Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bus Driver Pascal Stuck in a Ditch

Even though last month's fight between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson was supposed to establish the best light heavyweight in the world, a simple fact remains: Jean Pascal controls the division. How can that be? After all, Pascal lost a decision to Hopkins in June and he no longer has a title belt.

However, boxing's axis does not spin according to hardware or titles. The championship belt is not the alpha and the omega of the contemporary boxing landscape; each division has numerous "champions" and some sanctioning bodies have multiple belt holders in a single weight class. What drives decision making in boxing in 2011 is the same factor that drove it 1981 or 1951: money. In many cases, the titleholder in the division can generate the most lucrative bouts, but as Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather have demonstrated, belts are not needed to deliver the biggest fights. Similarly, for light heavyweights who want top dollar, all roads lead to Quebec, Canada for an appointment with Mr. Pascal.

Pascal is the only fighter in the division that can sell out a major arena. Yes, Nathan Cleverly has built a nice, little following in the U.K. and Hopkins can still sell tickets if matched correctly, but they aren't in Pascal's league. They have TV contracts that can generate decent money (Hopkins used to make much more years ago), but they can't begin to approach Pascal's live gate. The other titleholders in the division – Tavoris Cloud, Dawson (depending on the ruling of the California State Athletic Commission) and Beibut Shumenov – couldn’t even sell out a VFW hall, let alone an arena. When Pascal's name appears on a marquee at the Bell Centre in Montreal or the Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec City, real money follows. He has built a rabid and loyal following in Canada and has helped to transform Quebec into one of the premier boxing destinations in North America. Yet, he has remained idle throughout the second half of 2011.

His promoter, Yvon Michel, tried to make a fight with Cloud, but couldn't come to terms with Don King (Cloud's promoter). Cloud moved on and will now meet Zsolt Erdei on New Year's Eve. The other titlists (with the exception of Shumenov) all fought in October.  Even if Pascal faced a warm body next month, he could earn in the high six-figures. But somehow, the boxer who generates the most money at light heavyweight will fight only once in 2011. This hasn't been Michel's best moment.

Pascal has an exciting TV style, but he has certain flaws that the ageless Hopkins was able to exploit all too easily. Now would have been a perfect time for Pascal to have a stay-busy fight and work on his craft. Instead, he remains out in the proverbial French Canadian cold, with his primary combat consisting of hostilities on Twitter.

The boxer has numerous areas for improvement. He fights only selectively during rounds. His conditioning is not yet world class and he takes rounds off. Pascal seems uncomfortable fighting at close range or backing up. He can also get outpointed by boxers with high work rates.

By staying active, Pascal can refine his technique and make the adjustments needed not just to win another title, but to keep it. He does deserve credit for wanting to fight the best; too many boxers today are more than willing to take a path of lesser resistance as they make their way to the top. However, Michel and Pascal are squandering their competitive advantage. With Pascal's following, he should be fighting three or four times a year, regardless of the caliber of the opponent. This activity level would provide him with the best opportunity to make the necessary improvements needed to become the elite in the division.

Pascal's French Canadian rival, Lucian Bute, has fashioned a lucrative career of fighting "B+" opponents in front of his adoring Quebecois crowd. To date, Bute hasn't faced the tough opposition that Pascal has, but Bute has cemented his status as one of the best draws in North America and has secured a generous TV contract from Showtime. Pascal has faced top-ten opponents such as Carl Froch, Adrian Diaconu, Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson. If he were to fight a less competitive opponent, his would still retain his following. Because of his exciting fights and the quality of his opposition, he has built up a generous amount of goodwill with his fans. If Bute can continue to pack houses facing mediocre opposition, than Pascal should be able to follow suit against a "B+" opponent or two.

Michel, unlike his promotional rival in Canada, Interbox, hasn't fully grasped the concept of keeping his star fighter active. Whenever he turns the lights on in Quebec with Pascal, he'll make money. Top Rank, the best promotional company for developing fighters in North America, has mastered the art of keeping its attractions busy. For some reason, Michel has idled his fighter like he's some undercapitalized promoter who is afraid to make a bout without the security of American TV money, but he doesn't need American premium cable to make a profit with Pascal. Michel's actions have been tough to explain and he certainly hasn't conducted himself like he has an asset that can fill 16,000-seat arenas.

Essentially, Michel has two options. He can either go after big game more aggressively or he can keep his fighter busy until the right opportunity manifests. He can throw big money at Cleverly or Shumenov, which would, in all likelihood be their most lucrative opportunities. If that strategy doesn't work, he should set up a fight with a member of the light heavyweight "B" squad. He should contact Chris Henry, Yusaf Mack or Tony Bellew and make them a six-figure offer. Those fights will get made very quickly.

Pascal has only fought three times over the last two calendar years. At 29, he is in his prime earning years and he has already generated the largest events in the division over the last 24 months. The faster that Michel realizes his leverage and favorable negotiating position in the division, the better his fighter will become. Pascal has enough raw ability to be a force in the division for many years, but without a higher activity rate, he most likely won't reach his full potential. Pascal should be staying busy. Why he isn't is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, his career is stuck in neutral, and for no discernible reason.

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