Published On: Thu, Jul 12th, 2018

Holyfield’s team hits Toronto with new spin on pro boxing

When the World Boxing Council welterweight tournament semifinals arrive in Toronto on Aug. 25, they’ll bring a figure familiar to mainstream sports fans. Heavyweight legend Evander Holyfield’s company, Real Deal Promotions, is organizing the event alongside local promoter Lee Baxter.

The undercard, meanwhile, will feature fighters well known to local hardcore boxing followers — Mississauga-based welterweight Kane Heron is already slated to compete — and the two bouts headlining the card will feature changes to standard boxing rules and politics that organizers think fans will find refreshing.

Former world boxing champion Evander Holyfield is one of the heavyweights behind next month’s tournament-style card in Toronto.
Former world boxing champion Evander Holyfield is one of the heavyweights behind next month’s tournament-style card in Toronto.  (Bernard Weil / Toronto Star)

Tournament bouts will use five judges instead of the standard three, and will also employ instant replay. Winners will square off in the final later this year, with the survivor earning a shot at the WBC 147-pound title currently held by Florida’s Keith Thurman.

Organizers said the goal was to modernize a sport ripe for a rules overhaul, distilling boxing to its competitive essence. Instead of relying on well-connected promoters to manoeuvre them into paydays, tournament participants can fight their way to title shots. Holyfield told a news conference the format offered him a chance to stop a cycle familiar to boxers and fight fans.

“We don’t have to, just because somebody took advantage of us, take advantage of them,” Holyfield said.

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In one semifinal, South Africa’s Chris van Heerden takes on Chicago-based Ghanaian Fredrick Lawson, while the other features Americans Brad Solomon and Francisco Santana.

Despite online reports that the card will occur at the Mattamy Centre, Baxter says the venue hasn’t yet been finalized. Either way, the August event marks the second high-profile WBC-sanctioned event to land in Toronto this year, and signals Toronto’s continued emergence as a big-fight destination.

Last year, Ontario venues hosted 20 pro boxing cards, compared with nine each in 2015 and 2016. So far in 2018 the province has seen 10 pro boxing events, the biggest being a May 19 light-heavyweight title clash between Montreal’s Adonis Stevenson and Badou Jack, a Las Vegas-based Floyd Mayweather protégé.

That bout, broadcast on Showtime in the U.S., produced a fight-of-the-year contender, as Jack rallied from an early deficit, weathered Stevenson’s withering punching power and earned a draw. The event attracted roughly 4,700 paying customers to the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) as well as the attention of Real Deal Promotions CEO Sal Musumeci, who added Toronto to the list of cities vying to host upcoming tournament bouts.

“Although there was worldwide interest (in hosting the card), we just felt the connection here,” Musumeci said. “The energy in Toronto … you just go with the chemistry. It’s the right mix for a successful show. I saw the response to (Stevenson-Jack) and that was part of it also.”

Next month’s card also marks a turning point in a once-strained relationship between the Mexico City-based WBC and the Office of the Athletics Commissioner, which oversees pro boxing and mixed martial arts in Ontario.

In April 2016, Mexican light-heavyweight Guillermo (Vampiro) Herrera collapsed after suffering a knockout in a bout at the Royal York Hotel. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with a brain bleed, and languished in hospital without insurance because provincial regulations don’t require promoters to insure out-of-province fighters.

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The incident highlighted other aspects of Ontario’s boxing regulations that many experts regarded as outdated and dangerous, and the WBC took specific issue with the provincial rule requiring fighters to weigh in on the morning of the fight. In most jurisdictions fighters weigh in a day before their fights, and the WBC argued that Herrera’s fight-day weigh-in left him dehydrated and vulnerable to the injury he later suffered.

The WBC declared a moratorium on sanctioning title fights in Ontario, but has since found ways to impose its rules without violating provincial regulations. Stevenson and Jack weighed in for the WBC a day before their title bout, and were permitted to rehydrate before weighing in for the commission on fight day.

“Regulations are regulations, and (the commissioner) can’t break the law. He’s going to do everything he can to work within the regulations,” Baxter said. “And the WBC understands that too … I don’t think the WBC wants to turn their back on a massive market simply because regulations take time to change.”

Morgan Campbell is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MorganPCampbell

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Holyfield’s team hits Toronto with new spin on pro boxing