Monday, December 14, 1998

Bloody battle puts Montreal on boxing map

InterBox answers bell with cash and vision


The heart of the warrior has kidnapped the soul of the poet as Canadian middleweight champion Stéphane Ouellet clenches his bandaged hands and slips them into 10 ounces of blood-red boxing leather.

A few hundred yards from his dressing room, more than 16,000 delirious fans have crammed the Molson Centre to watch the 26-year-old champion demolish Davey Hilton with his piston jab and wicked hook.

The challenger is a bad dude - a poster boy for erratic, egregious conduct outside the ring. At age 34, he is on the slippery slope of his boxing career, but still packs a wicked wallop.

It's the most hyped fight of the last 20 years in Canada and marks the renaissance of pugilism in Montreal under the steady hand of InterBox, a management group with a strong business and boxing background.

There is magic in the air on this Friday night two weeks ago. Two nymphets, one blonde and one brunette, in black negligees guard Ouellet's body - one on each side - as he shuffles to the ring.

The fans rise from their seats, stamping their feet and chanting his name in unison. The overhead lights are dimmed as the spotlights play hide-and-seek among Ouellet's finely chiseled muscles and the ample curves and shapely legs of his two escorts.

Recycled currents of stale air catch a whiff of Tommy Girl by Hilfiger as the trio squeezes through the phalanx of well-wishers.

The loudspeaker blares the militaristic theme music from 1492 The Conqueror, a movie about the exploits of Christopher Columbus. It is a favorite of the champion, who has chosen it in adumbration of what will be a bloody night of reckoning with his dreaded foe.

The story of Ouellet's life is tattooed in blue on his skin - the chain and crucifix on his chest; the illustration of Jesus on his left forearm; the ink well, feather and wine glass on his left bicep along with the names of his two young sons, Jim and William; his parents' names and a small flower on his right arm; the boxing gloves and poem on his left pectoralis.

Fifty yards away, a middle-aged man with blonde hair and gold, horn-rimmed glasses sits at one of 44 ringside tables covered in white linen, where each customer pays $500 for a four-course meal of salmon appetizer, tossed green salad, filet mignon, chocolate mousse à l'Alcatraz, washed down with Albert Bichot Cuvée Madame.

His left hand, adorned by a gold ring inset with a large diamond, absent-mindedly swills the glass of white wine as his blue eyes search the crowd for his protégé and champion, Ouelett.

His name is Hans-Karl Muhlegg, and this is his show. But as founder and president of InterBox, he's not the type to use the word "my" or "his." He prefers the possessive pronoun "our."

An integral part of the InterBox "our" is his right-hand man and general manager Yvon Michel, the 45-year-old, long-time coach of Canada's national boxing team who was recruited by Muhlegg during the World Boxing Championships in Budapest one year ago.

The mandate of InterBox, founded by Muhlegg in the summer of 1997, is to find the best young amateur and professional boxers in the world and re-locate them to Montreal to be trained and managed. In order to assure the orderly development of their careers, InterBox also promotes their bouts.

It's run like a Fortune 500 company from the point of view of professionalism - three full-time trainers, a strength coach, a sports psychologist, a physiotherapist, medical doctors and a 10,000-square-foot, modern training facility with two rings and 20 heavy bags.

As pertains to the boxers' personal needs, it's family. InterBox covers the lodging costs for each of its boxers, pays them an average salary of $1,000 per week - in addition to any purses they win - gives them a stipend of up to $4,000 per year to further their education, offers them retirement pensions and investment counseling.

Ouellet is one of 13 fighting men in the InterBox clan. Muhlegg and Michel know Ouellet the man as well as they know Ouellet the boxer. He is their poet warrior. The gentle, absent-minded young bard who wanders the streets of Montreal in summer wearing a pork-pie hat and cut-off trousers with pen and pad in hand, jotting down existential poetry. Death, suicide, alcohol and sex is frequent subject matter. "I live in a black world. From that perspective I see the light," reads an excerpt from one of his poems.

Muhlegg, a German-trained mining engineer, is more of a pragmatist than his star boxer, with an eye for detail. His engineering specialty is first-class shotfire. That means blasting. The Blaster makes things happen - fast, especially in business.

After immigrating to Montreal in 1964, he worked as a engineering manager for a Canadian electronics firm which manufactured components for the military.

He quit in frustration after 8 1/2 years, three changes in ownership and management which continually tried to "re-invent the wheel."

In 1973, he incorporated Circo Craft, a company which manufactures electronic circuits for both military and commercial purposes. He started with one 7,200-square-foot plant in Granby and a handful of employees. By the time he sold out three years ago, the Granby plant was 140,000 square feet, and the company had three other plants, 1,500 employees and $200 million in annual revenue.

He introduced profit sharing for all employees and built a school in one of the plants to teach leadership and communication skills. He was the type of boss who ate in the cafeteria with workers from the machine shop.

He values employees who dirty their hands and make mistakes. He tells them: "Make sure you make a lot of mistakes each day." Interpretation: Don't be scared to make key decisions.

When he sold Circo Craft three years ago, Muhlegg decided to use his time and considerable financial resources to indulge his passion for boxing.

On this night - the last Friday of November - 15 months after starting InterBox, the bout between Ouellet and Hilton will go down as one of the most exciting in the annals of boxing with Hilton's 12th round upset victory by TKO.

Between 2.4 million and 3 million Americans watched the bout live on ESPN, the first Canadian title fight ever broadcast by a U.S. network. Close to 10,000 Canadians paid $50 each to watch it on pay per view television. More than 62 bars in Quebec showed the bout on closed circuit. Over 16,000 fans opened their wallets for between $20 and $500 each to see the fight in person.

When it is all over, Muhlegg's prayers will have been answered: "A great show was put on, none of the boxers was seriously injured and InterBox has taken the first steps to establish Montreal as the mecca of boxing."

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.