Sunday, March 31, 2013

The First Time: Boxing promoter Terry Lane's trip to Montreal for Bute-Brinkley

Terry Lane is absolutely one of my better friends in boxing. He, along with his fiance Tiffany and his younger brother Tommy, comprise the promotional company Let's Get It On Promotions, based out of Reno, Nev. 

The second fight I ever covered as a boxing writer back in February 2008 was one of their Reno shows headlined by Jesse Brinkley against Otis Griffin. Brinkley was the Lanes' fighter while Griffin was based out of Sacramento, the region in which I lived in. I had interviewed Griffin prior to the fight for as one of my first articles for them. (Later on, I would co-host a radio show with Otis for a year, Fight Fan Nation Radio).

Brinkley wore Griffin down and stopped him in the 11th round. I had traveled to the fight with a good friend of mine and we met my older brother, Mario, in Reno. My brother had been covering boxing for a little more than a year longer than I had for, so he introduced me to people and helped me along. The Lanes were some of the first people I met in boxing, and from the beginning, they treated me with respect and not like some no-name writer. As the years have gone on, they've become some of my better friends in the sport and I miss covering their shows in Reno, which have been reduced in number since Brinkley stepped away from the ring in 2011. Mark my words, they're some of the brightest young guys in the sport and some of the handful of people in boxing you can't find anyone who will say a negative word about them.

They were able to guide Brinkley to a world title opportunity against Lucian Bute. It all came to where Brinkley, as an underdog in his hometown, defeated Curtis Stevens in an ESPN2 Friday Night Fights headliner in early 2010. To this day, that is one of the best atmosphered fights I've ever covered.

I've begun a boxing column called "The First Time" for that asks people in the sport about their various boxing firsts, with a different topic comprising each column. For this first edition, the topic was the first time you traveled abroad for a fight. I asked Terry Lane to contribute his memories from going to Montreal to challenge Bute with Brinkley, and he gave me an unbelievably well-written story that I excerpted in the RingTV story here. This is the full length that Terry initially sent me, and it is a highly-recommended read as it puts you in the shoes of a up-and-coming boxing promoter getting their first taste of the highest level of the sport. It also gives you an idea of what kind of people the Lanes are and why I consider them some of the best people in the sport--their passion for it. Without further ado, here is Terry Lane's recollection of that trip to Montreal in 2010.

THE FIRST TIME: In October 2010, Jesse Brinkley went to Montreal for a David-Goliath challenge against Lucian Bute. Brinkley's career was resurrected by Reno, Nev.-based promotional company Let's Get It On Promotions, who maneuvered Brinkley brilliantly into position for the title challenge. This is the story of the trip to Montreal through the eyes of Terry Lane, one half of the promotional company.

On Oct. 15, 2010, my career as a boxing promoter had reached a new level— I was promoting my first world title fight. As the lights went down at the Bell Center of Montreal, Canada, time stood still.

My fighter, Jesse Brinkley, was about to square off against one of the best fighters in the world: the champion, Lucian Bute.

This was Brinkley’s shot. He had earned it inside of the ring. As his promoters – and young ones at that – my brother Tommy and I had earned it outside. Regardless of the fight’s outcome, this was a life defining moment. Kids in their twenties don’t exactly fit the archetype of world class boxing promoters, especially when their marquee fighter is a blue-collar contender in his thirties.

Yet, there we were.

My father is a former fighter-turned-referee; my brother and I grew up around boxing. From a very early age, we both knew that we wanted to be involved in the business.

Our father, Mills Lane, eventually left his post as an official and, along with his partner Tony Holden, had a successful run as a promoter before suffering a debilitating stroke in 2002.

At the time, Tommy and I were too young to take the reigns of Let’s Get It On Promotions.

But in 2006, the year I received my bachelor’s degree, we made the decision to give promoting prizefights a shot.

2007 marked our first show. We matched super middleweight Jesse Brinkley against the tough and experienced Dallas Vargas in the main event.

Brinkley, a seasoned veteran from the small town of Yerington, Nev. (about 90 miles south of Reno), had been a semi-finalist on NBC’s boxing reality show The Contender just a few years earlier. His big punch and even bigger personality made him an instant fan favorite; by the time our inaugural card rolled around, however, plenty of questions about Brinkley’s abilities in the ring had surfaced. He was a solid, experienced boxer-puncher, but had recently come off of a string of bad showings in the ring and a long lay-off after getting knocked out by Joey Spina in 2006.

