Trudeau’s boxing-ring prowess shows danger of underestimating Canadian leader

Quebec Letter: Many see PM’s surprise win in 2012 charity clash as a key moment in Canadian politics

On March 12th, 2012, two men stepped into a boxing ring for a fight that, though it lasted less than six minutes, may well have changed the direction of Canadian politics.

The clear favourite was Patrick "Brass Knuckles" Brazeau, a karate black-belt-holding, muscular, tattoo-sporting member of a Quebec indigenous community, whose lighter and scrawny opponent came from a background of privilege and wealth.

The opening 90 seconds of the fight went to script, with a fearsome-looking Brazeau battering his hapless-looking adversary around the ring, looking likely to finish the match with a first-round knockout.

But as the two-minute round drew to a close, his opponent, Justin Trudeau, was still standing, and showing signs of coming to terms with the challenge before him.


The second round began with Trudeau on the offensive, and it was Brazeau’s turn to take a pummelling. Soon he was pinned to the ropes and forced to take a standing count from the referee.

The match, a cancer research fundraiser that pitted Brazeau, a senator with the ruling Conservative Party, against Trudeau, an MP in the opposition Liberals, was broadcast live on national television.

Observers had seen the fight as a mismatch, and as the third round progressed their predictions were coming to pass – except it was Brazeau who was out of his depth. “A lot of the pundits thought Justin Trudeau would punch like Justin and fall on the canvas like Justine, but that’s not happening here,” one of the fight commentators declared.

As Trudeau loaded on the punches, the referee stepped in to end the fight and save a bloodied Brazeau from further punishment. In a post-fight interview in the ring, Trudeau paid tribute to his opponent: “He fought great, he has extreme power . . . everyone’s a winner here tonight.”

A truculent Brazeau didn’t see it that way. “I should be ashamed,” he said, before defiantly declaring: “He didn’t get me down!”

Gloves come off

Though Trudeau was gracious in victory and Brazeau not so in defeat, hindsight suggests it was the loser’s post-fight reaction that better reflected the reality of what had happened.

Not everyone was a winner on the night: rather, the clear winner was Justin Trudeau. Brazeau is one of many Canadians convinced that Trudeau's victory in the boxing ring was a crucial moment in his rise as a politician; it was the night he stepped out from the shadow of his father, the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and demonstrated character and grit not previously evident.

"Had I won that boxing match, I don't believe that Justin Trudeau today would be prime minister of Canada, " Brazeau said this month in an interview on Canada's CBC radio.

The defeat certainly had political repercussions for Brazeau. The then 37-year-old went into the fight as a rising star of his party. “There are many of my former Conservative colleagues that stopped talking to me after that boxing match,” he told CBC.

His problems, however, were only beginning. He was subsequently caught up in a senate expenses scandal, though he denied wrongdoing. He was later charged with assault and sexual assault after an incident of alleged domestic violence. The sexual assault charge was withdrawn but he was convicted of simple assault and cocaine possession.

He was kicked out of the Conservative Party and suspended from the senate. In need of an income, he took up a job as a strip club manager in Ottawa. He was twice sent to rehab by a judge to get treatment for his alcohol and drug abuse.

In early 2016, he was hospitalised after a suicide attempt at his home. He now says that was the catalyst for him to turn his life around, and in September 2016 he returned to the senate as an independent after an absence of almost three years when charges relating to his expense claims were dropped by the state.

That defeat to Justin Trudeau still eats him up, though, and he admits he can’t look at a full replay of the fight. “Obviously I’d like to go back in time and get a rematch, but he has already declined that invitation,” he told CBC.

When US president Donald Trump disparagingly referred to Trudeau on Twitter as "meek and mild" earlier this year, many, including Brazeau, recalled that boxing match as evidence to the contrary.

“Maybe he’s making the same mistake that I made six years ago,” Brazeau said of Trump’s tweet. “Seeing a small, skinny person who might look weak. I underestimated him, and it bit me in the butt.”