Friday December 17th, 2010

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec -- La Cage Aux Sports gives off an air of familiarity, an near perfect Dave & Busters-meets-T.G.I. Friday's sports bar blend. It is replete with the requisite flat-screen TV's and memorabilia, with American music pumped through speakers that are propped up all over the warehouse-sized building.

Hockey is what brings patrons in. Canadiens hockey, to be specific. Waitresses and waiters work the room decked out in fiery red Montreal T-shirts and conversations at tables begin and end based on what's happening sur la glace. A Canadiens goal leads to an eruption of cheers followed by loud chant of Aller! Aller! Aller! that is so in synch you wondered if it was practiced beforehand. A goal by the other side, well, that leads to some different chants altogether.

On Saturday night, La Cage Aux Sports will be one of the hottest spots in Canada's largest province. Table reservations have been booked for a week and hundreds more customers are expected to pile in around the bar. Why? Not for the Canadiens. They are off. No, on Saturday night the eyes of Quebec will shift to another sport, one they have begun to call their own.


Yes, boxing. Understand, there isn't a rich history of the sport -- iron-chinned ex-heavyweight contender George Chuvalo, who stood toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, probably ranks as the nation's best -- but over the past few years boxing has started to develop roots all over the Canadian countryside. It began with Lucian Bute, the Romanian import who now calls Montreal home. Bute's first professional fight was at the Bell Center in Montreal, a third-round knockout of Robert Muhammad in front of the sparsest of crowds. His most recent fight was there, too. Only in that one he was defending his IBF super middleweight title against Jesse Brinkley in front of 12,000 people.

Recently Bute has had some company in the Canadian boxing spotlight. Like Bute, Jean Pascal was born somewhere else (Haiti) but now calls Montreal home. Last year, Pascal claimed the WBC light heavyweight title with a win over Adrian Diaconu and became a household name in August, when he stunned unbeaten American Chad Dawson in an 11th-round technical decision.

On Saturday night Pascal (26-1, 16 KOs) will face his stiffest test yet when he defends his title against Bernard Hopkins (10 p.m. ET/PT, Showtime). Pascal will be the one in the ring with Hopkins but he will have an entire nation behind him. More than 16,000 will pack the Pepsi Coliseum, nearly all of them in support of their adopted son.

"Boxing in Canada is really big," Pascal said. "Our national sport is hockey, but I think boxing has become our second national sport right now because people love boxing in Montreal and all over Canada. I think it's because we have also good boxers like me, Bute, Antonio Picardi; People are behind us and we are really glad about that."

It's not just the people. It's the government, too. The city of Quebec is an official sponsor of the fight and has used television, radio and billboards to advertise the show. By drumming up interest in the fight, city officials believe the attention will benefit tourism.

"We see it as an investment," said Quebec City mayor Regis Labeaume. "A lot of people in the U.S. don't know how beautiful Quebec City is. We have a lot to offer. We have a college football team that has some of the best tailgating in the country. Anytime you have press and cameras from Showtime around, it's good for the city."

Even though Bute and Pascal have been the big draws, Labeaume says Quebec fans would pack an arena for any significant fight.

"Put two good boxers in there," Labeaume said, "and the city will support it."

The city will get that on Saturday. At 45 and coming off a lackluster win over Roy Jones, Hopkins (51-5-1, 32 KOs) appears ripe for a beating. But those who underestimate Hopkins (see Pavlik, Kelly) have lived to regret it and those around the crafty veteran say he is as focused as he has ever been. They say Pascal's straight-ahead style suits Hopkins, who can sit back and deliver lethal counterpunch combinations.

"Bernard is a smart guy," Pascal said. "He's a smart fighter. He's a quick fighter, but the thing that people don't know is it's always doing the same style over and over. He looks different, but I found out some things that I can exploit on [Saturday]. I can't tell you what it is right now, but if you tune on [Saturday] you're going to see what is."

They will be watching. Hockey will never be bounced from the top spot in Canadian sports but for one night it will slide over just a bit.

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