The only time Justin Trudeau ever spoke to Ezra Levant, it was at a boxing match. OK, wait, back up. It was a Saturday night at the Hampton Inn in Ottawa, out near the train station, and Trudeau, then a member of Parliament and the son of a prime minister, had just fought then-Senator Patrick Brazeau for charity. Levant interviewed Trudeau in the ring for the conservative Sun News Network, capping off one of the most electrifying and farcical nights in Canadian political and television history.
“You’re not the shiny pony, you’re the stallion!” exclaimed Levant, who had called Trudeau “the shiny pony” all night. Trudeau smiled, and looked down. “From you, Ezra, that means a lot. It must eat you up inside, right?”
Canadian politics got into a tizzy this week. Levant, Sun TV’s carnival barker fantasist-in-chief, did five largely imaginary minutes of television about a picture of Trudeau kissing a bride on the cheek. (“I’m not saying Trudeau got SEXUAL with this bride,” explained Levant at one point, helpfully.) He brought up the sexual mores of Trudeau’s parents while he was at it. The Liberal leader responded by cutting off communication with all of Sun Media, newspapers and TV alike. In Ottawa, it caused quite a stir.
And it reminded me of the night Justin met Ezra. It was a boxing match for charity in March of 2012, on Sun News. There was an undercard, during which the little-watched network bounced from the fights to its regular slate of shows for nearly seven hours. At one point, correspondent David Menzies did an interview while holding a running hair dryer, because, as he explained, to celebrate Earth Hour was to deny all the achievements of human progress, and if you did that you’re just a few degrees removed from North Korea, eating grass in the dark. Levant, for his part, called wind turbines “three-armed crucifixes of some new cult, some superstition, the cult of global warming.”
“It was interesting, because I just felt that they could have gone in a different direction, that knowing they had a lot of eyeballs on them for once, they wouldn’t have shown how extreme they are,” says Trudeau, now the leader of the opposition Liberal party. “But they doubled down.”
And oh, they hyped the fight. Brazeau was shorter but heavier, powerful-looking, a karate black belt, ex-military, a First Nations tough guy who had become a Conservative senator. As Trudeau walked to the ring, Levant yelled, “I saw him skipping rope! He skips like my 4-year-old daughter!” Trudeau was the unanimous underdog. He was nervous, and he was excited. He walked to the ring, head bobbing, real slow.
“My dad taught me how to box as just a little kid, among other things,” says Trudeau, now 42. “He was a black belt in judo and he wanted us to be adept in a wide variety of athletic pursuits. But I remember that he explained to me, as a 5-year-old, that a one-two punch was that the jab was to block the other person’s eyes so they can’t see the two following through on the nose. Which made sense to a 5-year-old, but it’s not the point.”
Trudeau had dabbled in boxing in his early 20s at an east-end Montreal gym, but had given up the notion of ever appearing in a real fight, especially once he entered politics. He was asked to fight for charity, though, and agreed. Trudeau trained for six months, twice a week then four times a week. He worked with trainer Ali Nestor in Montreal and, like Brazeau, with Matt Whitteker in Ottawa.
“He wasn’t afraid,” said Nestor, who runs the Montreal non-profit Ali et les Princes De La Rue, which tries to help at-risk kids learn about boxing and martial arts. “He was a smart boxer from the start. You know Joe Frazier? Very strong, but he was a brawler. Muhammad Ali was an intelligent boxer.”
Brazeau, meanwhile, was training for months, too. Both men lost weight. Trudeau had been in fights as a kid, but they weren’t over his dad, per se; they were schoolyard scuffles, for schoolyard reasons, though often in the context of his family status. In university there were a couple fights, as he puts it, “always over girls, and I never started them. I always finished them, though.” At the Ottawa gym both men were told: Don’t rush out there and go crazy. Take your time.
As the fight got closer, Nestor noticed Trudeau’s hand speed improving. Once he put a powerful kid into the ring with Trudeau and said, “Matthieu, I’ll give you $100 cash to knock Justin down.” The kid swung as hard as he could, and Trudeau found something out: it allowed him to really swing back, to not feel bad about hitting as hard as he could.
“It was also a political thing going on, so there was a lot of mind games,” says Nestor. So in the run-up to the fight they would have surprise sparring sessions, and Nestor would invite as many people as he could wrangle from the gym to surround the ring, 40 or 50.
