This writing appeared on the boxing website ucnlive.com as part of a monthly column series. The published version can be seen here: http://ucnlive.com/lee-baxter-fight-town-toronto/
Lee Baxter and Fight Town Toronto
If water is indeed a key ingredient for organic growth, then April 20th could be seen as a good day for 33 year old Lee Baxter and his promotional company, Lee Baxter Promotions. Monsoon like conditions and rush hour traffic awaited as I navigated my way to the 9am weigh in for Baxter’s ‘Light Em Up’ fight card at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. While The Danforth is located amidst the urban sprawl of the city; the weigh in was held about 20 miles away at a spacious Holiday Inn adjacent to Toronto Pearson International Airport. And yes, same day weigh ins are the rule of the law in the Province of Ontario. Seeing as the merits of such a practice have been debated frequently in boxing circles in the US, increased boxing activity in the Greater Toronto Area might provide an important case study as to its costs and benefits.
The conference room arranged for the weigh in was small and humid due to the mornings tropical like conditions. All the appropriate Ontario boxing officials were in attendance as well as the eight fighters for the four scheduled bouts on the evening card. The proceedings were organized and handled professionally as the fighters were weighed in and examined by a physician. Lee Baxter navigated the room and bore the look of man mentally juggling multiple notions of attention. Running a weigh in while simultaneously resolving fighter, commission, and ring setup issues will probably do that to a person. Yet for Baxter, all the hard work is not just expected but necessary. As Baxter would later tell me, ‘The problem is (in boxing today) that a lot of people don’t want to put in work - and if you’re willing believe in what you got and put in work then (success) shouldn’t be an issue’.
Being a boxing promoter and having success in Toronto is no easy task. For years the business has been stifled by inept commission leadership and a lack of general awareness for the sport. In Baxter’s eyes this means that things need to be ‘built from the bottom up’ because that’s basically where the sport is right now. Thusly for Baxter, building from the bottom up is more of a basic necessity than a business decision. Baxter also noted that there have been some people who have been ‘doing it (promoting), and doing it wrong’. Which in his eyes means he not only has to start from scratch, but fix their mistakes as well.
The rules governing combat sports in Ontario are still very strict. However, under new leadership there seems to be more stability (and hope) for the sport of boxing to finally grow. Baxter has no problem with rules and regulations; no matter how strict they may be. However, according to Baxter the previous commission leadership was doing things with no ‘rhyme or reason’. Speaking on the difficulties dealing with the Ontario commission in the past, Baxter would tell me:
‘If you tell me I’m going to have to run and jump over fifty fences; but everywhere else in the world you jump over ten (then okay). But If I know that when I jump over that fiftieth fence, that things will start falling into place; well then I will still be motivated to jump forty more fences. But when you’re jumping fences and he’s taking them away, putting them in, and taking them away - and there’s really no rhyme or reason why this fight gets approved and tomorrow it doesn’t. And today this venue is okay, but tomorrow it’s not - like there wasn’t really a way to work. He (the former commissioner) was working against everyone. He didn’t want to work’.
I asked Baxter if he thought the issues with the commission had helped cause other promotional companies with well known fighters not to look at Toronto as a potential market. As a diverse and economically powerful city, it would seem Toronto could be a potential market for names like middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, former light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, or even WBO super featherweight champion Vasyl Lomachenko. Yet as Baxter put it, ‘Kovalev could fight King Kong (in Toronto); but nobody is going to care because nobody cares about boxing here. You can’t get 20,000 people to watch Kovalev in Toronto, because there isn’t 20,000 people who know who the hell Kovalev is - because it’s not a fight town’.
In Baxter’s view the only way to raise awareness of the sport is by having frequent cards featuring local fighters who can one day build a following. Fighters that ‘come to fight and put on a show’ are the kinds of fighters Baxter believes can build momentum with the general public. As a fan growing up of Roy Jones Jr., James Toney, Muhammad Ali, Prince Naseem Hamed, and Arturo Gatti, Baxter is keenly aware of the notion of star power. As for the fighters of this era, Baxter says ‘a lot of these guys fail to realize that they are not only athletes, but they are entertainers - and I think a lot of the Al Haymon stuff has made guys want to get paid and not realize that if they put in a lot of work with their personalities they could make a lot of money’.
The twin hopes of personality and entertainment reside in two of Baxter’s fighters who were featured on his April 20th card at the Danforth Music Hall. Twenty five year old super featherweight Alex Dilmaghani (14-1-0 4 KO’s) and twenty four year old heavyweight Mladen Miljas (4-0 4 KO’s). Dilmaghani has spent time in Mexico City, and sparred with former world champion Juan Manuel Marquez. A hard nosed admirer of the ‘Mexican style’ of fighting, Dilmaghani is driven to be a world champion one day. On promoting Dilmaghani, Baxter says, ‘He’s Iranian and he has a UK accent; he’s very clean cut, very fast, and very entertaining - and we can tap into a Persian market. Toronto has a massive Persian community’.