Basically, to the boxing world, Brinkley was dead.

In our promotional debut, our only intention was to put on a great show anchored by a great headliner.

As it would turn out, this night not only resurrected the career of a great fighter but firmly set my team and me on a journey—the business of pro boxing.

Brinkley looked great in the Vargas fight; in fact, he knocked him out in the ninth. The fight was a revealing one: we learned that Brinkley had no plans to retire from boxing, nor did he want to just be a club-show journeyman. We got to know him personally and started talks about a long-term relationship. His trainer, Peter Manfredo, thought Jesse looked great in the gym and was only improving. To boot, Brinkley was a great draw in Reno and had that extra something: presence, personality, call it whatever you want. Either way, we knew we had something; within weeks, we signed Jesse Brinkley. It just made sense. At that point, even we couldn’t have predicted where our partnership would take all of us.

Brinkley headlined several shows, amassing plenty of material for his highlight reel: knocking out world ranked light heavyweight Otis Griffin; handing tough journeyman Jason Naugler his first taste of the canvas; shutting out local rival Joey Gilbert. Jesse’s stock was steady rising. With an impressive string of wins (most by knockout), his name started making cameos on the world rankings conferred by a handful of sanctioning bodies, and before we knew it, he became a staple in world title discussions. Who woulda thunk?!

We were in a great spot, but we still needed a fight, the fight—the one that would catapult Jesse to a world title shot. The opportunity practically fell into our lap when we got a call inquiring if Jesse would be interested in fighting Curtis Stevens, a hard slugger from Brooklyn, on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights for the IBF #2 super-middleweight ranking.

Jesse Brinkley (right) gutted out a hard-fought decision over Curtis Stevens (left)
with an eye swollen shut from the opening round.
Clearly, we were getting the call for Jesse to be the B side in this fight as Stevens, a higher profile fighter, was supposed to beat the shit out of Brinkley, and easily.

We knew differently. We signed the fight immediately.

Due to the consistent ticket numbers we had drawn with other Brinkley fights, we managed to secure Reno as the hosting venue. In his hometown, in front of a sell-out crowd, Jesse was still an underdog. But on Jan. 29, 2010, Jesse Brinkley pummeled Curtis Stevens over twelve brutal rounds—we were that much closer to facing the IBF champion, Lucian Bute.

After months of navigating through the murky political waters of pro boxing, we finally signed to fight Lucian Bute on Oct.15th, 2010 in Montreal. Three years prior, the boxing public would have laughed off any prediction divining Jesse Brinkley as a legitimate contender, set to fight the champion of the world; much less, guided by two twenty-somethings. We were all proud of what had been accomplished. I have a hard time giving myself compliments, it feels uncomfortable. But this truly was a tale of overcoming great odds. I really don’t think we could’ve approached Jesse’s career any better, and he certainly took care of his part by delivering in the ring.

Lucian Bute was one of the most feared champions in boxing. He was undefeated. He was big. He was strong. He could box. And he could certainly whack as his knockout percentage indicated. Bute started making noise around the time we started working with Jesse. We were very familiar with him.

Unfortunately for Jesse, Bute was two things that posed certain problems: one, he was a southpaw; and two, he was a powerful body puncher. To say the least, Jesse, like many fighters, found it awkward to fight left-handers, and he had been hurt to the body several times throughout his career. The combination of these two aspects created Jesse’s virtual kryptonite.

But he took the fight anyway. After all, this was his shot.

We arrived in Montreal six days before the fight. What a beautiful city. The people were great, and the food was fantastic. Unfortunately, I was unable to put my two years of high school French to use. Our itineraries were full of meetings, workouts, press obligations – the works. There were posters promoting the fight everywhere.

Unlike many fighters today, Lucian Bute can draw a crowd in his hometown. Where many American promoters are out to hustle casinos (for a site fee), and high-profile fights take place in front of crowds numbering in the hundreds, Bute fills hockey arenas. He puts thousands of asses in seats, and his career has been instrumental in the burgeoning popularity of Canadian boxing. It was a big fight in a big city, and we were right in the thick of it.

