Super middleweight titlist James DeGale has made it his mission to do whatever it takes to prove he's the best in the 168-pound division.
In his first title defense Saturday, in the backyard of former titlist Lucian Bute, DeGale was forced to dig deep to uphold that claim.
DeGale, a London native and 2008 Olympic gold medalist, fought off a resurgent Bute to claim a unanimous decision in front of an electrifying crowd at Centre Videotron in Quebec City. DeGale (22-1, 14 KOs) was awarded judges' scores of 116-112 and 117-111 (twice). ESPN.com also had it for DeGale 115-113.
In one of 2015's top action fights, DeGale, 29, relied on his youth and craft to hold off a late surge from Bute, who previously held DeGale's title from 2007 to 2012, with nine defenses. DeGale, 29, outlanded Bute 211 to 140, according to CompuBox, as both fighters traded flurries at close range in a fight as highly technical as it was action-packed.
"He's a world-class fighter, and I knew that," DeGale said. "But like I said before, I'm young, I'm fresh, and I'm peaking now. I'm ready for the best in the world. All credit to Lucian Bute. He's a great champion. Please believe me: He will be back."
Bute (32-3, 25 KOs) provided the biggest surprise of the evening, not just with how strong and crisp he looked, but also how he never faded at age 35. Gone were the troubling body language and poor punch resistance Bute has shown at various times over the past three years, since losing his title to Carl Froch by TKO.
"Believe me, the last three years were difficult for me," Bute said. "After I lost to Carl Froch, I took a break, and now I feel great and feel healthy. I did my best tonight, and I think it was a close fight. I'll be back in the gym and will continue to work to have one more chance to be back on top."
DeGale backed up his prefight talk about going for the knockout by setting a frantic pace and coming right after Bute from the opening bell. He switched stances often and scored with a variety of slick combinations.
The ebb and flow of the fight continued with Bute, a native of Romania who fights out of Quebec, becoming the aggressor in the middle rounds and attacking the body. He was aided by an accidental head clash that opened a cut above DeGale's eye in Round 5 and affected his vision.
"I couldn't see out of my left eye," DeGale said. "I couldn't see. It was bleeding and driving me mad."
The action never slowed the rest of the way, with each fighter taking turns in a series of close rounds. With the crowd on its feet over the final two rounds, Bute appeared to get the better of the exchanges by backing DeGale up to the ropes.
"Maybe in my opinion, in the first two or three rounds, I waited too much," Bute said. "But when I pushed him back, I won the round."
DeGale, who won his world title in May by outpointing Andre Dirrell in his U.S. debut, believes he will only get better from here.
"I could see his punches, and I think my defense was all right, with a little rolling and dipping," DeGale said. "I have been working on some things in the gym. But I'm just getting better and peaking. The next three to four years, I will be at my best."
Unbeaten Eleider Alvarez survived a close call on the scorecards to earn a mandatory shot at the light heavyweight championship. Alvarez (19-0, 10 KOs), a native of Colombia who fights out of Montreal, outpointed Isaac Chilemba by majority decision to secure a date with division champion Adonis Stevenson.
Two judges favored Alvarez by scores of 118-110 and 115-113, while the third judge had it even. Chilemba (24-3-2, 10 KOs), who could have forced a draw had he won the 12th and final round, outlanded Alvarez 151 to 147. The judges agreed on just five of 12 rounds in the fight.
"I lost only two rounds, according to me, so I won the fight," Alvarez said through a translator.
Chilemba, 28, a native of Malawi who makes his home in South Africa, overcame a slow start to keep the fight close late, despite Alvarez's landing the harder shots. The victory sets up an All-Montreal showdown between Alvarez and Stevenson.
"I'm predicting a tough fight because when you're the champion, you're the champion," Alvarez said. "But I'm ready to fight, and it will be a good fight."
Stevenson (27-1, 22 KOs), who was ringside in Quebec City and announced his intentions to make a long-awaited bout against unified titlist Sergey Kovalev in June, believed Alvarez did enough to earn the victory.
"It's a close fight, physical fight," Stevenson said. "He won the fight, but this fight was very close."
Junior welterweight Amir Imam took a gamble by risking his mandatory shot at titlist Viktor Postol and paid for it. Adrian Granados overcame a vicious first-round knockdown to upset Imam via eighth-round TKO.
Imam (18-1, 15 KOs), a highly regarded prospect, finally buckled under the relentless pressure from Granados, who couldn't miss with his right hand in Round 8. After Imam was wobbled into the ropes, Granados teed off with clubbing rights before referee Alain Villeneuve jumped in to wave it off at 2:34.
"It feels great," Granados said. "Once I had him wobbled, I was like, 'You've got to get him now. This time you're not taking it from me.'"
With the title fight against Postol unavailable for several months, Imam, 25, doesn't regret taking the fight against Granados.
"I know people might say I shouldn't have taken this fight, but I needed this fight in between as a tune-up for my next fight," Imam said. "I didn't want to wait for the six to eight months for the world title shot."
Granados (17-4-2, 12 KOs), 26, a native of Chicago, was making his fifth appearance in 2015 and fourth since August. He won his third straight bout since a May loss to unbeaten Brad Solomon.
"I believe I should be the mandatory challenger," Granados said. "[Imam] was in line, and I stopped him. What does that mean? Come on. I was the underdog, but I just came to take it. I came to take it."