At the age of twenty four and only four fights under his belt, Baxter’s heavyweight hopeful Mladen Miljas has a long road ahead of him. However, it’s hard not to notice that the future for Miljas has an enticing sense of potential. Standing 6’6” and well over 200 lbs. Miljas is nicknamed ‘The Monster’ but could easily be dubbed ‘The Mountain’. In addition, Miljas’ physique is more akin to that of WBA, IBF, and WBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua than that of former heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. Abs don’t necessarily win fights, but it is impressive to see a young fighter of that size decide to keep himself in shape year round. Speaking about Miljas, Baxter would say:
‘It’s very hard to find a human specimen like that - let alone be a good athlete. Someone that is legitimately 6’6” 250lbs and doesn’t have fat on his body - that’s a hard thing to find. Let alone for that guy to be able to fight and have a brain in between his ears; and still be fast and put in a lot of road work. He can be a massive star - but it has to be moved slowly. He’s young; even if it took me another three or four years to get him really known. Three or four years of fighting is one thing; but three or four years of marketing is another. As long as he keeps winning and we keep branding him up; yeah he might be my one star that ends up putting Toronto on the world map’.
Miljas and Dilmaghani both took care of business in their perspective bouts on the April 20th card at the Danforth Music Hall. Miljas dispatched his overmatched and undersized foe with an early round stoppage. The young heavyweight has a swagger and demeanor in the ring which should serve him well as his career develops. Dilmaghani went the distance and won a wide decision against rugged Mexican journeyman Miguel Angel Gonzalez. In the weeks leading up to the fight Baxter received calls from people in Mexico City wondering if he was putting Dilmaghani in too early in his career with an experienced opponent. Baxter replied to such inquiries saying ‘Listen that guy (Gonzalez) has lost eight times. If Alex can’t beat this guy, then where is he going?’
Adorned in all orange with a large gold chain around his neck, Baxter was the coolest customer amongst a cool crowd that night at the The Danforth. He joined Dilmaghani’s ring walk and gave his fighter a few strong words of encouragement on the ring apron before the first bell rang. The tables surrounding the ring’s far three sides were full of patrons, while the seated crowd turned out well despite the inclimate weather. The alcohol flowed, the music was loud (and good), and those in attendance seemed to leave the event satisfied.
Each card Baxter puts on can probably be seen as a building block. He’s a believer in consistency and organic growth. According to Baxter, ‘If there were 500 people at The Danforth last week, the next month we have to make sure there’s 800. If we get 3,000 people at the Powerade Center (an arena in the suburban Toronto area); then next time we need 3500’. Baxter’s been promoting cards since August of 2015, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He hopes to put on six to eight more cards this year; most of which will be in Ontario. However, Baxter will also be doing an event in Medellín, Columbia and has his sights set on Mexico City as well as other areas of Canada.
Yet make no mistake, as Baxter expressed to me emphatically - Toronto is where he's from, where he lives, and where his following is. Baxter hopes to help cement the roots for a boxing renaissance in Toronto by bringing Philadelphia trainer Billy Briscoe to train fighters out of his new Hardknocks Boxing Gym in downtown Toronto. On the Toronto gym scene Baxter says the city has lacked ‘a lot of sparring and a lot of high level training camps - so bringing in an A-level coach and putting him in a facility in the heart of downtown will change things a lot’.
Bringing the kind of change Baxter would like to see to the boxing scene in Toronto will no doubt take years. Montreal remains the preeminent fight city in Canada, and Baxter estimates if all were to go well it would take at least 10 years for Toronto to catch up in terms of activity and interest. Yet Baxter notes that Toronto has one thing that Montreal doesn't - economic power. Comparing the two cities, Baxter says:
'From an economic standpoint Montreal cannot compete. Now I get it - from a fighting standpoint they're obviously a lot deeper. But I can put 30 or 40,000 Filipinos in the Rogers Center. I can put 20,000 Russians. I can put a bunch of Ukrainians, or Indians - and Montreal can't do that'.
Baxter also reminded me how great a sports town Toronto is:
‘This is what people don't understand. Any sport that has come to Toronto has flourished. You look at any high level sport across Canada - we’re the only one that has a baseball team, the only one that has an NBA team. The MLS team is strong; they keep adding seats to the facility. The Argos (the Argonauts of the CFL) still sell. They all do well; even the Rogers Cup (tennis) will still sell 15,000 seats. If it's a high level product, Toronto takes to it.
Now keep in mind, if these boxers are not on the same platform, if they are always fighting in the Danforth Music Hall, and no one's ever getting to the ACC (Air Canada Center), or no one's ever really doing anything that can put them in a line with the Maple Leafs or the Raptors - then no, the city will not take to it’.
In Baxter’s eyes, having local fighters gain TV coverage is a critical piece of building the Toronto fight scene. If a fighter can make his way from local TV coverage to platforms like TSN (The Sports Network), ESPN, or Showbox; then capturing the minds of the broader public becomes that much easier. And despite his lofty goals Baxter is very clear eyed when it comes to business. He says, ‘a promoter can't put on a show, overpay people and not make money. That Al Haymon thing was a bust for a reason - the formula didn't make sense. Whereas if we can sell a lot of tickets, and a lot of awareness through the TV then you’re entitled to make a lot more money’.
If boxing does begin to flourish in Toronto then Lee Baxter will no doubt enjoy a good measure of financial success. Yet I got the sense from talking to him that while money is nice of course, Baxter takes a certain pride in the hard work it will take to make his vision a reality; for a crown earned is usually more satisfying than one that is given or bought. As I left the Danforth Music Hall that rainy day in April I couldn't help feeling that Baxter was well on his way to accomplishing something substantial. It is true that Toronto is a great sports town. However, the question of the day is whether it can become a great fight town. By the looks of things, Lee Baxter and Lee Baxter Promotions will be the ones to find the answer. Here's hoping it turns out to be ‘yes’.