Bute Finds Unlikely Stardom Up North

By Nat Gottlieb

Like Ricky Hatton in England and Mikkel Kessler in Denmark, Lucian Bute is a hometown phenomenon in Montreal. He wants to spread his popularity by fighting in the U.S. and Europe. But first the unbeaten champion has unfinished business to take care of at home.

Call it love at first sight. When the Romanian-born Bute adopted Montreal as his hometown six years ago, the city adopted him in turn. The passion Montrealers show for Bute regularly sells out major arenas and translates into big numbers on television. In a country where hockey is almost a religion, Bute has single-handedly done the unthinkable: made boxing a close rival.
Part of the reason for Bute's immense popularity is the fact that he's a world champion with an unbeaten record (24-0), and his power-packed fists have produced 19 knockouts. But there is more to the 6'2" Bute than just his ability in the ring.
"When I came here I worked very hard and I realized fans appreciate hard work," said the 29-year-old. "They also like me because I'm a simple person and don't pretend to be something I'm not. I think because I took the time to learn French it has made me more popular, too."
Bute (pronounced Boo-TAY) brings his fighter's intensity out into his work in the community. "We built a foundation to help troubled kids go to a training camp, and Lucian is president of the foundation and very generous with the kids," says Bute's promoter, Jean Bedard of InterBox.
For Bute's November 28th rematch of a controversial fight with Librado Andrade in Quebec City, he has done something few boxers in the U.S. have been able to do. "We sold all 16,000 tickets in one day," Bedard says.
Bute now fights on cable, where he draws high ratings, but he has demonstrated in the past that when his bouts were on Canada's largest regular TV station, his numbers were unprecedented. "When Lucian fought for the championship against Alejandro Berrio in 2007, it was on regular TV and 1.5 million people watched," Bedard says.
Bute is equally as popular in his native Romania, where his Canadian fights draw millions of viewers as well. Although Bute fought his entire amateur career in Romania and won several international tournaments, he knew he had to relocate when he turned pro if he wanted to make serious money and become a champion. He could have chosen Germany, where boxing is tremendously popular, but from the time he started fighting at 14, he never had any doubt where he would go. "My fellow Romanian Leonard Dorin opened the door for me," Bute says. "I looked at how he came to Montreal and became a world champion. I wanted to be just like him."
Bute didn't exactly slip in the backdoor to Montreal unnoticed. "InterBox had been following Lucian's amateur career in Romania," says Bute's trainer, Stephan Larouche. "I met Lucian in Romania and was impressed at how well he fought; his size and popularity with the fans."
It was while Larouche was training champion Eric Lucas for a rematch with Marcus Beyer in 2003 that he first saw that Bute could be a successful pro. Still an amateur at the time, Bute was brought in to spar with Lucas and more than held his own. That prompted Larouche to recommend that InterBox sign him. For Bute, the sparring sessions did more than just land him a promoter.
"When I went to spar with Lucas I really didn't know what level of boxing to expect," Bute says. "He was a champion and after a few days of sparring with him I saw that I was able to compete. That helped my confidence very much. I realized if I could compete now I could be a very good pro in the future."
Larouche, one of Canada's best trainers, came on board and almost immediately sensed there was something special about Bute. "When I first started training him I knew within two weeks how good he could be," he said. "The first few fighters he faced were not as good as some of the amateurs he had fought and he won easily, so I gave him his first step up in his fourteenth fight, against Kabary Salem in 2004."
Although Salem had lost a unanimous decision to Joe Calzaghe in his previous fight, he had knocked the undefeated Welsh boxer down in the fourth round. Salem was also an experienced fighter with a very good chin, having stayed on his feet for 12 rounds against title challengers Mario Veit, Antwun Echols and Eric Harding. "I felt if we could beat Salem and also stop him, then it would be a successful move," Larouche says.
Bute rose to the occasion. He knocked out Salem for the first and only time in his career, battering him in the eighth until the referee stopped the fight just before the end of the round. After that, Larouche matched Bute up with nothing but tough competition. Six fights after Salem, Bute won a unanimous decision over Top 10 fighter Sakio Bika in a title eliminator. That victory set him up for Berrio and his first world title.
Like Hatton did when he crossed the pond to fight six times in America, Bute's promoter intends to showcase Bute beyond Canada's borders. "I have big plans for him the future," Bedard says. "But right now in his heart Lucian needs to settle the Andrade thing," referring to the controversial 12th round of their fight last year in which Bute went down with two seconds left and an apparently long count by the referee enabled him to survive.
"I talked to Lucian afterward and he said he took too many chances in that round when he was easily ahead on the scorecards," Bedard said. "He should have moved around and not engaged, but he told me that for the fans he wanted to finish spectacular, which is why he went toe-to-toe with Andrade. That was the reason he was so tired."
If Bute gets by Andrade, Bedard said he'll be ready to fight in the U.S. against a big name star like Kelly Pavlik, and would be open to going to Denmark to face fellow reigning champion Kessler. If Bute is successful on the international stage, he might achieve the status of former Canadian residents Arturo Gatti and Lennox Lewis, the London-born heavyweight who won a gold medal for Canada in the 1988 Olympics and went on to become an undisputed champion.


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