,” St.Juste told BM. “This is the first fight that I fight like that. Usually, I move a lot more. I wanted to surprise him by standing toe-to-toe with him and hoped to hurt him early in the fight. I wasn't expecting to fight like that for 10 rounds.”
For Lafreniere, who was emotional after the bout, the win marks a high point in his young career.
“I thought he was going to quit before, but he did a good 10 rounds,” said Lafreniere. “Maybe it was because he knew it could be his last fight, or because it's two guys from Quebec and, if one loses, he hears about that all his life, but he fought very hard.”
It’s funny how boxing works. Two fighters on completely different paths, at entirely different points in their career, can meet in a ring and produce a bout that can only be described as magical.
For St.Juste, it was one last ode to the Quebec boxing community, one last bout to remember him by. He had to prove he was a warrior by giving the fans a bout they could never forget.
“At 43, I have more behind me than in front of me in the ring,” he said. “If you fight like this every time, your career is going to be ended after two or three years. It would be impossible, but the fans like that type of fight. You cannot receive those types of punches for years.”
For Lefreniere, who started his career with a 3-5-2 ledger, eight straight wins have been validation for his hard work. The bout against St.Juste is one that will make him a recognizable face in fight circles around Quebec, was a sign of things to come. Lafreniere’s performance has helped to make him a star. Now fans will want to see him fight again.
As Lefreniere and St.Juste wandered around the Bell Centre after their bout, fans swarmed them. They were thanked mercilessly for their efforts. While neither is likely to ever be recognized outside of their native Quebec, anyone who was in the building will remember the monumental labour put into their bout.
For one cold night in Montreal, they were the stars they had always dreamed of becoming.
Photo credit: Ryan Remoirz/Canadian Press.