Boxing program's sad state of affairs

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

Former world middleweight champion Bernard (The Executioner) Hopkins will be going to Quebec City on Dec. 18 to challenge Montreal's Jean Pascal for the WBC world light-heavyweight title, but he might want to stop in Montreal and do a few routines at the Just for Laughs Festival.

Hopkins, one of the all-time great middleweights, broke up the crowd at a downtown Toronto news conference numerous times on Tuesday, displaying a wit almost as sharp as his right hook.

His adversary, the Haitian-born Pascal, wasn't quite as engaging, partly because his command of English isn't great.

But what Pascal lacked in mirthfulness, he made up in sincerity, at least early in the proceedings, when he looked towards a group of former Canadian national team fighters -- his former teammates -- and thanked them for providing the inspiration he needed as a young fighter to become the WBC champion.

"I knew if those guys could make it, so could I," said Pascal, who is favoured to defend his title against the 45-year-old Hopkins on Dec. 18 at the Colisee Pepsi in Quebec City.

Sadly, if Pascal, 27, was a young Canadian amateur today looking for inspiration, he'd probably end up becoming a plumber.

Tuesday's media conference was a reunion of sorts for the once powerful Canadian national team. All present had won medals at either Olympic, Commonwealth or Pan- American Games, and many went on to great things as professionals, including Pascal, IBF world junior featherweight champion Steve Molitor and world ranked cruiserweight Troy Ross.

But the reunion also brought home just how far the national boxing program has crashed, as recently demonstrated at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India. Canada used to rule the Commonwealth Games in boxing. In New Delhi, boxers from the Great White North came home with zero medals, a performance of scandalous proportions--but a performance not entirely surprising. Canada qualified just a single fighter for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

From the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics through to the 1996 Atlanta Games, the Canadian boxing team could always be counted on to win at least one medal. Indeed, the Canadian team, underfunded and under appreciated, was feared by teams the world over -- as 1992 Olympic lightweight champion Oscar De La Hoya concurred Tuesday.

"Absolutely," he said. "Every time we'd face Canada, whether it was a dual meet or in an international tournament, Canada was always strong."

De La Hoya, whose Golden Boy Promotions is staging the Pascal-Hopkins bout along with Montreal's Groupe Yvon Michel, said that when he was on the U.S. team, he and his teammates were wary of fighting Canadians.

"Our coaches would always tell us that we had to be in great shape and we had to take this very seriously. A fight against a Canadian was always very, very difficult for me," said De La Hoya.

De La Hoya took part in a 1989 dual meeting between Canada and the U.S. in Biloxi, Miss., and while he won his match against Gerry Figliomeni of Schreiber, Ont., the Canadian team more than held it's own.

"That was a great Canadian team. I remember Arturo Gatti was on that team," De La Hoya said of the now-deceased former super featherweight world champion from Montreal.

Today, the Canadian team would have a difficult time winning a dual meet against Upper Mongolia.

Drastic funding cuts have left the program in dire straits.

"It's very, very sad," said Michel, who was the head coach of the 1996

Canadian Olympic team. "I know there are great amateur fighters in Canada. The talent pool is huge. We just have to turn the program around."

Two members of the Canadian team -- Colin Fish and Steve Rolls -- were dumped from 2010 Commonwealth Games team because they weren't able to attend the national al training camp and both are now considered turning pro.

Winnipeg lawyer Ryan Savage is on the Boxing Canada board of directors and a former national team boxer. He said cutbacks have decimated the program, but added there are other problems they are trying to deal with.

"I think we've lost a lot of (young boxers) to mixed martial arts," Savage said. "Recently we passed a bylaw to allow people who were in kick boxing or MMA to compete in (amateur) boxing. It used to be if people fought in kick boxing or MMA, they basically had to beg for forgiveness to come back."

For Pascal, a gold medal at the 2002 Commonwealth Games helped launch his pro career. Today, with the national program seemingly in shambles, many young fighters, such as Rolls, just want to bail and turn pro.

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