MONTREAL - Carl Froch prides himself on only fighting the best.
But the man set to face Lucian Bute in the 10th defence of his world title says the Canadian boxer has yet to prove he belongs among the sport's elite.
That score will be settled when Bute (30-0) makes a rare trip outside his home venues in Montreal and Quebec City to defend the IBF super-middleweight belt in Froch's backyard of Nottingham, England, on May 26th.
"It's hard to gauge the level of opposition he's been in with and how good he is," said Froch (28-2), who was in Montreal along with Bute on Wednesday to promote the fight. "It doesn't mean that Bute's not very good and doesn't deserve to be in with the top in the world, but he's not proven at world level.
"So this will be his defining fight."
The knock on Bute is that he has been a protected fighter, taking on B-level opponents while winning a world title and building an unblemished record.
The 32-year-old southpaw has looked awfully good, particularly while stunning opponents with his left hook after dazzling them with speed and a shifty, unpredictable attack. Most lists of the world's top 168-pound boxers rate Bute either first or second behind American Andre Ward.
But it is true that many of Bute's opponents have been either older fighters on the downside of their career, like Brian Magee or William Joppy, or second-tier fighters, like Jean-Paul Mendy and Edison Miranda.
That's why Bute decided to take a break from his contract with the U.S. specialty channel Showtime to accept what may end up being less than half his usual purse in order to travel to England to face Froch, a two-time WBC champion with established credibility.
"In recent years, I've been criticized for only fighting at home but we never got offers to go elsewhere and I had to keep boxing," Bute said. "I decided that this time, I'll make my 10th defence in Nottingham."
Good super-middleweight opponents have been scarce in the last three years because they were all involved in Showtimes' Super-Six tournament. Bute was not invited to take part as the organizers wanted three Americans and three Europeans.
Froch ended up reaching the final, losing to Ward, a light-hitting but quick and smart defensive fighter.
Bute's three-fight Showtime deal was supposed to culminate in a showdown against the Super-Six winner, but Ward was injured in the final. The American also sneered at Bute's record, saying he would need to beat some top opponents to earn the right to face him.
Bute's promoter, InterBox, made an offer to Denmark's Mikkel Kessler that was turned down, so they arranged the fight with Froch.
The 34-year-old Englishman is a brawler in the ring and an engaging speaker outside the ropes.
He mentioned fighting in an amateur tournament once in Moose Jaw, Sask., which he called "a lovely place," and trained before a bout with American Jermain Taylor in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ont., in 2009.
He's also a hockey fan, supporting the Nottingham Panthers, who play in the British league at the 9,000-seat Capital FM arena where the fight will be staged.
"I enjoy a good game, especially when they start beating each other up," Froch said.
His string of opponents in the last three years is impressive, starting with his close win in 2008 in Nottingham over Jean Pascal of Montreal, who later won a title as a light heavyweight.
Since then, Froch has wins over Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Arthur Abraham and Glen Johnson and losses to Kessler and Ward. All but the Dirrell fight was away from home.
Instead of taking an easy bout after the Super-Six, he will take on perhaps the most dangerous opponent of all in Bute.
"I have no intention of becoming world champion and defending against nobodies," Froch said. "I'm the kind of man who always wanted to become a legend and secure my legacy.
"Fighters with legendary status, like Sugar Ray Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Ali, they've all got defeats on their record, but they always fought the best. They'd get beat and come back and beat them in the rematch.
"I've had a fantastic career fighting the best of the best and the only guy left out there for me in the division is this gentleman, Lucian Bute. He's the IBF champion. It's a fight I strongly believe I can win."
If he does, there is a rematch clause in their contract that would have them fight again later this year in Canada.
For Bute, the challenge will be fighting in hostile territory. British boxing crowds can be ultra-intimidating, and Bute has little experience being the enemy. His last 23 bouts have been in Montreal, Quebec City or his native Romania.
"It will be tough for me right up to when I get in the ring," said Bute, who leaves Monday for a training camp in Florida to prepare for the bout. "Going to the ring will be tough.
"The crowd will be yelling. The negative energy will be aimed at me. Everyone will be behind him. But once the bell rings, it will be just him and me."