Lucian Bute has long been one of boxing’s most luminescent talents. The question is one of perspective: Does he shine so brightly because he’s truly that sparkling, or is the brightness magnified by how dim his company is? Saturday night on Showtime, for the first time in five fights, the popular Canadian super middleweight is facing an opponent against whom victory is not a 100 percent certainty. Even at age 42, old man Glen Johnson is far and away the best opponent of Bute’s career, and we’ll learn something this weekend about whether Bute is one of the best fighters in the sport because he looks like one, or because he actually is.
That Bute is the #3 168-pounder according to The Ring and Johnson is the #7 man in the division only tells part of the story of why the bout matters — Bute is considered one of the 10 or so best fighters in the world by a great many boxing scribes, but it’s largely based on a loose estimate of his talents, not what he’s done between the ropes. Against the top talents in the sport over Johnson’s career, a list that includes Roy Jones, Jr., Antonio Tarver, Chad Dawson, Carl Froch, Bernard Hopkins and others, only once in more than a decade has anyone gotten anything less than a rough night, that being Dawson in the rematch. Bute has sparred against Johnson over the course of approximately 100 rounds, sparring that Johnson believes he’s gotten the best of and that Bute has acknowledged was very competitive, which compounds the expected difficulty of the test.
But whatever the competitive merits and whatever kind of validation the fight offers Bute should he win, there’s also a chance we’ll see something special. Bute is capable of electric moments in the ring: His uppercut is one of the most gorgeous punches in the sport right now, and he’ll knock people out with it to the head or body, the latter an extraordinarily rare feat by anyone not named Bute. Johnson, meanwhile, with his suffocating pressure and non-stop punching, is constantly in exciting fights. That a pressure style was the one that gave Bute the most trouble in his career — against Librado Andrade in the first fight — just makes it all the more enticing. It’s a style match-up that could play out a number of ways, almost all of them explosively.
In a day when there are relatively few elite boxers for whom body punching is a primary part of their attack, Bute-Johnson could be a smorgasbord to end the famine. Bute uses the body attack to end fights, particularly with that unique uppercut. Johnson uses it to set up the end of fights — his body punches wear down the opponents he beats and makes them vulnerable to being knocked out later.
Both are pretty polished boxers overall. Bute is a rangy, stick-and-move artist with good feet, a good southpaw jab, good offensive variety and good defense, based on that movement and the ability to roll with or out of the way of punches. Johnson even now doesn’t get credit for how good he is defensively by blocking so many punches on his gloves, how well he cuts off the ring, how much contact he makes on even fleet-footed opponents.
They haven’t sparred in two years, so maybe how things went then isn’t too instructive for how it will go now. From the short clips I’ve seen, both men got their licks in very well. Considering that Bute nearly got knocked out by Andrade in their first fight, you have to think that if Johnson can connect on Bute very often, he could do some serious damage — a former light heavyweight, Johnson might be a harder puncher than Andrade, and he’s more likely to get to Bute on paper because he’s a better boxer.
On the other hand, Bute since the Andrade rematch hasn’t had the stamina problems that bedeviled him in the first fight. And Johnson has both gotten older and showed that an especially disciplined stick-and-move job can stymie him, as Dawson did in their second fight. As many ageless wonders as there are in boxing today, that Johnson is a top fighter at age 42 with his busy, busy style is amazing; a lot of older fighters conserve energy, and he expends an extraordinary amount. Unfortunately, he’s now made a short trend of fading late in fights. He did it in his last fight, against Tavoris Cloud, and he did it against Froch. Maybe it’s because he’s starting faster than he used to instead of slowly warming up, or maybe it’s because he’s finally acting his age.
As quick and powerful and Bute is, as much as the natural advantages are in his favor, the experience edge definitely goes to Johnson. Bute has beaten exactly one top-10 super middleweight, Andrade, and the rest have been on the fringe at best, people like Brian Magee or Edison Miranda. Some of that has been because Showtime’s Super Six tournament has preoccupied some of his best possible opponents; some of it is because, as the biggest ticket-seller in North America outside of perhaps only Manny Pacquiao, he can get away with fighting lesser boxers and make a lot of money doing it. Johnson is fresh out of the Super Six, and a fight was made with him after another ex-Super Sixer, Mikkel Kessler, fell through. Meanwhile, the list of top-10 175- or 168-pounders Johnson has fought goes beyond the list I began with, including Allan Green (technical knockout win), Yusaf Mack (TKO win), Clinton Woods (the pair went 1-1-1), Julio Cesar Gonzalez (unanimous decision loss), Sven Ottke (UD decision loss) and several more. Some of his losses have been disputed or close, including some of the four losses in his last eight.
It says here that Johnson gets off to a hot start and makes Bute uncomfortable for stretches. But then Bute adjusts, takes control, wins some competitive middle rounds and either pulls off a close decision win — I’ll go with that, since the fight is in Quebec, his home turf, and Johnson’s tendency to catch punches on his gloves fools judges into thinking he’s getting hit more than he is — or, if Johnson has “aged overnight,” becomes the first person to stop him since Hopkins. Even though Johnson showed some dents in his iron chin by getting wobbled by Cloud, and even though Cloud is more a “strong” puncher to Bute’s single-punch knockout puncher, I won’t believe Johnson gets knocked out until it happens. There’s also a chance that it looks a bit like Dawson-Johnson II, with Johnson getting soundly outboxed by the thoroughbred.
In the end, I bet Bute emerges with a high-contact victory that burnishes his resume a great deal, but simultaneously raises questions about whether he’s as good as we thought he was. Johnson has a way of doing that to people, even in defeat. If I’m wrong and Johnson wins, there will be an outpouring of stories about a fan favorite once more rising to the top and plenty of love for one of boxing’s good guys, not to mention a continuation of “the year of the old man” that has tailed off a little bit in 2011.