It’s early in the morning on fight day, a time when most people taking part in a fight that night might be enjoying some extra rest, but Christian Mbilli is already in the lobby of his hotel in the Gatineau, Quebec countryside, water bottle in hand, wearing an earnest smile of excitement. It’s unmistakable that Mbilli is an athlete when you see him in person—a sprinter or a weightlifter perhaps. His muscles protrude, somehow, even through a tracksuit that has a bit of slack to it, trapezius muscles peaking on either side of his collar and rounded shoulders testing the integrity of his sleeves. Devoid of context however, it would be unlikely that you’d assume this cheery, gentle person would be a fighter, let alone one capable of the ferocity Mbilli is inside the ring.
Later that night, Mbilli would headline an event on ESPN+ against Demond Nicholson at the Casino Lac Leamy, a few kilometres from Canada’s capital of Ottawa, Ontario. Mbilli is in the lobby greeting the many background boxing characters milling about, production staff, cutmen, shuttle drivers, each with the same kindness and sincerity. He seems to have an inside joke with all of them, bellowing a laugh every few moments. He’s the first of his team to be downstairs for a morning shakeout led by trainer Marc Ramsay, a level of eagerness about exercise that may explain his bulging physique. Soon, his understudies Jhon Orobio, Mehmet Unal and countryman Fendero Moreno appear as well, and the group jogs off in the morning sunshine, their shoes squeaking from the AM dew.
Three months after his most recent victory over Carlos Gongora, Mbilli took his parents on a vacation to Lac Beauport, an idyllic town outside of Montreal, QC. With documentary cameras rolling, Mbilli’s family enjoyed time on the lake and exploring Indigenous history in the region. Even on vacation, Mbilli escaped for a workout by the water, and while beading with sweat and peering off into the lake, gave a soliloquy to director Renauld Guerin that perfectly encapsulated the dichotomy of his personality.
“Let's send a message to Canelo. I have to kick your ass soon so that I can come here and live peacefully,” he said. “We'll do it nice and smooth. Organize the fight, I'll beat you up, there'll be a rematch, I'll beat you again, and afterwards I can come live here peacefully and meditate. What more can I ask for? I don't need much to be happy.”
Earlier that day, Mbilli reflected on his victory over Gongora, particularly the eighth round of the bout, one that will no doubt be shortlisted for Round of the Year when the annual boxing calendar concludes. He recalled that as Gongora was blasting him with uppercuts, sending him into such disarray that onlookers wondered why he wouldn’t simply make the prudent decision to take a knee, in his mind he was telling Gongora: “Oh you want to dance? Fine, then let’s dance in hell.”
When the bell rings, Mbilli turns from the peaceful lakeside meditator into a frightening character, a relentless pressure fighter who pairs overwhelming volume with violent bursts that produce uncommonly starling results.
On this night, Nicholson walked to the ring joyously, his hands on the shoulders of his trainers, singing every word of the Burna Boy track playing on the PA system. Nicholson had said he’d studied tape for this fight more than any other in his career, and declared that he would find out what Mbilli liked and didn’t like in the ring early and build from there. His demeanor suggested he believed every word of what he said.
The mood during Mbilli’s entrance was a little different, the oversized hood on his Rival robe casting a dark shadow over his face even with camera lights shining directly toward it. The song on the speakers sounded like the outro to HBO Boxing’s old broadcasts, an anthemic chant that sounded like it would have fit layered underneath scenes in a big budget gladiator film. Prior to the bout, he told French reporters “camp was long, and now somebody has to foot the bill.”
Mbilli made Nicholson pay a heavy tax. Unfortunately for Nicholson and his quest to find out what Mbilli was displeased by in the ring, they were operating in what must have been the smallest allowable professional prize ring, one reported as being 16 x 16 but felt even smaller than that. The space where the things Mbilli might not enjoy would be are likely outside of those dimensions, because in a 16 x 16 ring, one gather step and Mbilli had Nicholson along the ropes, where the vast majority of the bout took place.
Nicholson simply had nowhere to go, as Mbilli mercilessly wailed on him with left hooks to the body, uppercuts and chopping right hands, one of which dropped Nicholson 57 seconds into the contest. While the dimensions of the ring played a role, it was nonetheless startling watching a crafty, intelligent boxer like Nicholson, who had gone rounds with many top fighters in live action and even more in the gym, have no time to think at all. Even when Nicholson started to identify patterns in Mbilli’s combinations and began catching some of them, Mbilli was either so strong that the force reverberated anyway, or he found something new to throw.
After scoring knockdowns in the first and second rounds, he trapped Nicholson on the ropes again in the fourth. With Nicholson shelling up defensively, Mbilli threw a downward arching left hook, one that looped and landed on the forehead and bridge of the nose. Nicholson’s body reacted unusually to an unusual shot, as he slowly collapsed downwards, hands still in a futile defensive position, landing partially through the ropes. It was nearly the same reaction Nadjib Mohammedi had when Mbilli hit him with a left hook in March of 2022, as if his spirit had left his body, like a beach umbrella caught in the wind before falling into the sand.
The result was enough to compel Nicholson to take to social media and retire hours later, a scary ending to a solid career.
As for Mbilli, his mind was already elsewhere too after the fight as he spoke to reporters in the hallways of the casino.
“(I will take) a little bit of a vacation, take time out of the gym. But stay in shape,” he said.