To fight professionally is to run a gauntlet, where injury and adversaries thrust their spikes at every step. Steve "The Boss" Bossé, a former hockey enforcer set to appear at UFC Fight Night 89 in Ottawa on Saturday, has several times been stung by his vocation. But like every fighter for whom defeat is a painful intermediary preceding triumph, he's emerged from his trials renewed. The man who calls his hands "the tools to win my life" is fixated on realizing his UFC potential, one cataclysmic stoppage at a time.
It is rare that athletes can transition to another sport, but the popularization of mixed martial arts has proven alluring to tough guys of disparate backgrounds. The most famous example is Brock Lesnar, a former professional wrestler and NFL aspirant who found his way into the octagon and within three fights was its heavyweight champion.
Others weren't as fortunate. Steroid pioneer Jose Canseco was beaten into submission by a colossus South Korean, ex- NFLers Michael Westbrook and Johnnie Morton had brief, forgettable forays, and boxer James Toney tried, and failed, to demonstrate he could do more than throw and parry punches.
Steve Bossé has proven the exception. The 35-year-old light heavyweight from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec, just south of Montreal, is only two fights into his UFC career but 11-2 as a professional mixed martial artist. And while his prior career occurred outside of mainstream pro sports, it provided a suitable education, as Bossé's fighting pedigree was forged in the violent crucible of Québec's North American Hockey League (LNAH). He fought 178 times in 155 career games, and compiled a string of brutal stoppages, distinguishing himself with intimidating power and a pit bull's gameness.
Bossé is a quasi-mythical figure in small towns across Québec, having made his reputation when the LNAH may have been the toughest league in hockey history. Joel Theriault, his teammate in Verdun, describes Bossé's ascent. "He quickly became a guy who tried to impose himself. [Within] two, two and a half years he was ranked in the top three fighters in the league," Theriault says.
Theriault, who lauds Bossé's determination and sheer puissance, had a lone but memorable bout against his former teammate and stresses the danger he poses. "If you don't stop him he's not going to stop," he says.
Bossé credits his LNAH experience for teaching him to deal with the emotional pressure of fighting. "Every game I have to go, I have to square off," he says, casually describing one of the most violent engagements in sports. "I think this made me [learn how to] control the emotion before the fight. Because I had that feeling a lot of times. And now I can deal with that emotion."
A snarling wolverine on skates, Bossé consistently overcame larger opponents, cultivating the mystique that swathes smaller men who hit extraordinarily hard. There are few spectacles in sports more riveting than watching a puncher, and "The Boss"—who inflicts concussive damage from close range—offers the same intoxicating thrill provided by the mightiest conquistadors, where each moment is fraught with danger because a bout can turn on a single blow. Theriault attributes Bossé's power to the unnatural strength he packs from his fist through to his elbow. And the fighter, for his part, agrees.
But despite his LNAH success, Bossé knew it had its limits. "I was fighting in a very good [hockey] league for fighting, but I was a goon. [Hockey] is not a sport to fight. When I'm in a cage I'm in the place I should be."
Bossé first stepped into the cage when Stéphane Patry, a Québec-based fight promoter, urged him to appear on a card in Montreal. "I was just going to try one fight because I was not sure if I could do this. But when I started training I fell in love," he says. "I fell in love with mixed martial arts and it changed my life."
In his first ten fights, all held in Québec, Bossé went 9-1 and earned six stoppages via punches. In his 10th bout, he knocked out UFC veteran Houston Alexander with a spectacular elbow. The MMA community, initially skeptical his skills weren't comprehensive enough to succeed in the octagon, was witnessing what Québecois hockey fans had long known: Bossé's unique gift for removing opponents from their senses.
But far from serving as an immediate springboard to larger success, "The Boss" didn't fight for another two years. An accumulation of injuries had left his body ravaged. When he was finally granted a UFC contract, Bossé retired instead, citing the need to repair his body and a newfound calm, which had subdued the inner tempest that once spurred him to fight.
When asked whether lasting serenity is possible in a fighter's soul, Bossé answers authoritatively. "When you're a warrior one day, you'll always be a warrior... the adrenaline before the fight, the emotion, I love it. It's a part of me."
This spirit is what motivated him to come out of retirement and make his UFC debut last June versus Brazilian Thiago Santos. That fight concluded dreadfully, when a head kick 29 seconds into the first round ensured Bossé would end his night unconscious. For the first time in his life, he'd been plunged into the same mysterious void his fists had relegated so many other men to.
After the loss, he spent time away from training to be with family and repair his body and mind. Losing his first UFC bout so ruinously elicited a searing pain in a fighter desperate to prove himself. Having been so forcefully introduced to his profession's darker side, Bossé is cognizant that a fighter's success corresponds to his completeness, and strives to polish the varied skills required in the octagon.
When another UFC opportunity arrived this March against James Te Huna, the fighter redeemed himself and restored his dangerous reputation, crumpling his rival with an explosive first-round knockout. He calls it the highlight of his sporting life.
His opponent on June 18, American Sean O'Connell, is a hardened MMA veteran who, like Bossé, thrives in a stormy fight. Bossé says O'Connell's is perfectly suited to his own, and predicts the sort of dramatic show he wants to be known for. "I always go for the knockout, but it's not urgent that I finish him soon. I have the cardio, I can make three rounds—but when the opportunity is there I will finish him, for sure."
Fighting in Ottawa before his Québecois fans is a desirable scenario, but it is not so much the stage as the opportunity to test himself versus the world's best that tantalizes Bossé. "I want to know how far I can go in the organization. I'm not looking five fights [in the future]. Fight after fight, win after win. You never know where you will go," he says.
Bossé understands the UFC is a business in which winning is paramount, but the enthusiasm for his chosen path is obvious. "I'm in my dream now," he says, his voice swelling expressively. And so he will continue to run the gauntlet, not toward a specific end, but the infinite possibilities further conquest will provide.