Montreal has a rich boxing history and has hosted its share of major fights.
The first Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran welterweight championship fight, in 1980, was staged there. So, too, were both classic light heavyweight title fights between the great Archie Moore and Canadian Yvon Durelle, in 1958 and 1959.
Bernard Hopkins fought there, and so did Arturo Gatti in a homecoming fight. Montreal's Davey Hilton Jr. and Quebec's Stephane Ouellet waged a memorable trilogy there.
But for all of its world title matches and major fights, the biggest one of all very well could be the showdown between Montreal's most popular active fighters, former light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal and former super middleweight titlist Lucian Bute, foreigners who adopted Montreal as their home and became beloved fan favorites.
"This is the fight that everyone [in Montreal] has been waiting for, even the casual fan," said Jean Bedard of InterBox, Bute's promoter.
Finally, after years of talking about an eventual meeting -- and then an eight-month postponement after the fight was signed -- they will square off in a 12-round light heavyweight contest on Saturday night (HBO, 10:15 ET/PT) at the Bell Centre, the home arena for both fighters, which figures to rock with a sold-out crowd of about 20,000.
"This is the championship of Canada," an animated Pascal said. "This is the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao of Canada. This is the Super Bowl of boxing in Canada. This is the biggest fight for boxing in Canada. We are two former world champions. We are well-known in the States and in Canada. People have looked forward to this fight for a long time. So this is the biggest fight in boxing history in Canada."
Said Yvon Michel, Pascal's promoter: "This fight will mark a historic moment for boxing in Canada. Emotions will be high and the memories will be engraved in the collective memory forever."
In the co-feature, promising heavyweight Mike Perez (20-0, 12 KOs), a 28-year-old Cuban defector living in Ireland, will fight 2004 Cameroon Olympian Carlos Takam (29-1, 23 KOs), 33, of France in a scheduled 10-rounder. The bout will be Perez's first since Nov. 2, when the violent slugfest left opponent Magomed Abdusalamov with a severe brain injury.
Pascal-Bute was originally scheduled to take place last May, but Bute, a southpaw, suffered a bad left hand injury three weeks before the fight. It was postponed and eventually rescheduled for Saturday, a delay necessary because Bute needed surgery and lengthy rehabilitation.
"It disappointed me when it was postponed. The fight was so close," said Pascal, who was born in Haiti, moved to Montreal with his family when he was 4 and represented Canada in the 2004 Olympics. "I was really training hard. But right now I am happy the fight is here. We're going to have the best of Lucian Bute, with no injuries, and you will have the best of me. That will make it a great show for the crowd. I am ready to unleash my fury on Lucian Bute."
The left hand is fine now, Bute said.
"Even after the surgery, I stayed near the gym all the time, even if I wasn't hitting with my left hand," Bute said. "I was jumping rope, working out, using the right hand. Now, my hand is perfect."
Pascal and Bute sparred together in 2004, when Bute was already a pro and agreed to help Pascal, who needed the work in preparation for the Olympics. That's how far back they go, so the fight has been a long time coming -- although it probably would have been even more meaningful a couple of years ago when Pascal reigned supreme at 175 pounds and Bute was rolling along as an undefeated 168-pound titleholder.
But both suffered setbacks in the meantime. Pascal (28-2-1, 17 KOs), 31, was outpointed and lost his title to Hopkins in their 2011 rematch at the Bell Centre, after which Pascal has had just two fights, including a fifth-round knockout of George Blades in September, a fight he took so he wouldn't be rusty going into the Bute fight.
Bute (31-1, 24 KOs), 33, defended his title nine times, but then got wiped out in 2012 in a fifth-round knockout and lost his belt in England to Carl Froch, who also owns a decision win against Pascal to win vacant super middleweight title in 2008. Bute has fought only once since, a much-tougher-than-expected decision against Denis Grachev in November 2012. Still, Montreal's boxing fans remain pumped for the fight, which has been the talk of the city.
"Both of us have been champions and we were driving down our own paths, so naturally a rivalry just built up slowly," said Bute, who is from Romania but moved to Montreal as an adult and became a Canadian citizen in 2012. "So this is the fight people have been asking for for so long. I think this is the major reason why it's such a big attraction in Montreal."
Although happy that the fight is finally at hand, Pascal blamed Bute for it taking so long to get made. He said he wanted it a few years ago but that Bute and Bedard showed no interest.
"I wanted this when we were both champions and it's not my fault it didn't happen," said Pascal, whose pal Roy Jones Jr. worked with him in camp and will be in his corner assisting trainer Marc Ramsay (and, therefore, won't be calling the fight on HBO as he normally would). "I chased Bute. But Bute doesn't care about his fans. If he cared about his fans, this fight would have happened two or three years ago. The only reason it took so long is now he has no options for fights to make good money. If he fights me, he makes millions. If he fights somebody else, he makes a few hundred thousand. He picked this fight only to make money, not because he cares about what his fans want.
"I'm different. It's simple: If I face the best and make the biggest fights, I'll make money no matter what. It's about being the best."
Bute said he wasn't avoiding Pascal. He said he wasn't ready to move up to light heavyweight a few years ago and still had a super middleweight title he wanted to defend.
"I was going down my path and I was a champion at 168. I wanted to do things at 168," Bute said. "Unfortunately, I couldn't accomplish as much as I wanted. But I knew I would fight Pascal one day. It was just a matter of time. One of my desires is to get a rematch with Froch. But I can't get that right now. But if I beat Pascal, I know I can beat Carl Froch."
Besides national bragging rights, the winner will also position himself for another gigantic all-Montreal showdown with light heavyweight champ Adonis Stevenson, another native of Haiti who adopted Montreal as his hometown and has a growing following after winning the title last year.
But that is in the future. Now there is a battle about to begin with two popular fighters from the same city with entirely different personalities.
Pascal is brash and outspoken. Bute is quiet and reserved. They do not refer to each other as friends, although they've known each other for years. In fact, Pascal seems to have some disdain for Bute.
"He likes to look like nice and pretend to be a humble guy, but he's not that and I want to expose that," Pascal said. "I'm the people's champ. What you see is what you get. We are in this position because of our fans, but he won't take pictures or sign autographs or do the interviews. Bute has a fake image. He is full of himself. I got nothing against Bute. He's been polite, but he's a fake. The aura and personality is fake. I'm just telling the truth to the people."
Bute politely disputed Pascal's characterization.
"We respect each other, but I cannot say we are friends," Bute said. "What you see of me, this is all I am. I'm a quiet man and I take care of my business. We have different personalities. His is not mine. But as you see, I am a true person inside and outside the ring and am nice to people."
Inside the ring, neither will be nice as Montreal braces for what it hopes will be a memorable fight.
As Stephan Larouche, Bute's trainer, said, "For once, I think, on one day boxing will be bigger than hockey."