Words & Photography: Greg Caltabanis

With nationals scheduled for April 23 in Victoria, B.C., Canada’s top boxers are eager to showcase their talent like never before. As a spot in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo is on the line, fighters are ready to give it their all in just under a month’s time.

Last year, Montreal boxer Zackaria Benbouchta, 24, came in second, falling just short of the grand prize. This time around, though, he has no doubt 2019 will be his year—so long as he can find competitors to go up against.

Benbouchta currently represents Montreal’s Underdog Boxing Gym at tournaments, and will be competing in the 91 kilogram heavyweight class at nationals. Coming in at over 200 lbs, and over two metres tall, it’s no surprise boxers are reluctant to go toe-to-toe with Benbouchta.

“My goal is to knock everybody else out and silence them,” said Benbouchta. “I want to showcase to everyone this year that I’m a force to be reckoned with.”

Heavyweight boxer Zackaria Benbouchta spars with a partner, ahead of Nationals at Underdog Gym.

The 24-year-old has been involved in the fighting scene for the better part of 12 years now, starting initially with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and transitioning to the boxing ring about three years ago. He also has previous experience with karate and taekwondo.

While fighting has always been second nature to Benbouchta, finding people willing to step into the ring with him has not always been easy.

At the most recent Défi des Champions in Limoilou, Que., a tournament which essentially acts as a qualifier for nationals, Benbouchta was scheduled to fight Patrick Mulumba. However, just a couple of days before the competition the opposing fighter pulled out. His coach, Carl Handy, declined to comment as to why Mulumba opted out.

Montréal-based Heavyweight Zackaria Benbouchta is setting his sights on fighting at the Olympics.

“You learn to get used to it,” said Benbouchta. “It’s always hard to show up to a tournament you’ve been training for and then when you get there, no one’s in your category.”

This wasn’t the first time a boxer has pulled out against the 24-year-old. Last year, Benbouchta was scheduled to fight in Golden Gloves, a provincial tournament hosted in Ontario, but again found himself as the sole competitor in the heavyweight class.

“I’m not going to lie, you get pretty pissed off,” said Benbouchta. “You’ve been training for months and end up cutting weight for absolutely nothing.”

According to Kenneth Piché, the director general of Fédération Québécoise de Boxe Olympique, a number of factors may lead a fighter to drop out of a match.

“Boxers already know each other in our federation. They know they can’t beat a champion that is too strong,” said Piché. “That’s playing on their motivation to enter the selection process or not.”

In other cases, funding plays a role in a boxer’s decision to withdraw, according to Piché. With the nationals scheduled in Victoria, B.C., most boxers are expected to cover their own flights and accommodations for the tournament.

“Nationals are being hosted on the other side of the country. A lot of athletes decided that they did not have the time or the money for it,” said Piché.

Theo Owusu, a Canadian amateur boxer and personal trainer at Ambition Boxing Gym in Pierrefonds, Que., has been boxing for the last six years and has experienced this first hand.

“I personally find that the boxing federation does not support fighters, unless you make Team Quebec or Team Canada,” said Owusu. “Us boxers have to pay just to sign up and compete if we’re going for a tournament, which I find totally unacceptable.”

Prior to the federation’s regulation changes in 2017, boxers were able to sign up to tournaments for free. Since the change, more boxers are pulling out due to financial constraints.

Zackaria Benbouchta puts in gruelling session with the punching bag at Underdog gym in Montréal, Quebec.

Moving forward, Owusu would like to see boxers penalized for not showing up to matches without a valid reason, with a loss to their fight record or a suspension. Currently, boxers that pull out of fights do not face any consequences. Benbouchta, on the other hand, thinks boxers should seriously consider their condition before committing to a match.

“I think if you’re not ready, just don’t sign up,” he said. “In boxing, you’re getting punched in the face. You can’t enter a fight if you’re not at 100 per cent mentally.”

Benbouchta does, however, sympathize with boxers pulling out, and could see the reasoning behind their decision. “You have to also put it into the context that most of the time a lot of athletes are injured, whether you know it or not,” he said. “For them, not fighting is a blessing in disguise and allows them to heal up for their next battle.”

With nationals on the horizon, Benbouchta has one thing on his mind: beat whoever’s in front of him—if they show up, that is.