Cree fighter Michael Petawabano hopes to inspire youth with victories in the ring

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Michael Petawabano took a major step toward achieving his boxing dream last May when he entered the ring for the first time at a gala event at the Chibougamau Boxing Club, where he was the lone Native on the fight card. The Mistissini 17-year-old went home with gold after defeating opponent Jefferson Briand, earning a judges’ decision after three rounds of heavyweight boxing.

Petawabano’s success in his first boxing match is a considerable achievement given that he only began training seriously in the sport eight months ago.

Acting on the advice of a friend who is active in combat sports, Petawabano decided to take his chances in the squared circle. Working with trainers Michel Jean and Tommy Bouchard at Chibougamau Boxing Club – and with Mistissini-based personal trainer Tommy Neeposh – Petawabano committed himself to a training regimen that often forced him to work out alone at home when he was unable to make the hour-long drive to Chibougamau.

“Michael’s greatest strength is his passion for boxing,” said Jean. He started boxing as a teenager before leaving Chibougamau to pursue academic interests, but Jean didn’t face his first real test in the ring until returning to his hometown at age 40.

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“The first challenge that Michael faced when he joined us last autumn was learning how to box,” Jean added. “The moves aren’t easy – it’s like learning how to walk again. But Michael practiced a lot, even if he couldn’t make it to the gym for all the training classes. He always showed confidence in his coaches, and people who helped him train. And always did it with a smile.”

Petawabano readily acknowledges Michel Jean’s contribution.

“He gave me a lot of pointers and made it easier for me to train at home,” Petawabano said. “It was tough to get started. But I thought to myself, I have all this time to train. And my parents supported me without pushing me, and that was a big help.”

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Like most Cree kids, Petawabano grew up surrounded by hockey fans. But he was attracted to the cages of mixed martial arts, with former UFC welterweight champion and Montrealer Georges St-Pierre emerging as his childhood idol.

Now, with his first fight victory under his belt, Petawabano is more confident in his dream of becoming the first Cree professional MMA fighter. He plans on spending the summer training in preparation for his next fight.

“There are a lot of people asking me when my next fight is, and who I’ll be fighting. Right now, I don’t know. I just want to spend the summer getting better,” explained the soft-spoken pugilist, who is called “Champ” by his local fans.

Petawabano follows an exhausting training program, working out twice a day – once in the morning, and once in the evening.

“In the morning, I work on my core and other workouts, then go on with my day, do what I need to do. Then, in the evening, I work on whatever body part needs training that day, go home, have a good supper, and repeat it the next day.”

For Petawabano, doing what he needs to do means graduating this spring from Voyageur Memorial School. He will attend John Abbott College this fall in Montreal, where he plans to follow in the footsteps of his father Charles, a police officer in Mistissini, by studying Police Technology.

The social distractions and pressures that complicate the life of a typical teenager have had little impact on Petawabano.

“It wasn’t much of a problem”, said Petawabano, when asked how he was balancing his commitments to school and boxing with his social life. “I would usually be the one who would arrange to do something with my friends. But when there were times I needed to get things done, I just get it done.”

That mature approach from such a young fighter makes Petawabano a future role model for Cree youth, which comes with a responsibility that he is quick to embrace.

“I want to become the first Cree to win an MMA championship,” explained Petawabano, who plans to make the move to the cage upon his arrival in Montreal this winter.

“When I win a belt, I want to bring it north, and share it with the people who helped me, but also let young people know that they can do anything they want.”

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While the young fighter is outspoken about his athletic ambitions, he remains humble and insists nothing he has accomplished would be possible without the love and support of family members, notably his parents and grandparents.

“I want to thank both my parents for all their support with school and boxing. They’re the ones who made it possible. My grandmother, Christine Petawabano, she really helped me a lot. And my grandparents, who opened their home to me.”

With a keen understanding of the importance that others continue to play in his life, Petawabano looks forward to paying it back, both as a role model to Cree youth, and by one day opening a training facility to teach young Cree athletes about the finer points of mixed martial arts.

“I want to remain an inspiration to youth up here,” stated Petawabano, with a hint of emotion in his voice. “I know how things are not always on point in life for young people. I have been through tough things too, but I always want to do something with my life. Taking care of my siblings, going to school, always school first.”

Petawabano finishes our conversation with a simple message for youngsters across Eeyou Istchee: “Keep your heads up, and keep going with your lives no matter how bad things go.”

Wise words from a young man, for whom big things await, both in the cage and in his community.

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