Ours was a pretty large group: my fiancĂ© and her brother; Jesse’s girlfriend and her sister; plus the two Brinkley kids. What was extra special to me was that my mom came, which also meant I was required to participate in a certain amount of sightseeing. That was fine with me. When we had some time off, we were tourists. We went on a boat tour of the St. Lawrence River, we walked through Old Historic Montreal, we saw the underground city, and we ate and drank in various restaurants and pubs. What I remember most though, is walking into the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal. I am lucky enough to have traveled quite a bit, and I’ve seen my share of beautiful churches and cathedrals. This one took the cake. I am not a particularly religious person, but a place like that will have you talking to God in no time! I remember walking in and not being able to look away from the vibrant blue glass that surrounded the altar. Simply put, it is one of the most impressively beautiful places I’ve ever been.

I was so happy to be there, and happy to be there for the reason that I was there. I was filled with emotion.

One evening, Tommy and I took a cab to Casino de Montreal to play poker. As we played, the news on TV was showing a live feed of the first of the Chilean miners being rescued after being trapped underground. For months, my mind had been consumed on boxing. I needed the visual of those miners coming out of the ground and embracing their families to remind me that there are much more important things in life than prizefighting.

The odds were against Brinkley. If my memory serves me correctly, he was something like a 9-to-1 underdog.

But anyone who follows boxing knows that crazier things than a single-digit-dog upset have happened in the ring.

That’s why you fight the fights. Sometimes, great fighters take fights to fulfill contractual obligations to promoters, sanctioning bodies, or even just to stay busy and take the payday. In such circumstances, it is not uncommon for a much more naturally skilled fighter to get pummeled by a hungry underdog simply because he is “overlooking” his opponent - while the B side fighter is living and breathing what is in front of him. It happens all of the time.

As champion, Bute needed to fight a contender as mandated by the IBF. A few other things were happening in the super middleweight division at this time. First, Showtime’s own “Super Six” tournament was underway, which meant that neither Bute nor Brinkley would be able to fight any of the participants. Also, Bute and his promoter, Interbox, were in discussions for deals with the two major boxing networks, HBO and Showtime. Though many of Bute’s big fights earlier in his career were on Showtime, he subsequently struck a deal with HBO. Right as the Brinkley fight was signed, however, he was in bed with neither, but a new multi-fight deal with Showtime was in the works. To bottom line all of this, Brinkley vs. Bute would not be on HBO or Showtime. Never mind that Bute was one of boxing’s most in demand fighters, scrapping against a legitimate contender—fight fans would not see this fight on TV. Political situations like this drive fight fans crazy…. and it cost us a lot of money.

With Lucian Bute needing a “stay busy” fight to keep his title, with the Super Six tournament still going on, with Interbox leaving HBO and talking with Showtime… all of these conditions and distractions could have been a recipe for upset.

After all, Bute vs. Brinkley wasn’t exactly Tyson vs. Douglas. Again, Bute was undefeated and coming off a formidable (knockout) win streak against top contenders. Beating up a pug from Yerington, Nev. seemed merely a formality, right? That Bute and his team would overlook Jesse wasn’t out of the realm of possibility—it was, perhaps, our best shot.

Brinkley answers questions at a media workout the week of the Bute fight.
Three days before the fight, an open media workout took place in a local gym. Jesse Brinkley, the challenger, was scheduled to work out for the media and answer questions the first hour; Lucian Bute, the champion, was to do the same immediately after. Often, these open workouts overlap—the second wave team enters the gym before the first guy is done. This is exactly what happened. At this point, Jesse and Lucian had never met. Hell, for all we knew, Lucian Bute didn’t even know what Jesse Brinkley’s face looked like—at least that’s what we hoped!

As Jesse continued his workout in front of a couple dozen photographers, video cameras, and reporters, Bute and his entourage entered the gym. Everyone, including myself, instantly focused on the champion. He kept his eyes down, huddling with his team as they made their way through the crowd to a locker room in the back. After a few moments, everyone’s attention turned back to Jesse as he wrapped up. He was in the middle of the ring, winding down, doing some core and abdominal exercises and light shadow boxing. The fairly small gym was packed, loud with music and the murmur of the media as the cameras rolled. The energy suggested that a big title fight loomed…gotta love it. Tommy and I were positioned on the side of the ring opposite of the locker room that Bute and his team were occupying. The door to the room was open, and I would occasionally glance in its direction to see if anyone on Bute’s team was paying any attention to the opposition.

