ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- For the past two-plus years, super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute has gone about his business as the outsider. While six of the top 168-pounders -- eight when you include the two replacements -- were duking it out in the Super Six World Boxing Classic, Bute was on the outside longingly looking in.
Bute was clearly one of the top fighters in the division when former Showtime boxing chief Ken Hershman, who masterminded the tournament, declined to invite him to participate. That incorrect decision was a double-whammy for Bute. Not only was he left out of a tournament he obviously belonged in, but with so many of the division's top fighters tied up in the event, Bute's field of attractive opponents became that much smaller.
So Bute made do with the opponents available. He defended his title six times during the course of the tournament, winning five bouts by knockout, as he defeated Librado Andrade (for the second time), Edison Miranda, Jesse Brinkley, Brian Magee, Jean Paul Mendy and Super Six replacement Glen Johnson, who was eliminated in the semifinals. That's a good, but hardly stellar, group.
But before the Super Six finally concluded Saturday night, with Andre Ward dominating Carl Froch to unify a pair of belts and claim the pure silver cup, Bute (30-0, 24 KOs) said he felt like it was Christmas and New Year's Eve all wrapped into one because, with the tournament finally ending, he and promoter Jean Bedard could finally be free to pursue a fight with the winner, which would obviously be the biggest fight in the division.
Bute and Bedard, who met with a handful of boxing media a few hours before the final, made it clear that their priority was the winner. The main reason Bute signed with Showtime in late 2010 was to position himself to face the winner, who is also tied to the network.
"I am ready to fight the winner," said Bute, a native of Romania based in Montreal, in his ever-improving English. "If Carl Froch wins, I'm ready to fight in Nottingham [England] to make this fight happen. And if it's Ward, I can go to Oakland."
Bute is a major draw in Montreal and Quebec City, so the money flows because his gates are so large. But he wants to fight in the United States, even if it means taking less money.
"I fought in Montreal only because I sold 15,000, 16,000 tickets and I receive no offer from any fighters to fight outside of Montreal or Quebec City," Bute said. "It's not because I don't want to fight outside [of Canada]."
Interbox's Bedard said Bute is willing to go on the road to boost his profile.
"What we want in 2012 is to have the best fights," Bedard said. "The Super Six was a great tournament, but for us, we were not invited. So we had to get the guys who were ready to come to fight Lucian. Lucian knows we draw a lot of people in Montreal or Quebec City, but he's ready to take a step back in terms of money to have the possibility to fight these guys in a neutral place like New York or Vegas, or even go to Nottingham or Oakland. We are open to all the scenarios to try to make it happen."
Sadly, it doesn't seem like Bute or boxing fans will get the fight they want. Ward showed little interest in Bute at his postfight media conference after his masterpiece against Froch. Sure, Ward earned the right to do what he wants after such a tough road in the Super Six, but it's still disappointing to hear.
"To be perfectly honest, no disrespect to Bute and his team, but they've sat back and they've fought B-level and C-level guys and he did what he was supposed to do," said Ward, failing to grasp that Bute wasn't invited to the Super Six and had no A-level opponents available to him. "He stopped them and he's gotten them out of there. But he's just been sitting back, waiting, while we've been fighting for the past two and a half years against top-level competition.
"So I don't have to go to Lucian Bute right now," Ward said. "We're going to sit back and I'm going to rest and we'll see what's next. I'm open for a Mikkel Kessler clash. I would love to get that rematch and settle that score, since he feels like it wasn't a legitimate victory [in the opening round of the tournament]. Going up to light heavyweight for the right fight -- not to campaign up there, but for the right fight -- is an option. So we've just got to sit back and see what makes sense. I think I earned the right to pick the right fight for the right price."
Rather than talk up a fight with Bute, Ward (25-0, 13 KOs) instead tried to play matchmaker, suggesting that Bute face the vanquished Froch, who has trash-talked Bute and riled up his Canadian fans over the past few years.
"That's a tremendous fight for Carl because I know Carl doesn't like Bute," Ward said. "To be perfectly honest, I think Bute has to beat somebody. I'm just gonna be frank with you: He has to beat somebody, an A-level guy, to get a shot. We'll sit back and talk as a team, but off the top of my head, he has to beat somebody. You can't sit back and just take your time while everyone else is working hard and you come in and get the same pay that everyone else gets. It don't work like that. This is a sport, but we also use our brains for business, and we'll sit down and make a solid business decision."
During the earlier session with the media, Bedard seemed to already know this was what Ward would say after the fight.
"I think it will be tougher to make a fight with Ward instead of Froch," Bedard said a few hours before the fight. "I think there is more of a story regarding Froch in Canada -- but you never know. For our fans in Canada, Froch has been talking against Lucian for the past five years, so it's a very easy fight to promote for us."
As it turns out, just a few days removed from Froch's loss there is already talk of a two-fight deal between Froch and Bute, with one bout taking place in England and one in Canada.
Still, Bute held out hope that he would get Ward.
"Priority is to fight the winner because I want to unify the titles," Bute said.
Another option brought up was for Bute to move up a few pounds and see if light heavyweight champ Bernard Hopkins would drop a few pounds to meet at a catchweight of 171 pounds. Hopkins has often mentioned Bute as a potential opponent, although given that Hopkins is with HBO and Bute with Showtime, that could be dicey. But Hopkins does have a big name in Quebec after his draw with Jean Pascal in Quebec City last December and his victory in the rematch in May in Montreal to become, at 46, the oldest fighter to win a world title.
"Hopkins still has a belt and a story in Montreal and could help me be more exposed in the United States, so that could be a good option, a good Plan B," Bute said. "We want to be recognized in the United States, and if the two guys [Ward and Froch] don't want to fight us, Hopkins would be a good option."
Showtime's priority, however, is the same as that of many boxing fans: to see Ward face Bute. New Showtime Sports chief Stephen Espinoza, who replaced Hershman when he left for a similar gig at HBO Sports that begins next month, made that very clear.
"That is the natural fight and something I'm prepared to turn the heat up and put [on] pressure to make it happen," he said.
So let's all hope for Ward-Bute, but realize that it is seemingly unlikely for the time being.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.