August 2006: The Kid Fights for the Title

The kid fights for the title
Steve Molitor, a.k.a. The Canadian Kid, fights Friday in Johannesburg for the IBF super bantamweight title. The 26-year-old Sarnia native carries the deferred dreams of his trainer, promoter and brother, who’s in prison for murder.

27 August 2006 – Toronto Star

Morgan Campbell

When the buzzer sounds, super bantamweight contender Steve Molitor moves a few steps toward his sparring partner and another round closer to a world title bout.

He rips into Ibrahim Kamal with four crisp body shots. Before you can finish this sentence he lands five more – loud ones that echo off the dingy white walls of the Mississauga rec centre where he’s preparing for the biggest fight of his life.

In Molitor’s corner, trainer Chris Johnson shouts his approval. Johnson had his own world title dreams once, and five years ago he nearly died trying to realize them.

A few feet away from Johnson, Molitor’s promoter, Allan Tremblay, leans on the ring’s apron and watches his protege work. Tremblay, too, once thought he was on the verge of world championship. Then a bigger promoter snatched his star fighter.

And three hours east of the gym Molitor’s brother, Jeremy, sits in a cell at Millhaven penitentiary, where he landed before his own pro career could begin, and where a life sentence will keep him locked up for at least the next decade.

As Molitor, unbeaten in 22 pro bouts, keeps blasting Kamal’s body he’s aware of what’s at stake in his next fight.

And not just for himself.

On Sept. 1 in Johannesburg he’ll face undefeated South African southpaw Gabula Vabaza for the International Boxing Federation’s vacant 122-pound title. But at the same time he’ll be fighting to achieve the deferred dreams of his trainer, his promoter and his brother, all while hoping a win will rejuvenate Ontario’s moribund pro boxing industry.

Can Molitor carry all that weight on his narrow shoulders and still punch his way to a world title?

He says it’s his only option.

“This fight is everything,” says Molitor, 26. “It’s not just my career. It’s my whole life. I definitely feel the pressure, but it’s a positive. If something is supposed to bring me down I turn it around and make it fuel the fire.”

*     *     *     *

Six years ago Steve Molitor moved to Toronto with a hockey bag full of clothes and a point to prove.

Known back home as the Bruise Brothers, Molitor and his older brother Jeremy rose from Sarnia’s gyms to the top of Canada’s amateur boxing ranks in the late 1990s, but both narrowly missed the cut for the 2000 Olympics. While Jeremy stayed in Sarnia and stopped boxing, Steve moved into a tiny room upstairs from the Atlas Boxing Club in North York, determined to reach the top of the pro game.

At times, he says, his desire was all that sustained him. The room he rented had barely enough space for his bed and his clothes, and sometimes he had to steal soap from the gym’s kitchen so he could wash his own dishes.

“If I found a toonie on the gym floor I’d grab it and go, ‘Yeah, I get to have a treat later on,'” he says.

He can think of at least five other boxers, including his older brother, who tried living at the gym only to quit after a few weeks.

In 2002 he connected with Tremblay and manager James Jardine, who sponsored him so he could train full time without starving or taking a day job, and helped him find an apartment in Mississauga. With his sponsorship plus the purses from his bouts Molitor doesn’t need to collect stray coins for bus fare anymore. He even drives a small silver Mercedes now.

But building the financial future he wants depends on winning in South Africa.

“If I can get out of boxing a nice, big-ass house, a couple nice vehicles and a nice bank account, even if I have to have a part-time job the rest of my life, it’s something I’m willing to do,” he says. “This title has so much riding on it. If I win this fight, doors will open for me that can make that a reality real quick.”

Molitor’s not the only one hoping to profit long term from a win this week.

Tremblay says he has already scheduled Molitor’s first title defence for Nov. 21 at Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, should Molitor win the belt. It would be the first fight for a major belt in Ontario since 1984, and Tremblay thinks it will make the GTA – where Muhammad Ali once battled George Chuvalo – a title fight destination again.

“This guy has the talent, if he keeps his dedication up, to fight multiple times and build a franchise in a sport that’s been dormant,” Tremblay says. “I don’t think he sees that as pressure. He sees it as a great opportunity.”

As Molitor and Kamal move around the ring, the wooden planks beneath the grimy white canvas rattle with every step. Younger fighters interrupt their warmups to watch, leaning on the apron, next to blood stains that have turned brown with age.

At 21, Kamal is perhaps Canada’s best amateur boxer, a world-ranked lightweight preparing for the 2008 Olympics. He makes $20 a round to emulate Vabaza who, like Kamal, is left-handed and bigger than the 5-foot-7 Molitor.

Late in round six he throws a huge left cross. Molitor ducks it. The miss leaves Kamal open for a counterattack, but Molitor doesn’t pounce.

Standing on the apron, Johnson whacks the top rope in disgust.

“Don’t miss the opportunity,” he shouts. “You might only get one f-ing chance.”

Johnson knows better than most people how quickly a fighter’s biggest opportunity can vanish. It can happen in minutes.

Even seconds.

A bronze medallist in the 1992 Olympics, Johnson had won 26 of his first 29 pro bouts and was a contender for a light heavyweight title when, on Aug. 3, 2001, he fought Orlando’s Antonio Tarver, another highly rated prospect. The winner could count on a fight with then champion Roy Jones.