They don’t give a shit.” I thought to myself. “They are totally going to overlook Jesse.”

Then, a head leaned through the open doorway, surveying the ring activity. It was the champion himself. Bute’s eyes zeroed in on Jesse. Though he appeared to be lacing up some shoes before his workout, he would take short breaks from the chore to watch Jesse shadowbox. He watched intently. He wasn’t smiling or joking. There were no signs to suggest he was just there going through the motions. He also wasn’t glaring or trying to intimidate. He had the look of a consummate professional who had prepared for the task at hand. Ironically, Jesse seemed more relaxed than Lucian!

Tommy also saw what I saw. We shared a look.

Looks like he is taking this seriously.” I said. My partner nodded in agreement, his face sober.

If the open workout had left us unconvinced that Jesse would be facing a prime Lucian Bute, the next day’s official press conference did the trick. The presser offered everyone involved the first opportunity to meet face to face. I will never forget the level of professionalism and courtesy that our counterparts showed us. It had been that way all week. Looking back on it, the way we were treated by Interbox and Team Bute clearly reflected just how seriously they took this fight. Maybe why that’s why Bute was a champion.

Terry Lane takes the dais at the presser for Bute-Brinkley during fight week.
Bute sits to the right, Brinkley to the left.
The press conference took place in the lobby of a swanky hotel in downtown Montreal. I was the DD, or designated delegate, of Let’s Get It On Promotions. Again, we were playing to a full house—the space was filled with media and fans. I admit that I was a bit nervous. I considered running to the bar to order a shot of Crown Royal, a double (Hey, we were in Canada, right?), but I didn’t.

When Stephane Larouche, Bute’s trainer, was speaking at the podium, I suddenly forgot about my own nerves. He told a story about how he was on vacation that January, but on a particular Friday he made sure he was in a bar that was showing Friday Night Fights on ESPN2. He knew that two main event scrappers, Jesse Brinkley and Curtis Stevens, were potential opponents for his guy. He continued to go into detail about that fight and concluded that he was extremely impressed with Jesse’s performance. He said that he was prepared to work Lucian hard if a fight with Brinkley was ever signed.

Shit. They definitely WERE NOT overlooking Jesse Brinkley.
The official weigh-in was the next day. Jesse woke up feeling great. In fact, throughout this the entire week Jesse always seemed relaxed, fit, and ready to go. For the third day in a row, the festivities drew a slew of media and fans. I had been involved in at least twenty weigh-ins in my career to this point, but none of them possessed the energy or intensity that this one did – okay MAYBE Brinkley vs. Gilbert, haha. Both fighters made weight; the fight was on. As a post weigh-in tradition in the Brinkley camp, we had a pasta feast. I want to kick myself for not remembering the name of the place we went, it was amazing. Also as a tradition, I gave Jesse my “letter.” Prepare yourself—this is very corny. After the weigh in before Jesse’s bigger fights, I would write him a short letter. I would say things like I was proud of him and our partnership, words of inspiration, basically something to affirm to him that all of our hard work would pay off in one way or another. He and I are the only people who know about this, until now. This one had been written a full week prior. I had carefully written every word. I won’t share what I said exactly, but to paraphrase, I said that we had become more than just partners, and were now great friends, which I valued more than any of the success we’d had. I also told him that I was extremely proud of him, to cherish this moment, and that everyone, not just in boxing, dreams of getting their “shot”—and this was his.

It was fight day. I barely slept. It was also my fiancĂ©’s birthday. Tiffany has worked for Let’s Get It On Promotions since the very beginning. This fight was as special to her as it was to anyone, but I made sure to spend some time with her and to forget about the fight for a moment. In an attempt to relax our minds, Tommy, Mike (Tiffany’s brother) and I shot pool in the hotel lobby that afternoon. Or rather, we aimlessly took turns hitting the balls as we all were a mess with the mixture of excitement and nerves. The Bell Center, where the NHL team Montreal Canadians play, was a short ride from the hotel. The van that took us there was quiet. We drove into the basement of the venue and walked down a corridor that took us to Jesse’s dressing room. We stayed with him for about an hour until it was time for him to change and warm up.

