Monday, March 7, 2011

Lucian Bute's Free Ride Continues

Boxing fans correctly criticize fighters who are protected or don't fight the best within their division.  American welterweight Andre Berto and German middleweight Felix Sturm are two titleholders who have lived charmed professional lives on account of the largesse of their respective TV benefactors.  Yet how many boxing observers or fans have chastised Canadian super middleweight champion Lucian Bute for his mediocre opposition during his reign?

Bute won his title in December of 2007.  He has made six defenses and is scheduled for his seventh on March 19.  As a young fighter with knockout power and a rabid French-Canadian following, Bute has become a premium TV staple in North America.

As a champion, Librado Andrade, the one-dimensional pressure fighter, is the best boxer he has faced.   Andrade practically knocked Bute out in the 12th round of their first fight.  (Bute was saved by an obnoxiously long count in a fight he was otherwise dominating.)  After that fight, house ref Marlon Wright--Wright had previously worked six of Bute's past eight fights -- was reassigned.  Bute defeated Andrade in the rematch without any extra assistance, knocking out Andrade in spectacular fashion.  

Bute's other defenses have been against an undeserving mandatory (Jesse Brinkley), a faded champ (William Joppy), a faded prospect (Edison Miranda) and another one-dimensional pressure fighter (Fulgencio Zuniga).  Brian Magee is next on the list.  Magee, an Irish boxer and IBF darling, happens to lose whenever he steps up his competition (Carl Froch, Robin Reid and Vitali Tsypko).  Magee has been on a role recently but he is a heavy underdog against Bute.

All of this would be fine but Bute takes up valuable premium network slots.  After not being part of Showtime's Super Six tournament (whether he was formally asked or he rejected a spot in the tournament is not settled history), Bute then went to HBO.  

Late last year, Showtime announced a new three-fight deal with Bute.  This was staggering in that Showtime used to pride itself on a "Great Fights, No Rights" slogan that looked to avoid multi-fight deals.  These deals often led to uncompetitive fights featuring protected champions.  Unfortunately, this deal accomplishes exactly that.

Strategically, it makes sense for Showtime to have Bute on its network to fight the winner or other participants of the Super Six.  If Andre Ward emerges as the victor of the tournament, a fight with Bute would be sensational.  Likewise, fights with Carl Froch or Glen Johnson would be rugged, crowd-pleasing affairs.  However, the tournament continues to stretch on and Bute may have another three fights before he even gets to face the winner.  In the meantime, the public gets more fights like Bute-Magee.

What makes this situation especially disappointing is that Bute has emerged as one of the better TV fighters in the sport.  He has become an excellent finisher and has one of the best uppercuts in the sport. Bute's mix of footwork, angles, body shots and power give him the potential to become one of boxing's elite.  But this deal is nothing more than marking time.

Not all of this is Bute's fault.  No one forced Showtime to offer or accept this deal.  Bute's promoter, Interbox, negotiated a great deal.  He has three guaranteed premium cable fights and they will most likely be against limited opposition on account of the weak competition outside of the Super Six.   Perhaps Mikkel Kessler will recover from his injuries and decide to fight Bute; don't hold your breath. 

In the interim, Bute can continue to fill the Bell Centre in Montreal.  With the live gates plus the cable rights fees, that's a nice career he has going for himself.  However, beating second-tier fighters will not expand his profile or further any claims of greatness.  In fairness, even if Showtime didn't give him the three-fight deal, Bute would struggle to find acceptable challenges.  But this Showtime contract changes the incentive to find the best possible opponents.  With Bute's three-fight deal, boxing fans suffer. 

I believe Bute is a fighter who wants to face the best.  He did not have to grant Andrade a rematch.  Many fighters would have been happy to take the victory and move on to other opportunities.  That decision showed a lot of character but, throughout his title run, Bute has often embraced the path of least resistance.  The opposition during his titleholding reign has been underwhelming.
Bute is in his absolute prime; he should be facing live fighters who pose danger and risk.  Instead, Showtime enabled Bute to continue fighting substandard opponents.  Again, not a bad gig if you can get it, but also not very inspiring.   

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