“At the end of the first round I remember hitting him with a perfect body shot and thinking, ‘Yes, you’ve got him,'” Johnson says. “I must have been hurt from then, because I don’t remember any point of the fight after that.”

Johnson learned later that he was winning the fight on points when, in the 10th round, Tarver knocked him cold. He left the ring on a stretcher and spent the next week in a Yakima, Wash., hospital, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Johnson was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, bleeding on the brain caused by head trauma. While Tarver went on to knock out Jones in 2004, Johnson’s career as a fighter had ended a week before his 30th birthday.

But his career as a trainer began later that year, and he admits a part of him lives vicariously through fighters like Molitor, who is the first fighter Johnson has guided to a title shot.

“There’s still that hunger in me to become a world champion,” Johnson says, “but it’s different because the hunger’s not about me now. It’s about the individual that I’m building from the ground up.”

The title fight is a first for Tremblay, too, and the promoter’s still a little bitter about it.

Tremblay, a grey-haired former marketing director with Canadian Airlines, started Orion Sports Management in 2000, three years into a handshake agreement he had to promote Baby Joe Mesi, a Buffalo-based heavyweight who was rising when Lennox Lewis ruled the division.

By the summer of 2001 Tremblay had brought Mesi to the edge of the top 10, but by the time Mesi knocked out Bert Cooper other promoters had noticed the next Great White Hope. Shortly after the Cooper win, Mesi abandoned his informal arrangement with Tremblay and signed a promotional contract with Sugar Ray Leonard.

“I’ll never make that mistake again,” Tremblay says now.

Shortly after that fight Tremblay was diagnosed with prostate cancer and abandoned what had been a successful boxing operation, staging and televising bouts from both sides of the border at Niagara Falls. Two years later he had beaten the disease and re-entered the fight game, but hadn’t had another world-class fighter to resurrect his business.

Until Molitor.

“This is the opportunity to rejuvenate that strategy,” says Tremblay, “and we can use (Molitor) as the standard-bearer.”

For a long time, though, it wasn’t clear whether Molitor was even the best fighter in his family. Jeremy, a year older and a weight class up from Steve, enjoyed just as much amateur success, winning a Commonwealth Games title in 1998. But he didn’t immediately follow Steve to the pros after the two lost their qualifying matches for the 2000 Olympics.

And while Steve’s hunger for redemption as a pro buoyed him through two tough years living above the Atlas Boxing Club, Jeremy stayed in Sarnia.

In January 2002 Jeremy decided to resurrect his career, so he moved to the Atlas club too, taking a room next to Steve’s.

In a way, nothing had changed between the Molitor brothers. But Steve noticed the hunger that once drove both of them was now absent in Jeremy. He was out of shape, Molitor says, and didn’t train hard anymore. After two weeks at Atlas, he returned to Sarnia and a new set of friends who Steve says preferred bars to boxing gyms.

“They weren’t guys he hung around when he was serious about life,” Molitor says. “He went from being a hardcore, dedicated athlete to hanging out with a bunch of losers, the exact opposite of what he was before.”

Five months after moving back to Sarnia, Jeremy confronted his ex-girlfriend, a 21-year-old waitress named Jessica Nethery, in a parking garage. He stabbed her 58 times. She bled to death in her red Pontiac Grand Am.

In December 2004, Jeremy Molitor was convicted of second-degree murder, and last May was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 14 years. With credit for time already served he can apply for parole 10 years from now.

In the months after the murder Molitor didn’t discuss Jeremy’s case with the media. He was eager, he says, to prove he was his own man, despite his brother’s trouble.

“When I open the paper I don’t want the headline to be about my brother, or to take away from what I’m doing in the sport of boxing,” he says. “Obviously it’s a part of my life and it’s always going to come up. I don’t mind answering questions, but I don’t want it to be the story.”

The two men exchange letters almost weekly and Steve visits Millhaven twice a month. Jeremy’s conviction didn’t weaken the bond between the brothers, and Steve says thinking of Jeremy strengthens his resolve in the ring.

“I was a little kid who admired my older brother and he’s the closest person in my life,” he says. “He is where he is, and I feed off his pain. It’s pushing me to train harder. The weight’s on my shoulders to finish what he started.”

By the eighth round of the 10-round sparring session, Molitor is making clear the difference between a top amateur and a world-class pro.

“Stevie’s getting better each session,” said Kamal, who has sparred with Molitor twice a week for the last month. “He comes after you and he can box as well. He’s sparring with (16-ounce gloves). When he puts on the eights against another guy his own size, he’s going to feel it. He’s going to win it for sure.”

It won’t be easy.

Nicknamed Slashing Tiger, Vabaza is undefeated in 27 pro bouts and has never fought outside South Africa. Even though the fight will have judges from Canada and the U.S. as well as South Africa, Molitor realizes he’s not likely to win a decision in Vabaza’s hometown.

It doesn’t bother him, though. He’s used to long odds.

“I’ve been boxing since I was 9 years old. It’s the only thing I know or care about,” he says. “I’ve never been given anything in this life. It’s going to be an uphill battle going into his backyard, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. The best comes out of Steve Molitor when my back’s to the wall.”

Copyright ©2006 Toronto Star

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