There exist a few moments in one’s life that they will never forget.

Hearing the announcer announce the main event fighters in ring for my first world title fight, in front of nearly fifteen thousand Canadians is definitely one of mine. Jesse was mercilessly booed. The crown thunderously roared as Lucian was announced. It was awesome.

As a great man once said, it was time to “Get It On!” I did think about my dad that moment. He was the reason Tommy and I were involved in boxing to begin with. I wished to God he could have been there. We exchanged a look, and I knew Tommy was thinking the same thing without having to say any words. We embraced Jesse and each other before exiting the ring and taking our seats. The sound of the first bell rattled me out of my thoughts; it was time to watch a hell of a fight.

Brinkley with brothers Terry and Tommy Lane (right) moments before the
first bell would ring for his title shot against Lucian Bute.
The first round was pretty uneventful, but it was clear that Jesse was in deep. Bute was a bigger man, with a bigger reach. One complaint we always had with Jesse was that he was not campaigning at 160lbs, the middleweight limit. He used to, but had developed bad habits in between fights. Now a contender fighting ten and twelve round fights, he was in the ring twice a year, as opposed to an up and comer who was more active, and therefore, always in shape. Jesse loved good food and a good time with friends; plus, he was getting older. He would balloon between fights, often finding himself in heavyweight territory. This put him in a tough spot. Now, late in his career, super middle was the lowest weight class he could fit in sans problems. From 2008 through now, many have considered the super middleweight division to be one of the toughest in boxing. On the other hand, the middleweight division remained relatively light. If Jesse could’ve comfortably campaigned as a middleweight, there is almost no doubt in my mind that he would’ve been a beltholder.

In rounds two, three, and four, both fighters delivered plenty of action. Bute, the aggressor, landed a number of hard shots. Jesse counterpunched well, keeping the champ at bay. Round five was more or less the same until Bute landed a perfect left to Jesse’s mid-section. Jesse went down as expected. For the thousands in attendance, and the fight fans worldwide watching on the Internet, this was supposed to happen. As Jesse fell to the ground visibly pained (and he was indeed hurt), Bute turned to his audience and raised his hands as if to punctuate the fight’s end. Jesse, who has had a troubled relationship with body shots, was surely out for the count. But… he got up. I don’t know how he did, but he did. The round ended shortly after. Although the place was going crazy after seeing Bute put his opponent on the canvas, there was also a feeling of disbelief that the fight was not over.

Not only did Jesse get up after suffering a brutal body shot from one of the best boxers in the world, he was still in the fight. He rebounded and continued to get his shots in. The only maneuver that eluded Jesse was landing a clean straight right hand. Jesse has deceptive punching power. Being able to end a fight with one shot was one of the reasons we were all here. We could see him circling to his left, trying to pick his spots. He did land a few right hands, but none of them landed cleanly enough to really hurt Lucian.
The fight continued this way until the eighth round. A cut above Jesse’s left eye had opened and was clearly bothering him, affecting his vision. Towards the end of the round, another flush left, now to the head, floored Brinkley. And again, he courageously rose to his feet. The cut was bad. Jesse had taken numerous hard punches by one of the world’s best. He was hurt, but determined to continue. In the corner, we had one of the best cut-men in the world, Danny Milano, working on the eye. Even he could only temporarily slow the bleeding; any shot by Bute that halfway landed would open it up. Hurt and unable to see, Jesse got hit with a perfect left uppercut. He went down, and the fight was over.

Tommy rushed into the ring and to Jesse’s side to make sure he was okay. I was right behind him. Not only had Bute had cracked Jesse’s orbital bone, he had gifted him with several cuts and lumps on his face. But for the most part, Jesse was okay.

I walked over to congratulate Lucian. His face showed the evidence of a fight. I went in for that handshake/bro hug thing, and he reached out and pulled me in.

Congratulations, Champ.” I said.

He stepped back, his eyes wide. He looked me, still out of breath, and in English exclaimed, “He… he has heart!” while pointing to Jesse.

I know…”

Maybe it wasn’t a fairytale ending, but the experience was invaluable to me. Throughout the process, I learned so much, made many new business connections and great friends. I know one day I will be back in that situation, and when I am, I will draw on my experiences during that one autumn week in Montreal.

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