“They would boo Justin, criticize him personally, and just really try to get under his skin,” says Nestor. “Very degrading things. Bad words. The objective was to make him lose focus, and part of the insults were personal, like on his political views.
“But maybe the most offensive was when they would call him a daddy’s boy, and talk about his father. That was the most personal. They never spoke about his mother.”
Saturday night approached. The crowd was full of politicians.
“That (manic) energy is status quo for that event, because the white-collar person they’re cheering for is boxing,” says Whitteker, a Fight For The Cure co-founder. “But for (Trudeau-Brazeau), it was way more . . . we could have had a full cabinet meeting there. For an amateur boxing match, that was the Super Bowl.”
Trudeau has been a Canadian celebrity his whole life. It teaches you things.
“Obviously you learn to ignore nasty negative attacks, but you also learn not to give credence to the people who think you’re wonderful because they loved your father,” says Trudeau. “People who say (I’m a silver-spoon kid) forget what kind of a man my father was, and what kind of father my father was. My joke is people get so wrapped up in whose son I was, they forget who my father was. He was a tough man, and he was disciplined, and so filled with love for us; he knew we would have extra baggage to deal with and to carry, because of the name he was giving us, and he wanted us to have to tools to deal with it.
“So he never would have wanted us to take the easy way, or to take things lightly. This is the way he raised me, and that’s what’s so funny to me (is) attacks where people forget that I don’t just have his name, I have his genes, I have his temperament, I’ve been raised so much by him, particularly when it comes to physical challenges.”
Twenty seconds in, Brazeau hit Trudeau with wild hooks, once, twice, three times. Trudeau was on the ropes. Levant cackled, “The shiny pony is taking it in the face! Dance, shiny pony. Use your ballerina training!” Trudeau had been hit in training, but not like this.
“I’d never felt my legs go the way they started to leave me in the first 20 seconds,” says Trudeau. “I was thinking, maybe this wasn’t a good idea.”
He looked dazed. He saw stars. Levant said to co-host Brian Lilley, “Oh my god. This is a one-round fight, Brian.”
But the Senator was breathing heavier, and he stopped swinging. Trudeau ended the round with a flurry, and in the corner, he was smiling. Ali told him that was Brazeau’s best shot; Trudeau agreed. He came out jabbing hard in the second round, and eventually Brazeau was just a heavy bag in Tory blue. Lilley said, “A lot of people thought Justin would punch like Justin and land on the canvas like Justine. That is not happening here.” Levant, in his finest moment, said “This is his Liberal Bar Mitzvah, Brian. Today he becomes a man. This is like his papa, coming back in the 1980 election!”
The look on Trudeau’s face as he teed off, as he really punched, as he let go, wasn’t his politician’s smile. He looked grim.
The fight was stopped in the third round, TKO. Trudeau still thinks about it. He has led an interesting life, but nothing like this. This was unique.
“Yeah. It really is,” he says, and suddenly he sounds excited. “I suddenly had permission. One of the things I had to learn as a kid, the eldest of three brothers, is to control yourself. To not lose your temper, to not get carried away, because I was bigger than my brothers and we were fighting, mostly play fighting, but with an edge. We were three boys close in age, and I had to learn to restrain myself a little bit.
“And in politics, as a teacher, my personality is to be nice, and it works in politics. But suddenly this was a moment where I was allowed, and fully expected, to give rein to a side of myself that I don’t normally allow out there, which was a ruthless and forceful side. It’s that moment that where push comes to shove, do you have it? And I always knew I did; I just knew I could never show that in life, and suddenly here was a moment where I could discover it for myself.”
Was Brazeau every kid who had ever insulted him, every opponent, every Levant?
“No, there wasn’t that,” he says. “It was more like, this is an opportunity to show people what I’m made of. And in that element there might have been a little bit of symbolism.”
Trudeau says he doesn’t like the Sun boycott, but he stands by it. He figures Levant went after his parents, calling his late father Pierre a “slut” and saying his mother Margaret “didn’t like to wear panties back then,” and for Trudeau that crossed a line. Levant, when reached, said he had nothing to add to the monologue. “Someone said, you’re just going to give them attention,” says Trudeau. “And I said, I want people to see Ezra’s piece from Monday night. If that’s the consequence, that’s fine.”
It was a happier time, two years ago. It was the finest moment for both Sun TV and for Justin Trudeau. It was when we learned Justin Trudeau liked to fight.