By Jake Donovan
They represent – according to Boxingscene.com’s latest rankings – four of the six best light heavyweights on the planet.
At stake in the main event on Saturday will be a World light heavyweight championship rematch between defending lineal champ Jean Pascal and golden oldie Bernard Hopkins.
Whoever comes out on top will most likely be paired up with the winner of the evening’s co-feature between Chad Dawson and Adrian Diaconu.
Even if there wasn’t a lineal championship at stake, there’s no question that the last man standing in such a four-man grouping would be looked upon as the light heavyweight king.
So why is it that all four combatants enter this weekend in need of redemption?
For Pascal (26-1-1, 16KO), the jury is still out on whether or not he’s truly the best light heavyweight in the world. Such honors were bestowed upon him following his career-best performance against Chad Dawson last August, lifting the vacant lineal crown in the process.
Then came his first title defense – and a slew of question marks to follow.
Granted, he is 3-0-1 against the other three combatants on this weekend’s show, which airs live on HBO from the Bell Centre in Montreal. The venue is where he first collected alphabet hardware, scoring a decision win over Diaconu in June 2009 and then repeating the feat six months later.
It’s also where he turned heads with his decisive points win over Dawson, whose night ended with a cut over his left eye that resulted in the fight being stopped a round or so early.
Those not yet ready to fully believe in the Haitian-born, Canada-based champ point to the fact that Dawson was coming on in the later rounds, only for his rally to be cut short by the ringside physician who deemed to the wound too severe to allow the bout to continue.
Those same critics were left smiling four months later, when not even a pair of knockdowns provided a comfortable enough cushion to hang a loss on Hopkins’ career and perhaps send the old man heading to retirement.
Instead, it was the fortysomething former middleweight king who rallied back hard from the fourth round onward to bring the fight to a draw. Many agreed with Hopkins’ take that he was blatantly robbed of the right to lay claim as the oldest fighter ever to win a championship.
The onus is now on Pascal to prove that he worthy of the lofty praise he received heading into their Showtime-televised bout last December. Whatever question marks there were prior to his win over Dawson have all resurfaced in the span of one fight, along with some new ones raised.
With Pascal the one that has everything to prove, it would be fair to say that the 46-year-old Hopkins has nothing lose.
Of course, the ageless light heavyweight has never been one to handle prosperity very well. Why be content with momentum alone when you’re just a quote (or in his case, an essay) away from pissing off the world.
Such was exactly what he managed to do last week, renewing his longtime through-the-media feud with former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. Hopkins has spent years questioning the longtime NFL superstar’s heart and will to win. Recently, he decided to add “blackness” to the list, ignorantly claiming that McNabb’s suburban upbringing disallows him to hit the field with the same drive as other African-American athletes who come from the inner city.
Sometimes with Hopkins, it’s hard to tell whether he’s actually serious with some of the outlandish things he says and does, or if he’s merely trying to draw attention to himself as fight week nears.
It’s perhaps a little bit of both, although he already enters the venue as Public Enemy Number One. The fight is his second straight north of the border, with last year’s scrap marking his first time since 1993 that the future Hall-of-Famer has fought outside of the United States.
The next win he gets on foreign soil will mark his first.
Then again, the first loss he gets beyond America’s borders will also be his first.
Two separate road trips have both resulted in 12-round draws, and have also served as the only four times he’s been dropped in his 23-year career. He hit the deck twice in the opening round of his first meet with Segundo Mercado in his opponent’s native Ecuador, only to battle back hard and walk away with a draw.
Four months later, he delivered one of the more convincing beatdowns of his career, slaughtering Mercado over seven one-sided rounds in a bout that ignited the most successful alphabet title reign in middleweight history.
It won’t even take a performance on that level to once again put his name in the record books. Just a win is required no matter how it comes. But he just needs for it to come in this his third try on the road, or else he can look forward to a sea of negative press the following evening.
Very little in the way of praise came out of Dawson’s last ring performance, failing considerably short in a lethargic effort against Pascal last August.
The performance was indicative of what had become of Dawson (29-1, 17KO) in recent years – a fighter whose talent far exceeded his entertainment value and arguably his passion for fighting.
Talent alone was enough to keep him undefeated and high among the light heavyweight rankings for several years. It was also enough to be regularly showcased on Showtime before being snatched up by HBO two years ago.
The investment turned out to be yet another in the long line of expensive busts purchased by the self-proclaimed Network of Champions. Dawson turned in stinker performances in each of his rematch bouts with Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson, the latter taking place in front of a sparse hometown crowd that underlined his inability to connect with the fans.
However disinteresting his performances and those fights might’ve been, he at least walked away with the win at the end of the night. That part changed last August, when he fell into too deep of a hole to possibly climb out of and instead suffered the first – and to date, only – loss of his career.
Many contended that Dawson fought like a man with a rematch clause in his contract. However, he and his handlers wrongly assumed that he would just get a redo whenever he damn well pleased.
Instead, he sat out the rest of the year, and quite a bit of this year, while Pascal accepted the optional defense against Hopkins. He almost sat out longer, after neither HBO nor Showtime expressed enough interest to match the necessary financial demands in order for the rematch to take place.
Rather than waste even more time on the pine, the next logical step was getting in position to ensure his place in line for guaranteed next crack at the championship, which helped bring a familiar face back into the title picture.
It was Diaconu (27-2, 15KO) who reigned as alphabet titlist when Pascal took a leap of faith and decided to give light heavyweight a try after coming up short at super middleweight. The transplanted Romanian was a favorite son at the Bell Centre, having performed at the venue for approximately half of his career pro fights, including his fifth straight appearance coming this weekend.
Chances are he will still hear a raucous cheer when he steps foot into the ring against Dawson this weekend. But for the fourth straight time, he will be forced to play second fiddle to another crowd favorite.
After dropping two straight to Pascal and riding out a subsequent injury, Diaconu returned to his home away from home last October in a comeback fight against Omar Sheika. He managed to leave the ring with a win and the crowd support, only to sit back and give way to the evening’s main attraction, current undefeated super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute.
Of the four combatants appearing on HBO this weekend, Diaconu is easily the most forgotten and least respected of the bunch. Talks have already begun of how Dawson will fare against the winner of the main event, whether he will improve upon last year’s performance against Pascal, or how he will fare in a Hopkins fight for which he’s spent the past four years campaigning.
Few have even entertained the possibility of Diaconu positioning himself for a third fight with Pascal, or a career-defining fight against a legend like Hopkins.
Instead, the fight with Dawson carries the suggestion that the loser finds himself in a very tough situation, with Diaconu being assumed to land in that very position when all is said and done.
It could be argued that he would be the one with the least amount to prove this weekend. If he’s already being written off, then not even a win but just a strong showing would go a long way towards redeeming himself in the court of public opinion.
For everyone else on the show, it’s a must-win situation – and in the case of Pascal and Dawson, win and look good doing so if they want to earn the respect of their viewing audience.
Gaining such approval from the public could very well prove to be the most difficult part for everyone on this weekend’s card, even more difficult than maintaining the lofty ranking each has already earned.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to JakeNDaBox@gmail.com .